Skip to main content

The Tragedy of the Common Narrative: Re-telling Degradation in the American West

Part of the Springer Earth System Sciences book series (SPRINGEREARTH)

Abstract

Stories—with a beginning, middle and end, and a moral message, have had a major role in how desertification, and range condition, have been understood on western rangelands in the United States. Stories that attempt to make sense out of vegetation change, whether the bad guy is the self-interested human exploiter or the low-statured ruderal species, take hold in the scientific and public imagination and influence interpretation of policy and management outcomes. The development of policy and management for western grazing lands was shaped by a declensionist narrative of human greed and unrestrained self interest that developed in a parallel and an eventually mutually reinforcing way with a similarly declensionist ecological narrative, creating a story that is deeply embedded in existing institutions for rangelands. This narrative underpins retention of half of the American West in government ownership, how grazing resources are allocated to graziers, and the way that rangeland conditions, including indicators of desertification or degradation, are assessed and monitored. Once such stories take hold, new ideas about ecological dynamics that have a non-linear story and more complex characters have a hard time supplanting or even augmenting old paradigms. This in turn supports policy and management decisions. The reader is warned against charismatic stories–stories encourage and conceal deep-rooted, untested assumptions, simplify complex relationships, and universalize truths that may hold true only in a single time and place.

Keywords

  • Succession
  • Public land policy
  • Forestry
  • Holistic resource management
  • State and transitions
  • Equilibrium
  • Rangeland ecology

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Buying options

Chapter
USD   29.95
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-16014-1_11
  • Chapter length: 31 pages
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
eBook
USD   169.00
Price excludes VAT (USA)
  • ISBN: 978-3-642-16014-1
  • Instant PDF download
  • Readable on all devices
  • Own it forever
  • Exclusive offer for individuals only
  • Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout
Softcover Book
USD   219.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Hardcover Book
USD   219.99
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Fig. 11.1
Fig. 11.2
Fig. 11.3
Fig. 11.4
Fig. 11.5
Fig. 11.6
Fig. 11.7

References

  • Allen-Diaz, B., & Bartolome, J. W. (1998). Sagebrush-grass vegetation dynamics: Comparing classical and state- transition models. Ecological Applications, 8, 795–804.

    Google Scholar 

  • Anderson, K. (2005). Tending the wild: Native American knowledge and the management of California’s natural resources. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bagchi, S., Briske, D. D., Bestelmeyer, B. T., & Wu, X. B. (2013). Assessing resilience and state-transition models with historical records of cheatgrass Bromus tectorum invasion in North American sagebrush-steppe. J Appl Ecol, 50, 1131–1141.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bailey, L. R. (1980). If you take my sheep: The evolution and conflicts of Navajo pastoralism, 1630–1868. Pasadena, CA: Westernlore Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Baker, W. L. (2011). Pre-Euro-American and recent fire in sagebrush ecosystems. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Balch, J. K., Bradley, B. A., D’Antonio, C. M., & Gomez-Dans, J. (2013). Introduced annual grass increases regional fire activity across the arid western USA (1980-2009). Glob Change Biol, 19, 173–183.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Bartolome, J. W. (1993). Application of herbivore optimization theory to rangelands of the western United States. Ecological Applications, 3, 27–29.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Behnke, R. H., Scoones, I., & Kerven, C. (Eds.). (1993). Range ecology at disequilibrium: New models of natural variability and pastoral adaptation of African savannas. London: Overseas Development Institute/International Institute for Environment and Development/Commonwealth Secretariat.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bestelmeyer, B. T. (2005). Does desertification diminish biodiversity? Enhancement of ant diversity by shrub invasion in south-western USA. Diversity and Distributions, 11, 45–55.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Blackburn, T. C., & Anderson, K. (Eds.). (1993). Before the wilderness: Environmental management by native Californians. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • BLM [Bureau of Land Management]. (1991). Final environmental impact statement for vegetation treatment on BLM lands in thirteen western states. Washington, D.C: Bureau of Land Management.

    Google Scholar 

  • BLM [Bureau of Land Management]. (2015a). Public Lands Statistics. Washington, D.C: United States Department of the Interior, http://www.blm.gov/public_land_statistics/pls14/pls2014.pdf. Accessed Jan 10, 2015.

  • BLM [Bureau of Land Management]. (2015b). Fact Sheet on the BLM’s management of livestock grazing. http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/grazing.html. Accessed Jan 10, 2015.

