Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American
Edited by George Wuerthner
and Mollie Matteson
Island Press, 2002, 366 pages
ISBN 1-55963-942-3 (cloth, $75)
ISBN 1-55963-943-1 (paperback, $45)
Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz,
Through wonderful pictures and thoughtful
essays by leading historians, scientists, and economic
and policy experts, this book superbly shows the
environmental crisis that the US West faces due
to livestock production, an industry that uses more
land and water than any other. A statement on the
cover flap summarizes the problem well: "Over
decades, the placement of exotic, water hogging,
ill-adapted livestock on western lands has changed
diverse native plant communities into monocultures
of weeds; turned perennially flowing creeks into
dry stream beds; relegated large predators such
as wolves and grizzly bears to only the most remote
wilderness areas; and forced many wildlife
species to the edge of extinction.
The book is awesome. Instead of the
common book size, 5 inches by 8 inches, it is an
eye-catching 12 inches by 13.5 inches. Many of its
spectacular pictures completely cover two facing
pages. Particularly effective are three consecutive
such pictures, showing (1) "How It Was"
(a beautiful natural area with a variety of covered
plants), (2) "How It Is" (many cows and
their manure on land completely devoid of plants),
and (3) "How It Can Be" (another natural
area with grass and some native animals). There
are over 90 consecutive pages of pictures under
the heading, "How to Look ... and See,"
with text referring to numbered places on the pictures
that illustrate harmful effects of animal grazing.
The wide variety of photographs vividly
show the contrast between land used to raise cattle
and the relatively few places that have been protected
from its damaging effects. To dramatize the scope
of the problem, each odd-numbered page without a
picture has "300 million acres at stake,"
written at the bottom of the page. This area, equal
to that of three Californias, or the entire eastern
seaboard of the United States, from Maine to Florida,
with Missouri added, is the amount of public land
grazed by livestock in the U.S, West, at great cost
to society. What makes the situation even worse
are the many subsidies, courtesy of taxpayers, that
public lands ranching operations receive, including
low-interest loans, predator "control,"
fencing, government-funded range "developments,"
and emergency bailouts - hence the book's title:
The book does not only paint a negative
portrait of current conditions on public lands.
It also presents an alternate vision that can renew
and restore these lands, if enough citizens demand
that governments shift land management priorities
to benefiting people and the environment and away
from facilitating private gain.
I am proud that my article (co-authored
by Mollie Matteson), "Eating Is an Agricultural
Act: Modern livestock Agriculture from a Global
Perspective," appears in the book. When I was
asked to submit an article, I readily consented,
but I never imagined that it would appear in such
a spectacular book.
While not a typical vegetarian-promoting
book, the book's giant size, marvelous pictures,
and cogent essays give it great potential to capture
people's attention to how harmful animal-based diets
are and thereby to help shift them away from unhealthy
diets and help shift society away from harmful agricultural
practices. I hope that it gets the wide audience
it so richly deserves so that it can help move our
precious planet away from its present perilous path
to a more sustainable one.