To Adlai Stevenson
August 29, 1954
You asked for a few paragraphs. You get six pages. It’s a dirty trick but if I do say so, I think they’re worth reading. I think I’ve tied this one up and in half an hour you get the basis of a big problem.
The further point is that this problem dovetails with all the other basic problems of the West and cannot really be separated from them. There is no greater domestic need than a comprehensive program for the West. We need bold and imaginative thinking about resources, thinking on a large scale, and most of all new thinking. Conservation thinking suffers from repetitiousness, hidebound tradition, and an inability to realize that the world of 1950 frequently requires different answers from those that were satisfactory in 1900. If the Democratic Party could work out a resources policy that would safeguard the tested principles and preserve the gains made up to now, and that at the same time would dare to look forward to the needs of the next fifty years, it could get and hold the West indefinitely. We need a mid-twentieth century Pinchot.
If you make use of any of the stuff herein, better say tentatively and gradually what I say flatly.
Mostly because I was with you and my Harper’s piece [“Conservation: Down and on the Way Out,” Harper’s 209, August 1954] had made me hot, the Department of Agriculture is suspicious of your Missoula visit. Better therefore not mention the Forest Service directly if you make any challenging remarks.
One of these days I’ll challenge the theory and expenditures of Reclamation for you.
[enclosure: “six pages” of notes about the West, below:]
Remember about the West:
Except for Washington and Oregon west of the Cascade Mountains, and except for California west of the Sierra and north of an east-west line drawn a little south of San Francisco, the West is all semi-arid or arid. That is, with those exceptions, the West gets less than the twenty inches of rainfall per year that, in general, is necessary to grow crops.
Most of the West gets less than twelve inches of rain, much of it less than eight. Some of it is absolute desert, that is with a rainfall of less than four inches.
Herein, however, by “desert” I mean any region markedly deficient in rainfall.
The water deficit is made up from the snow that falls in the mountains. In an excellent phrase Reed Bailey speaks of the mountains as the West’s “humid islands,” and that is the way to think of them, as island oases in a desert which occupies almost forty percent of the area of the United States.
The “snow-pack line” is the elevation above which the winter snowfall is sufficiently deep and packed sufficiently hard to produce a usable melt in late spring and early summer. In the northernmost parts of the West the upper panhandle of Idaho for instance, it comes as low as 2,500 feet. It gets higher as you travel south. At Missoula, Montana, it is about 6,000 feet. In the southern Sierra and the southern Rockies it is above 10,000 feet. A safe generalization: in general the snow-pack line is above 7,000 feet. The West exists because of the snow at this altitude and above it.
In the mountains, the climate is too cold, the slope is too steep, and the soil is too thin. In the desert, there is not enough water. Therefore, in the West agriculture and village, town, and city life are localized in the valleys. Plus those parts of the (flat) desert to which water can be brought.
Dams are built to catch and hold the spring runoff, so that water can be taken to (in this order) the valley lands, the foothills, and the desert. The farther upstream you build a dam, the higher up in the foothills and the farther out in the desert you can take the water.
We will never be able to take water very far into the desert. Most of the West is desert — without agriculture, industry, or social organization — and all of it that is desert now always will be, except for minute fractions that can be “reclaimed.” For instance, more than 97 percent of Utah is uninhabited and at best more than 96 percent always will be. Uranium is so enormously valuable that water will be taken to the deposits in southern Utah in sufficient quantity for them to be mined, but the ore, in order to be refined, will have to be transported to places of more abundant water. But most of the Utah desert is a winter range for sheep.
Irrigated farming is the most stable form of agriculture, for it is independent of annual and seasonal variations in rainfall. The water that makes it independent of those variations is stored in the reservoirs above the dams.
Much of the West that should have remained grazing range has been plowed up for wheat. This is especially true of the eastern portion of the Great Plains, which my book will call the “Tragic Area.” It is true of much of the foothill area above the valleys in the mountain West.