  • Bowers, E. A., Fernow, B. E., Olmstead, F. L., Rothrock, J.F., Colvin, V., Roosevelt, T., Pinchot, G., Shaler, N. S., Riordan, D. M., Muir, J., Abbe, C., Palmer, W. J., Anderson, G. S. (1895). Comments on professor Charles S. Sargent’s scheme of forest preservation by military control. Century Magazine [Cornell University Library, Making of America Archive] 49, 626–634.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brandt, C. A., & Rickard, W. H. (1994). Alien taxa in the North-American shrub-steppe 4 decades after cessation of livestock grazing and cultivation agriculture. Biological Conservation, 68, 95–105.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Briske, D. D., Derner, J. D., Brown, J. R., Fuhlendorf, S. D., Teague, W. R., Havstad, K. M., et al. (2008). Rotational grazing on rangelands: Reconciliation of perception and experimental evidence. Journal of Range Management, 61, 3–17.

    Google Scholar 

  • Briske, D. D., Sayre, N. F., Huntsinger, L., Fernandez-Gimenez, M., Budd, B., & Derner, J. D. (2011). Origin, persistence, and resolution of the rotational grazing debate: Integrating human dimensions into rangeland research. Rangeland Ecology & Management, 64, 325–334.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Brooks, M. L., D’Antonio, C. M., Richardson, D. M., Grace, J. B., Keeley, J. E., DiTomaso, J. M., et al. (2004). Effects of invasive alien plants on fire regimes. Bioscience, 54, 677–688.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Climate Central. (2012). The age of western wildfires. Princeton, N.J.: Climate Central.org, http://www.climatecentral.org/wgts/wildfires/Wildfires2012.pdf. Accessed Jan 1, 2015.

  • Chambers, J. C., Roundy, B. A., Blank, R. R., Meyer, S. E., & Whittaker, A. (2007). What makes Great Basin ecosystems invisible by Bromus tectorum? Ecological Monographs, 77, 117–145.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Clements, F. (1916). Plant succession, an analysis of the development of vegetation. Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication, 242, 1–512.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cole, K. L., Henderson, N., & Shafer, D. S. (1997). Holocene vegetation and historic grazing impacts at Capitol Reef National Park reconstructed using packrat middens. Great Basin Naturalist, 57, 315–326.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cronon, W. (1992). A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative. The Journal of American History, 78, 1347–1376.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Daubenmire, R. F. (1940). Plant succession due to overgrazing in the Agropyron bunchgrass prairie of southeastern Washington. Ecology, 21, 55–64.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Davis, D. (2007). Resurrecting the granary of Rome: Environmental history and French colonial expansion in North Africa. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • de Buys, W. (1985). Enchantment and exploitation: The life and hard times of a New Mexico mountain range. New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dregne, H. E., (1976). Desertification: Symptom of a crisis. In P. Paylore & R. A. Haney (Eds.), Desertification: Process, problems, perspectives (pp. 11–24). Tucson, AZ: Office of Arid Lands Studies, University of Arizona.

    Google Scholar 

  • Dykesterhuis, E. J. (1949). Condition and management of range land based on quantitative ecology. Journal of Range Management, 2, 104–115.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Eckert, R. E, Jr, & Spencer, J. S. (1987). Growth and reproduction of grasses heavily grazed under rest-rotation management. J Range Manag, 40, 156–159.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Ellis, J. E., & Swift, D. M. (1988). Stability of African pastoral ecosystems—Alternate paradigms and implications for development. Journal of Range Management, 41, 450–459.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Fairfax, S. K., Huntsinger, L., & Adelburg. C. (1999). Lessons from the past. Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy (Summer), 85–89.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fleischner, T. L. (2002). Land held hostage: A history of livestock and politics. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Farquhar, F. P (1930). Up and Down California in 1860–1864: the Journal of William H. Brewer. New Haven, CN: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Forero, L. C. (2002). Grass, graziers and tenure: A case study on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Ph.D. dissertation. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley. http://oskicat.berkeley.edu/record=b21322700~S1 Accessed January 1, 2015.

