March 23, 2017
Professor Nathan Sayre on his new book, The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science
Scientists today recognize the flaws of old ideas about rangeland ecology, but the broader public (and especially many environmental activists) continue to believe that (a) livestock are the root cause of rangeland degradation, everywhere and always, and (b) that getting rid of the livestock is the solution. Both ideas are simply wrong, and we’re not likely to solve the problems that really are out there until more people come to terms with this fact.
Professor Nathan Sayre’s geography class on “Food and the Environment” has inspired many undergrads to pursue food studies. He covers a wide range of environmental, economic, political, and social issues that surround the food we produce and consume. Sayre brings this same holistic approach to his newest book, The Politics of Scale: A History of Rangeland Science, in which he explores past conflicts and mistakes in rangeland science as important lessons moving forward. We asked Prof. Sayre a few questions about what makes rangelands so important, and where he sees the greatest potential for progress in the science and management of rangelands.
What is the main idea you hope readers take away from this book?
First, that many widespread ideas about rangelands are wrong: ideas about desertification, carrying capacities and stocking rates, fire, fences, predators and pastoralists.
Second, that these flawed ideas became widespread not because of bad science but in spite of the best efforts of good scientists, who were constrained by larger political and economic forces.
Third, that these same forces help explain how other mistakes were made in the management of rangelands in the US and overseas. Rangelands are the largest type of land on Earth, but they have always been marginal in the modern world because they are less profitable, less predictable, and less easily controlled than other types of land.
What hooked you on the history of rangeland science? Why do you think its important for people to learn about it?
I fell in love with arid lands in college, and with the semi-arid Southwest when I moved to Tucson after college. I stumbled into the history of rangeland science when I was doing my dissertation research about a dispute between a national wildlife refuge and the local ranchers.
The refuge had been a large ranch for 100 years before the Fish and Wildlife Service bought it, and it had been extensively modified using the recommended methods of rangeland science. The refuge officials were blind to many of these changes, however—they only thought about the livestock, believing that once the cattle were gone, Nature would take over and “restore” the landscape.
Later I realized that this was a much bigger story. Scientists today recognize the flaws of old ideas about rangeland ecology, but the broader public (and especially many environmental activists) continue to believe that (a) livestock are the root cause of rangeland degradation, everywhere and always, and (b) that getting rid of the livestock is the solution. Both ideas are simply wrong, and we’re not likely to solve the problems that really are out there until more people come to terms with this fact.
The book focuses on the history of rangeland science and politics. Are there any promising examples of rangeland management that have benefitted both the landowners and the environment?
Yes, many of them. Pastoralists around the world have developed land tenure arrangements and management practices, not to mention exquisite bodies of knowledge, that sustained them for thousands of years on some of Earth’s harshest landscapes. Unfortunately, rangeland science overlooked or denigrated these people for decades, while the larger forces of colonialism, modern states and economic development encroached and undermined their persistence.
Here in the US, community-based approaches have emerged in the past 20 years or so that demonstrate the potential for alternative governance of public rangelands. Efforts such as the Malpai Borderlands Groups, the Diablo Trust, and the Altar Valley Conservation Alliance in Arizona; the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana; and the Central Coast Rangeland Coalition in California. These are all very much works in progress, in the sense that many major challenges remain. But they all indicate the value of greater flexibility, coordination across landscapes, thinking at larger spatial and longer temporal scales, and more collaborative processes of decision-making. There are also a handful of older antecedents, such as the Mizpah-Pumpkin Creek Grazing District in eastern Montana, that teach similar lessons.
How have rangeland politics changed in the US since you started writing the book?
In some ways they haven’t changed much. A handful of environmental groups continue to wage the same war against livestock on public lands, using the same weapons of lawsuits and bureaucratic paralysis, and a handful of self-styled “ranchers” continue to rattle sabers about property rights. What happened last year at the Malheur Refuge in Oregon, and what’s happening now at the Point Reyes National Seashore, bear distressing testimony to the tenacious grip of mistaken ideas on the partisans on both sides.
Fortunately, there are also signs of important change, though they’re less likely to make the front page. Twenty-five years ago, it was hard to find a rancher who didn’t hate environmentalists and vice-versa. The lines were stark and both sides were generally losing the war while they battled each other back and forth: the winners in most cases were developers. Today, rangeland land owners and environmental groups have found common ground in the radical center, to use Malpai’s term, and achieved actual conservation of rangelands all over the West.
Based on the research that went into this book on the history of rangeland science, where do you see the future of rangeland science heading? Where would you like to see it go?
I’m excited about the kinds of collaborations that I just described, and also about the potential for scientists to learn from rangeland users of all kinds—ranchers, pastoralists, hunters, birdwatchers—by working with them and designing research projects that help address their concerns and issues. For too long, rangelands have been treated as marginal “wastelands,” in need of “improvement” and “development,” and science has too often been merely a tool for pursuing these larger political and economic agendas. The stakes are only getting larger—these are generally the parts of the world that have been least disturbed or transformed by human manipulations. We need to value them in their own right and on their own terms, so to speak, including the people who’ve learned about them in other ways than just “science.”
The Politics of Scale was reviewed in New Scientist, and was published by the University of Chicago Press.