Practically all of the West has been destructively overgrazed. This is especially true of many high-slope areas which are of critical importance to primary watersheds and many of which should never have been grazed at all. But it is most universally and most disastrously true of the foothills.
Remember about the Western stock business:
In general, and necessarily, it is conducted on land for which there is no other use. Exception: some of it is conducted on land where grazing is one of several uses, some of it on land where grazing is a subsidiary and minor use.
Characteristically but not universally, the pattern of the business is as follows. A stockgrower has a home ranch, where he raises hay and sometimes other forms of fodder. He keeps his stock on his home ranch during the winter; they graze stubble for a time but mostly he feeds them the fodder he has raised. In the spring and the fall he leases range for his stock from the federal government, from the states, or from private owners (most of whom are absentee). The spring-fall range is mostly in the foothills. In the summer, he usually moves them north or higher — that is, much of the summer range is in the mountains. Here is where the Forest Service ranges enter. (This is what the land-grab battle has always been about, the grazing ranges in the national forests.) In a national forest, grazing is always a subsidiary use.
(Something less than one-sixth of the Western cattle business uses forest ranges. About one-third of the Western sheep business uses them. Since the summer season runs from three to five months, the forest ranges provide only a small percent of the fodder for the Western stock business and only an infinitesimal percent for the American stock business as a whole.)
Western stockgrowers who sell feeder stock for fattening farther east usually do not need a fall range. In the southernmost portions of the West some of them do not even use a summer range.
Sheep can satisfy their thirst by eating snow, as cattle cannot. This makes Nevada, most of Utah, southwestern Colorado and portions of Arizona and New Mexico a usable winter range.
Note, however, how thin such grazing can be. (And how thin is has frequently been made, by overgrazing, in other than winter-range areas.) It may take upward of 16 acres per month to graze one “animal unit,” that is one cow or five sheep. (“Upward” sometimes gets up to 20 or 25 acres.) If a steer requires 16 acres per month, then in a six-month season it will require 96 acres. On this basis a thousand ewes, which is about the smallest band that will support a family, would need 19,200 acres for a six-months season. That is thirty square miles.
Irrigated pasture land can support far more stock per acre than range land. Because it can there is a gradual and inexorable shift of the Western stock business to year-round home feeding on irrigated pastures. This trend will steadily reduce the number of range-fed stock. But whether it will proceed fast enough and far enough to relieve the ranges in time is open to question. Still, irrigated, home-owned pastures and improvement of breeding stock are a bright promise for the West.
It was a great national and a great Western tragedy that the eastern edge of the Great Plains was allowed to become a wheat country. This is the fringe area west of the 100th Meridian — eastern Montana, such parts of Wyoming as were plowed, western North and South Dakota, western Kansas (western Nebraska, the sand-hill country, never has been extensively farmed and is today the best stockgrowing country in the West), eastern and southern Colorado, New Mexico so far as it has been farmed for wheat. (And of course, western Oklahoma and Texas, outside my present concern.) This was the finest cattle range in the United States. The stockmen would have overgrazed it, and to some extent did overgraze it — for that is the nature of stockmen throughout history. But as an agricultural country, it is the portion of the United States for which American society has not yet found a stable adaptation. It is the three-bankruptcies-to-make-a-farm country, the dustbowl country, the boom-and-bust country. In the wet years, the wheat ranchers clean up big and buy more land so that they can clean up bigger. In the dry years they go broke, go on relief, move out, and the land goes tax-delinquent and the soil blows away. In the 1930s the federal government bought millions of acres of it as a relief measure. (These are the LU — Land Utilization — lands and a big battle over them is shaping up.) It put those lands on a stock-growing economy and it organized many millions of acres in the same areas as Soil Conservation Districts, which were put on a stock-growing basis. When the war prices for wheat came along many of the Districts voted themselves out of existence. That’s where the new dustbowls are. The dustbowl fringe-lands, now disaster areas from drought, are heavily overgrazed areas.