  • Fortmann, L. P., & Fairfax, S. K. (1989). American forestry professionalism in the third world: Some preliminary observations. Economic and Political Weekly 12, 18–24.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gallant, A. L., Hansen, A. J., Councilman, J. S., Monte, D. K., & Betz, D. W. (2003). Vegetation dynamics under fire exclusion and logging in a Rocky Mountain watershed, 1856–1996. Ecol Appl, 13, 385–403.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Gleason, H. A. (1917). The structure and development of the plant association. Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 43, 463–481.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Goforth, B. R, & Minnich, R. A. (2008). Densification, stand-replacement wildfire, and extirpation of mixed conifer forest in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, southern California. Forest Ecology and Management, 36–45.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gorte, R. W., Vincent, C. H., Hanson, L.A., & Rosenblum, M. R. (2012). Federal Land Ownership: Overview and Data. Report for Congress 7-5700; R42346. Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hagmann, R. K., Franklin, J. F., & Johnson, K. N. (2013). Historical structure and composition of ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests in south-central Oregon. Forest Ecology and Management, 492–504.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons. Science, 162, 1243–1248.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Heady, H. F. (1961). Continuous vs. specialized grazing systems: A. review and application to the California annual type. Journal of Range Management, 14, 182–193.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Holechek, J. L.,Pieper, R. D., & Herbel, C. H. (2010). Range management: Principles and practices (6th Edn.). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Humphrey, R. R. (1947). Range forage evaluation by the range condition method. J Forest, 45, 10–16.

    Google Scholar 

  • Huntsinger, L., Forero, L. C., & Sulak, A. (2010). Transhumance and pastoralist resilience in the western United States. Pastoralism: Research, Policy, and Practice, 1, 1–15.

    Google Scholar 

  • Huntsinger, L., & Starrs, P. F. (2006). Grazing in arid North America: A biogeographical approach. Secheresse, 17, 219–233.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hutchinson, C. F. (2000). John Wesley Powell and the New West. Cosmos 2000. Washington D.C.: Cosmos Club. http://www.cosmosclub.org/web/journals/2000/hutchinson.html. Accessed May 2014.

  • Keeley, J. E. (2006). Fire management impacts on invasive plants in the western United States. Conserv Biol, 20, 375–384.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Kerley, G. I. H., & Whitford, W. G. (2000). Impact of grazing and desertification in the Chihuahuan Desert: Plant communities, granivores and granivory. American Midland Naturalist, 144, 78–91.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Klass, J. R., Peters, D. P. C., Trojan, J. M., & Thomas, S. H. (2012). Nematodes as an indicator of plant-soil interactions associated with desertification. Applied Soil Ecology, 58, 66–77.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Lal, R., Sobecki, T. M., Livari, T., & Kimbell, J. M. (2004). Chapter 10: Desertification In Soil Degradation in the United States: Extent, Severity, and Trends, 150–154. Boca Raton, FL: Lewis Publishers-CRC Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Laycock, W. A. (1987). Grazing management systems and tactics in the sagebrush ecosystem. In J. A. Onsager (Ed.), Integrated pest management: State of the art in the sagebrush ecosystem. Washington, D.C.: US Agricultural Research Service ARS-50.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mack, R. N., & Thompson, J. N. (1982). Evolution in steppe with few large hooved animals. The American Naturalist, 119, 757–773.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Mack, R. N., & Pyke, D. A. (1983). The demography of Bromus-tectorum—variation in time and space. J Ecol, 71, 69–93.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • McFerrin, R., & Wills, D. T. (2013). Searching for the big die-off: An event study of the 19th century cattle markets. Economics and Business History Journal, 31, 33–52.

    Google Scholar 

  • Menakis, J. P., Keane, R. E., & Long, D. G. (2000). Mapping ecological attributes using an integrated vegetation classification system approach. Journal of Sustainable Forestry, 11, 245–263.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Merrill, K. R. (2002). Public lands and political meaning: Ranchers, the government, and the property between them. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Miller, J, D., & Safford, H. D. (2012). Trends in wildfire severity: 1984 to 2010 in the Sierra Nevada, Modoc Plateau, and southern Cascades, California, USA. Fire Ecology, 41–57.

    Google Scholar 

  • Miller, J. D., Safford, H. D., Crimmins, M., & Thode, A. E. (2009). Quantitative evidence for increasing forest fire severity in the Sierra Nevada and southern Cascade Mountains, California and Nevada, USA. Ecosystems, 16–32.

    Google Scholar 

  • Morrow, J. O. (1918). Letter to Pete Hufford, Whitmore, CA. from the Forest Supervisor’s office, United States Forest Service, Shasta-Trinity National Forest, April 12. Hufford Family Archives, Red Bluff, CA.

    Google Scholar 

  • Muir, J. (1911). My first summer in the Sierra. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nelson, R. H. (1995). Public lands and private rights. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    Google Scholar 

  • NIFC [US National Interagency Fire Center]. (2015). Wildfire statistics. Boise, ID:National Interagency Fire Center. www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_stats_totalFires.html. Accessed January 1, 2015.

  • Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Paylore, P., & Haney, R. A. (1976). Desertification: Process, problems, perspectives. Tucson, AZ: Office of Arid Lands Studies, University of Arizona.

