The American West at Risk: Science, Myths, and Politics of Land Abuse and Recovery

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The American West at Risk summarizes the dominant human-generated environmental challenges in the 11 contiguous arid western United States - America's legendary, even mythical, frontier. When discovered by European explorers and later settlers, the west boasted rich soils, bountiful fisheries, immense, dense forests, sparkling streams, untapped ore deposits, and oil bonanzas. It now faces depletion of many of these resources, and potentially serious threats to its few "renewable" resources.

The importance of this story is that preserving lands has a central role for protecting air and water quality, and water supplies—and all support a healthy living environment. The idea that all life on earth is connected in a great chain of being, and that all life is connected to the physical earth in many obvious and subtle ways, is not some new-age fad, it is scientifically demonstrable. An understanding of earth processes, and the significance of their biological connections, is critical in shaping societal values so that national land use policies will conserve the earth and avoid the worst impacts of natural processes. These connections inevitably lead science into the murkier realms of political controversy and bureaucratic stasis. Most of the chapters in The American West at Risk focus on a human land use or activity that depletes resources and degrades environmental integrity of this resource-rich, but tender and slow-to-heal, western U.S.

The activities include forest clearing for many purposes; farming and grazing; mining for aggregate, metals, and other materials; energy extraction and use; military training and weapons manufacturing and testing; road and utility transmission corridors; recreation; urbanization; and disposing of the wastes generated by everything that we do. We focus on how our land-degrading activities are connected to natural earth processes, which act to accelerate and spread the damages we inflict on the land.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A welcome, and alarming, addition to environmental and western literature. Wilsire, Nielson, and Hazlet deliver the unsettling message that we must change our relationship with the world in which we live, or the consequences will be devastating. The subject is geographically specific, but this timely book is essential reading for anyone interested in environmental policy and the future of the human race."—Environmental History

"An enlightening and gripping read for anyone. This book is the result of 10 years of collaborative effort, and it is so encyclopedic and comprehensive that no one review could possibly do more than highlight a few of its more penetrating points and passages."—Seattle Peak Oil Awareness

"An absolute jewel of a book that anyone anywhere in today's world could read for profit and a certain kind of pleasure, but that is indispensable to any concerned citizen of the Western United States. If my budget allowed, I would place a copy in the hands of every elected and unelected official in the West involved in policy-making, along with a firm injunction to first read it through and then keep it on hand for reference."—Leslie Thatcher, Truthout

"The American West at Risk's exhaustive accounting of the ecological costs of empire-building provides a long-overdue perspective."—Frank Clifford, The Sante Fe New Mexican, Pasatiempo

"If you wish to be informed, enraged, enlightened, and appalled about the American west, this is the book to read."—Journal of Environmental Quality

"The conclusions reached by Wilshire, Nielson, and Hazlett aren't all doom and gloom - solutions are included- but amid climate chagne, the authors deserve great credit for not mincing words. This book appeals to anyone with an interest in environmental issues, and is essential bedside reading for any environmentalist or activist. It should be read by all Westerners - and by anyone who cares about this great, vast, once bountiful planet, not on the brink of death."—Amanda Witherell, San Francisco Bay Guardian

"The authors, using their broad and unchallengeable expertise, have produced a book that actively seeks out crises and battlegrounds where good science exists and needs to be applied, and civic policy lessons drawn. The book is a practical gift to civic society and to public interest advocates. It is one of those rare works written by people of science who - like Theo Colburn, Rachel Carson, and too few others - are impelled to be citizens as well as scientists." —Zygmunt J. B. Plater, Professor of Law at Boston College Law School and lead author of Environmental Law & Policy - Nature, Law & Society

"Wilshire, Nielson, and Hazlett show how rising human population and affluence amongst a citizenship with decreasing connections to nature have left indelible scars on the western landscape and beyond, as the Earth's natural resources and plant productivity have been tapped for human needs. Well referenced and written by some of the nation's most credentialed earth scientists, this book is simultaneously alarming, depressing, and hopeful that it is not too late to create a sustainable future for humankind." — William H. Schlesinger, President, the Institute of Ecosystem Studies

"The American West at Risk emphasizes the need for genuine concern for our precious soils, freshwater, and other environmental resources. As the authors document, we should be making every effort to conserve and protect all our vital natural resources, which indeed support human life."—David Pimentel, Cornell University

"We Americans have adopted a 'use it, throw it away, and move on' attitude to just about everything that seemed to make sense in an era of geographic expansion and cheap energy. Now we've entered the resulting era of scarcity-of water, soil, energy, and more. Can the famously trend-setting West adapt quickly enough? Surely this clearly-written and timely book will help. Changing our land use practices is essential to the survival not just of endangered species, but of human civilization."—Richard Heinberg, author of The Party's Over and Peak Everything