The West lives, and forever must live, on the margin of disaster — because of its water deficit. It is habituated to crisis but there are slowly (at times and in certain places not so slowly) and steadily intensifying crises of which all go back ultimately to water supply and all are mainly due to bad land management. The crisis that has proceeded farthest, the most critical area of the West today, is the foothills. These are the lands above irrigation and below the mountain ranges.
In general, the Western valleys and foothills were originally covered with grass. Its disappearance from the valleys is of no moment, for fields and orchards and towns have taken its place. But its disappearance from the foothills is a tremendous disaster.
In general, the foothills were grassy before stock were grazed on them. They were either all grass, frequently “waist high” and “stirrup high,” or covered with the highly nutritious grass-sagebrush association. In general they were magnificent grazing ranges. And almost universally they have been drastically depleted by too heavy grazing.
But they have been subjected to other pressures too. Towns and cities have built up into the foothills above the valleys in whose floors they were originally founded. Large areas have been dry-farmed for wheat. Also they have been grazed increasingly heavily by the increasing herds of wild game, especially deer. This threefold pressure has cut down the area of the range available for grazing by stock. (As noted above, the foothills are naturally spring and fall range; indeed, the inclusive common name for them is “the spring-fall range.”) This has naturally resulted in even more intensive grazing of the remaining area, with more rapid and complete depletion and deterioration following progressively.
This in turn has frequently meant a stronger pressure on the summer range and the winter range, with inevitable degradation.
Everywhere in the West the productivity of grazing ranges has been enormously cut down. In Utah, for, instance, the ranges support less than half as many sheep now as they did in 1900. At a guess Colorado cattle grazing has been cut down even more, but figures on cattle are tricky and this is not a safe statement to stand on. All the ranges, mountain, desert, and foothill, have been abused and have suffered serious degradation. But the worst damage, and the most widespread and alarming, has been done to the foothills.
I neglected to get figures on the foothill ranges near Missoula but they are obviously in bad shape and if restored to their original productivity could certainly graze much more stock than they now do. And note that these ranges are in a much more humid climate (16 inches a year) than those in the states south of them, and so can stand more abuse, and have besides been much less heavily grazed.
After leaving Missoula, we drove over the mountains and up the Lemhi Valley in Idaho and across the Portneuf Valley in Idaho and the Bear River Valley in Utah. Foothill range all the way. At one time these ranges probably produced more forage, more per acre that is, than the Montana ranges. But now they produce no more than ten percent of what they once did and could again. That is, if restored they could safely carry ten times as many stock as they do now, provided that stock was managed properly.
This is perhaps a little worse than the average deterioration of the foothill ranges in the interior West. But on the other hand there are many places that are much worse. It is safe to say that throughout the arid West, as distinguished from the semi-arid West, all the foothill ranges are in bad shape and most of them in critically bad shape.
It is worth pointing out why. Damage is more rapid there, once started, than elsewhere in the West because of the delicate balance of the ecological complex. The reasons are primarily climatic. The foothills are on the margin between aridity and true desert, and the climate is one of extremes — prolonged droughts and torrential storms. Swift erosion follows loss of vegetative cover. A lot of overgrazing is required to break down the range, but once it is broken down. it goes fast and it can be brought back only slowly and only at great expense. The extremes that produce rapid erosion also make revegetation difficult.
Note that as the “climax” vegetation, the best native grasses, is used up, increasingly less palatable and more useless vegetation takes its place. Millions of foothill acres now covered with sagebrush, sunflowers, Russian thistle, tumbleweed, similar worthless plants were once covered with bunch grass.
The same thing happens on the flat winter ranges. Overgrazing brings shadscale to the range, a pretty good forage plant but not as good as those it replaces. Then comes rabbit brush, greasewood, and similar practically worthless shrubs. The noxious and poisonous weeds — halogeton, the sheep-killer, for instance — get a toehold and begin to spread.