    Google Scholar 

  • Perevolotsky, A., & Seligman, N. G. (1998). Role of grazing in Mediterranean rangeland ecosystems—Inversion of a paradigm. Bioscience, 48, 1007–1017.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Powell, J. W. (1879). Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States, with a more detailed account of the lands of Utah. With maps. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

    Google Scholar 

  • Powell, J. W. (1890). The non-irrigable lands of the arid region. Century Magazine [Cornell University Library, Making of America Archive] 39, 915–922.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pyne, S. J. (2008). Year of the fires: The story of the great fires of 1910. Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company.

    Google Scholar 

  • Raban, J. (1996). Bad land: An American romance. New York: Random House.

    Google Scholar 

  • Raumann, C. G., & Cabik, M. E. (2008). Change in the forested and developed landscape of the Lake Tahoe basin, California and Nevada, USA, 1940–2002. For Ecol Manage, 255, 3424–3439.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Roth, F. (1901). Grazing in the forest reserves [Reprint from the Yearbook of Department of Agriculture for 1901]. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sabadell, J. E., Risley, E. M., Jorgensen, H. T., & Thornton. B. S. (1982). Desertification in the United States. Status and issues. Final report. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sampson, A. W. (1909). Natural revegetation of depleted mountain grazing lands. Circular, 169, 28. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service.

    Google Scholar 

  • Savory, A., & Butterfield, J. (1999). Holistic management: A new framework for decision making. Covelo, CA: Island Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sayre, N. F. (2002). Ranching, endangered species, and urbanization in the Southwest. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Sayre, N. F., & Fernandez-Gimenez, M. (2003). The genesis of range science, with implications for current development policies. In Proceedings of the 7th International Rangelands Congress, 26 July-1 Aug Durban, South Africa:1976–1985.

    Google Scholar 

  • Schama, S. (1996). Landscape and memory. New York NY: Vintage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Seastedt, T. R., Hobbs, R. J., & Suding, K. N. (2008). Management of novel ecosystems: Are novel approaches required? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6, 547–553.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Skovlin, J. M., Strickler, G. S., Peterson, J. L., & Sampson. A. W. (2000). Interpreting landscape change in high mountains of northeastern Oregon from long-term repeat photography. F.S. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Pacific Northwest Research Station. Albany, CA: PNW-GTR-505.

    Google Scholar 

  • Spiegal, S., Huntsinger, L., Hopkinson, P., & Bartolome. J. W. (2015). Chapter 37, Range ecosystems. In Zavaleta, E., & H. Mooney (Eds.) Ecosystems of California, 835–864. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Starrs, P. F. (1998). Let the cowboy ride: Cattle ranching in the American West. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stewart, O. C., Lewis, H. T., & Anderson, M. K. (2002). Forgotten fires: Native Americans and the transient wilderness. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Tansley, A. G. (1935). The use and abuse of vegetation concepts and terms. Ecology, 16, 284–307.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, A. H. (2000). Fire regimes and forest changes in mid and upper montane forests of the southern Cascades, Lassen Volcanic National Park, California. USA. Journal of Biogeography, 27, 87–104.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • USFS [United States Forest Service]. (2015). Grazing statistical summary. Washington (DC). http://www.fs.fed.us/rangelands/ftp/docs/GrazingStatisticalSummaryFY2014.pdf. Accessed Jan 10, 2015

  • van der Valk, A. G. (2013). From formation to ecosystem: Tansley’s response to Clements’ climax. Journal of the History of Biology, 47, 293–321. doi:10.1007/s10739-013-9363-y).

    Google Scholar 

  • Westoby, M., Walker, B., & Noymeir, I. (1989). Opportunistic management for rangelands not at equilibrium. Journal of Range Management, 42, 266–274.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Worster, D. (1979). Dust Bowl: The southern plains in the 1930s. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Worster, D. (1994). Nature’s economy: A history of ecological ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Young, J. A., & Clements, C. D. (2007). Cheatgrass and grazing rangelands. Rangelands, 29, 15–20.

    CrossRef  Google Scholar 

  • Young, J. A., & Clements, C. D. (2009). Cheatgrass: Fire and forage on the range. Reno, NV: University of Nevada Press.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Aknowledgements

Thank you to Paul Starrs, Roy Behnke, and Sarah Robinson for their reviews of this manuscript.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lynn Huntsinger .

Editor information

Editors and Affiliations

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

Copyright information

© 2016 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg

About this chapter

Cite this chapter

Huntsinger, L. (2016). The Tragedy of the Common Narrative: Re-telling Degradation in the American West. In: Behnke, R., Mortimore, M. (eds) The End of Desertification? . Springer Earth System Sciences. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-16014-1_11

Download citation