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The Gardeners of Eden
Jon Lebkowsky, 26 Nov 05

eden.jpgPeter Donovan of Oregon writes suggesting that WorldChanging tends to overemphasize technology and urban environments where water is plentiful, but we haven't written much about rural land management. "Protecting the environment, for too many years, has been perceived by urban Americans as only a matter of negatives—stopping pollution, clearcut logging, urban sprawl. The guilty parties are our human population and our technology. While there is truth to this," he says, "there is another aspect to overcoming our ecological crisis." He compares water lost through evaporation to a huge invisible river that can only be managed "biologically, by managing the soil surface for better cover."

Donovan points to his review of Dan Dagget's Gardeners of Eden,about "fresh, new struggle between Leave-It-Aloners – as Dagget terms those who believe that the best thing for humans to do with land is to leave it alone and let nature take its course – and the Lost Tribe, who are busy reversing land degradation through use."

In another review of the book, Courtney White writes how Dagget came to challenge the assumption that land is best protected by leaving it alone after "he began to notice significant amounts of healthy land that were also being grazed by cattle under the care of environmentally concerned ranchers."

After a lot of thought, Dagget reached the conclusion that to our way of thinking about the environment, "the health of a piece of land or a collection of ecosystems is not a matter of their condition. It is purely a matter of how that land is managed." If land is left alone, goes the paradigm, then its condition is automatically assumed to be good. If it is used by humans it is less healthy.
"The Leave-It-Alone assumption," Dagget says, "has brought us to the absurdity that the actual condition of a piece of land is irrelevant to determining if it is healthy or not."
The absurdity became painful to Dagget as he began to study places where "no use" (read: no ecological disturbance) intersected with declining land health, such as the famous Drake Exclosure, in central Arizona, which had been excluded from livestock use for forty years. The land inside the fence had become a biological wasteland – a condition that was unacceptable to the now-awakened environmentalist. Dagget knew something was very wrong with this picture.

Dagget now considers the "Leave It Alone" philosophy a kind of abandonment, and has focused on restoration by the progressive ranchers that he refers to as "The Lost Tribe." Donovan's site, Managing Wholes: Creating a future that works, includes photos and more about restoration.

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Interestingly enough, Charles C. Mann's book 1491 points out, contrary to popular myth, that North and South America were not "virgin" lands inhabited by a few natives. The land was actively used and worked by millions of people for thousands of years, and that these "primitives" may have a lot to teach us today. The majority of Europeans discovered the hemisphere only after existing civilizations had been decimated by disease.

Posted by: waw on 27 Nov 05

Six thousand years of civilization is based in six inches of topsoil. If modern societies lose sight of that fact, we won't be around for very much longer.

Posted by: Enrique on 27 Nov 05

My study of transport suggest that it need not be what it is today.
That it can be accomplished with out any of its current levels of resource and energy consumptions. No petroleum or vehicle dependency or emissions. WIth out accidents and congestion. And in a unprecedented speed, ease of use and covenience. ALl thorugh implementing concrete beams and utilizing independent electric motors.

Somethingn which could of been accomplished decades ago. ANd of course we would not be in this trouble we know today.

I can't help but to wonder why this is not being accomplished. Seems all the necesary incentives are present. An implementation does suggest it self as being lucratively profitable. The energy efficeincy revenues appear to be annualy several times greater than is the cost of providing the permanent long lived 100 year structural implementation.

IS it a lack of awareness that such an opportunity exists.

Posted by: George Schrader on 28 Nov 05

The rather polarised-sounding debate between "Leave-it-aloners" and "Lost Tribe" methods is not something people here in the UK identify with. Our islands have been shaped for thousands of years by humans, creating amazingly diverse habitat. The problem now is that modern development and farming are threatening to turn the land into mono-cultures. Much of the "conservation" work done here is actually focussed on keeping old land-use practises alive.

Posted by: John Kazer on 28 Nov 05

I've just finished reading Gardeners -- it's a good read, and Dagget certainly has a field day challenging the assumption that land left alone is certain to fare better than land that is grazed. The finest chapters are at the beginning and end, where he demolishes the artificial separation of human and nature.

The book is long on anecdotal examples, but short on citations from beyond what Dagget and his interviewees have witnessed. It would be much stronger if he had drawn on sources that were more rigorous in their application of the scientific method. Simply juxtaposing two parcels of land that have different management histories and noting which side has greener grass, or which has more southwestern willow flycatchers, doesn't yield answers so much as it raises questions. Why is the grass greener where the cows have been grazing? Dagget offers his best guesses, but nothing approaching proof. I finished the book craving, as well, any examples from beyond the West's arid rangelands.

That said, it is a well-illustrated, well-written book that helps shake up the old split between the enviros and the ranchers. A valuable contribution.

Posted by: Seth Zuckerman on 29 Nov 05

Why does properly managed grazing heal land, whereas overgrazing destroys it? And what makes the difference? The basic principles are well-tested and well-understood, although application is sometimes a bit tricky.

There are several factors at work here, which Dagget's book unfortunately doesn't explain. A couple of the most important ones:

  • Humid vs. seasonally dry and arid climates: In climates where soil stays damp year-round, seedlings can survive on the soil surface, and most decay is done by soil microbes. In seasonally dry climates, range plants depend on grazing animals to plant their seeds deeply enough to survive. Grazers also knock down standing vegetation and turn it into mulch, which reduces soil-surface evaporation. Dry periods kill most soil microbes, so these ecosystems depend on grazing animals to recycle nutrients.
  • Timing of grazing: Grazing benefits grasses when they are allowed to recover completely before being grazed again. Insufficient recovery periods between grazings deplete the plant's energy reserves and cause harm.
  • Animal behavior: Grasslands are adapted to wild herds that stay bunched because of predators. These herds intensely graze and trample an area, then move on, giving the grazed area a long recovery time. Predation near water also keeps grazers from lingering in riparian areas and destroying them. In the absence of predators, or confined by fences, the same grazing animals will cause ecosystem damage because they behave in ways ecosystems are not adapted to.

In seasonally dry and arid areas, most of the landscape damage that gets blamed on "overgrazing" is actually the result of insufficient trampling.

More information: ecosystem function, restoration projects from around the world.

Posted by: Wilma Keppel on 5 Dec 05



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