"The west has been won, whipped and beat, and now must be healed. Here's a science-based guide to future hopes of health for the web of life, and avoiding past land management mistakes. The western economy and quality of life depend on our moving to sustainability, conservation, and restoration. This book is critical reading for anyone living or interested in the American West."—Daniel R. Patterson, Ecologist & Southwest Director, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Tucson

"The American West at Risk is both a sobering read and a strong call to action. With its concise, engaging text and detailed references Howard Wilshire and company have produced an invaluable desk reference for public lands advocates."—Stephen Bloch, Staff Attorney, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

"What's truly valuable about this book is that the information that the authors distilled into it is so pertinent and relevant yet usually impossible to find in one place with such clarity and detail. The authors, deeply concerned about land abuse in the West, have taken the time and effort to put together this themed-reference guide that no one else has done. They did a 5-star job at it." — Andrew Kishner

"Professional scientists will find much that is new and of keen interest here. I learned a great deal from it, even though I have worked throughout the region during my long-career. Politicians and lay audiences need the book's message." — Warren Hamilton for Geoscientist

"This is a must-have book for conservationists, teachers and anyone who cares about understanding our impact on these rugged but fragile lands." — Karen Schambach

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195142051
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 6/5/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 640
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Howard G. Wilshire was a U. S. Geological Survey research geologist for thirty-five years and now is Board Chairman of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

Jane E. Nielson was a U. S. Geological Survey research geologist for twenty-five years and now is President of the Sebastopol Water Information Group.

Richard W. Hazlett is Professor of Geology and the coordinator of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College.

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Table of Contents

Introduction. Obeying Nature
1. Once and Future Trees
2. Harvesting the Future
3. Raiding the Range
4. Digging to China
5. Routes of Ruin
6. Legacies of War
7. Creating the Nuclear Wasteland
8. No Habitat But Our Own
9. The Last Drops
10. Garbage of the Golden West
11. Tragedy of the Playground
12. Driving to the End of America's Birthright
13. Nature's Way / Conclusions. The Needs of our Posterity
Appendix 1. Conserving U.S. Public Lands—A Chronology
Appendix 2. Best Intentions—Federal Waste Disposal Laws
Appendix 3. Everything Comes from the Earth
Appendix 4. Bio-Chemical War and You
Appendix 5. Destroyer of the Worlds
Appendix 6. Plutonium Fields Forever
Appendix 7. Bombs for Peace
Appendix 8. The Bunker Buster Fantasy
Appendix 9. US and Them—the United States and World Oil Reserves
Appendix 10. "Democratizing" Energy—Hydrogen Fuel Cells

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  • Posted June 19, 2009

    Rachel Carson and John Muir would love this book! A must read!

    In the interest of full disclosure, I was a marine geologist at the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Menlo Park CA during most of the time span that Howard Wilshire and Jane Nielson were there. Although we never collaborated on any projects at the USGS, I was aware of their reputations for cutting edge research and conclusions that at times were controversial, but were always based on solid facts and clear, careful reasoning. Howard and Jane "stirred the pot" at the USGS in ways that were beneficial and added to our understanding of complex geologic processes. Together with environmental geologist Richard Hazlett, the authors boast more than 75 years of experience in the geology and natural systems of the western states. I can't imagine three more qualified earth scientists to tackle the monumental task of describing the current condition of our Western lands, how we got where we are, and what we should do now to hopefully reach a happy ending. This book is definitely not a Disney movie version of land use in the West; if that's what you want, you came to the wrong department. Neither is it dry, dull or dispassionate. It is a carefully crafted, fully documented and readable, scientific account of what happens when we ignore the laws and processes of "Nature". Whether the consequences of our actions are intended, the product of ignorance, or unintended, Nature does indeed have the last at bat in this ball game. The history and effects of land use and abuse in the West are mostly quite disturbing, and the authors do not pull punches, an attribute I greatly admire. However, if all we got were disturbing environmental stories, the book would not have fulfilled its potential. Thankfully, the authors carry a theme of respect for Nature from beginning to end and each sad tale of land abuse is balanced by a discussion of what went wrong and how we can promote recovery and sustainable use. This book, or excerpts of it, should be required reading in high school and college science classes and it clearly should be within easy reach of all environmental managers, scientists and politicians. It is truly a gift to every American from three outstanding concerned scientists. If you care about the majestic yet fragile West, you MUST read this book!

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