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Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West

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, Ph.D.

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: "Welfare Ranching."

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.

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