All this can be seen from an automobile as you travel down a valley. What is less readily visible, what you have to stop and look at, is the increasing thinness of the vegetative cover and the widening areas of bare soil. This is where the dust that makes dust-storms and the sediment that fills dams and irrigation systems come from. This is where the hardening of the surface and the gullying that make floods occur. This is where the soil blows away and is washed away, with pyramiding damage to the range (and the stock business) and progressively spreading and intensifying damage to the water production on which all Western life and business are dependent.
The high areas and the steep slopes are potentially even greater producers of sediment and begetters of flood. But that is another story, though it is interlocked with this one and with the same interlocked general problems.
“I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from which [sic] cometh my help.” Nice poetry but not true. The help doesn’t come. What comes instead is disaster. Every civilization built “under the ditch” has failed so far. They have failed not because of engineering, which has performed miracles in all civilizations, but because of lack of understanding of the land. Our civilization in the West can fail like the others and, quite certainly, is now headed toward ultimate failure. But it doesn’t have to fail.
The correct management of land — how human society can be conducted in harmony with the conditions set by nature — is now a matter of scientific knowledge. The terms of life in the West are more rigorous than those which nature sets elsewhere in the United States, but those terms and how to observe them are scientifically known. In particular, during the last forty years we have developed, for the first time in history, the science of range management. We know enough; all we have to do is to act on what we know. If we do, the West, which is the great national storehouse of undeveloped natural resources, will play its potential part in our expanding economy. If we don’t, the West will go to hell. If it does, in my opinion the United States will go to hell too.
In the mountains of the West, deterioration has been halted, and the trend reversed in, perhaps 65 percent of the area — much more in some portions, such as Montana, less in some other portions. But in the foothills deterioration has been halted in only minute areas, to a total so small that it can be disregarded.
The principal reason why no more has been done is the fact that the foothill ranges are mostly under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, which has not been given the appropriations, the manpower, the organization, or the authority necessary to do the work of restoration.
(Note that state-owned ranges are invariably in even worse condition.)
The farther deterioration has progressed, the harder, the slower, and the more expensive the work of restoration — and the more drastic the methods. There are a good many areas, most of them fortunately small, about which nothing can ever be done beyond confining the damage to what has already occurred. But in most places the range can be brought back, and if it is brought back then the interlocking problems of erosion and water loss will also be solved.
In general, restoration means: engineering, control of runoff, reseeding and related methods of bringing back the grass, and intelligent regulation of grazing. Intelligent regulation of grazing means grazing, area by area, the number of stock that will fully use the range without impairing its ability to maintain itself and, area by area, grazing them for the right length of time at the right seasons.
Though some intransigents among stockmen have not yet realized it, intelligent regulation of grazing means much greater production of stock, much larger profits, and a much larger measure of stability in the stock business. But to hell with the stock business, what counts is that intelligent regulation of grazing means the protection of the West’s water, which means protection of Western life and society.
All the methods of restoring the range must be applied on a far larger scale than they ever have been so far, an enormously larger scale. A scale so large that it either oppresses the imagination or kindles it with enthusiasm.
This means appropriations. But it means two preliminaries, and, after they are taken, it means genuine integration with all the efforts to solve the other fundamental problems of the West.
One preliminary is the transfer of the Bureau of Land Management to the Department of Agriculture. (For reasons I harped on during our trip. This naturally includes transferring to the Forest Service the forests now administered by BLM, but that is a secondary consideration.) The other is the amendment of the Taylor Act, as proposed during the last Congress by Congressman Metcalf of Montana. The BLM lands were organized and are now administered under the Taylor Grazing Act, It must be amended so that regulation of grazing on BLM lands can be brought up to the standards of the Forest Service regulation of grazing in the national forests.
From there on we get into watershed management, reclamation, dams, power, water for cities and industries, etc. The problems of the West must be seen in relation to one another and cannot be solved out of that relationship. But I have herein isolated the problem of the foothills.