If you want to be unnerved, just pay a visit to the U.S. Drought Monitor and check out its map of the American West with almost all of California stained the deep, distressing shades of red that indicate either "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. In other words, it could hardly be worse. California is now in its third year of drought, with no end in sight; state agricultural losses are estimated at $2.2 billion for 2014 alone; most of its reservoirs are less than half full; the Colorado River basin, which supplies water to "about 40 million people and 4 million acres of farmland in seven states," including California, is compromised; and California's first six months of 2014 have been the "hottest ever... nearly five degrees warmer than the twentieth century average." The drought's arms extend north through Oregon ("severe") into Washington, where it's already been the fire season from hell -- and it's just beginning. They also reach east through Nevada as far as Utah and straight across the Southwest in various shades of yellow, orange, and deep red.
TomDispatch's western contingent, environmentalists Chip Ward and William deBuys, have had the stresses of climate change, rising heat, drought, wildfires, desertification, and someday the possible abandonment of parts of the Southwest on their minds (and so on the minds of TD readers) for years now. These days, the chickens are coming home to roost -- but not, it seems, the beavers. Ward, a Utah environmentalist and the former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, has long focused not just on how our American world is being ravaged, but on how to protect and restore it. In today's post, he offers a reminder that sometimes such restoration can come in small packages and that even the most modest of natural geo-engineering can disturb vested interests. Tom
The Original Geo-Engineers
Or How to Save the Iconic West from the Cow
By Chip Ward
The great novelist Wallace Stegner sorted the conflicting impulses in his beloved American West into two camps. There were the "boomers" who saw the frontier as an opportunity to get rich quick and move on: the conquistadors, the gold miners, the buffalo hunters, the land scalpers, and the dam-building good ol' boys. They are still with us, trying to drill and frack their way to Easy Street across our public lands. Then there were those Stegner called the "nesters" or "stickers" who came to stay and struggled to understand the land and its needs. Their quest was to become native.
That division between boomers and nesters is, of course, too simple. All of us have the urge to consume and move on, as well as the urge to nest, so our choices are rarely clear or final. Today, that old struggle in the American West is intensifying as heat-parched, beetle-gnawed forests ignite in annual epic firestorms, reservoirs dry up, and Rocky Mountain snow is ever more stained with blowing desert dust.
The modern version of nesters are the conservationists who try to partner with the ecosystems where they live. Wounded landscapes, for example, can often be restored by unleashing nature's own self-healing powers. The new nesters understand that you cannot steer and control an ecosystem but you might be able to dance with one. Sage Sorensen dances with beavers.
Dances with Beavers
The dance floor is my Utah backyard, which, like most backyards out here, is a watershed. At its top is the Aquarius Plateau, the horizon I see from my deck, a gracefully rolling forest of pines and aspens that stretches for 50 miles to the south, 20 miles wide at its midpoint, and reaches 11,300 feet at its highest ridge.
The forest on top of the plateau is unique, as trees rarely grow almost two miles above sea level. That high forest is heated by the deserts that fall away around the plateau's shoulders, culminating in the amber, bone, and honey-toned canyons of Capitol Reef National Park on its eastern flank and on the west by Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument.
During a long career with the Bureau of Land Management, Sage Sorenson saw firsthand how beavers created rich green habitat out of overgrazed and burned-over land. Now retired, he calls himself a "beaver believer" and devotes his days to monitoring and protecting scattered "remnant" beaver colonies in our region. Quietly but persistently, he advocates for their reintroduction onto stressed landscapes that need their services.
Beavers are the original geo-engineers. It's no exaggeration to credit them for their major role in building the North American landscape. In pre-colonial times, there were as many as 400 million of them. They used their big buckteeth and tough paddle-tails to build dams across every stream imaginable, spreading water to a Noah's Ark-worth of creatures that thrive in the wet habitats they create. Now, of course, they are mostly long gone from the land, and conservationists want them back.
Sorenson recently trained and got certified to trap and transport beavers in anticipation of restocking the streams that tumble down the Aquarius Plateau. He is convinced that it is only a matter of time before they are reintroduced. After all, several of those streams have already been scientifically assessed and identified as prime candidates for such a reintroduction program. But when I talked to him at a cafe in the small hamlet of Boulder, Utah, he was feeling discouraged.
A remnant colony of beavers along North Creek, he told me, is just about gone. Over the last two years, at least 34 of them have been illegally shot or legally trapped by a local irrigation company. Although beaver reintroduction is getting rave reviews in places like Scotland where the last one had been trapped out hundreds of years ago and Oregon where they are healing land hammered by logging, in Utah the road back will be rough.
Flat-Tail Climate Hero
Beavers were once abundant across the Aquarius Plateau, but they have now retreated to its high headwaters where they do not compete with cattle or cowboys with guns. Visiting them requires strong lungs for steep hikes and sturdy boots to navigate flooded meadows. Up close, beavers look like especially large rodents that swim. Call them cute if you care to, but a wet mammal that smells like its mud hut is neither cuddly nor charismatic. They are not, in other words, like the penguins or polar bears that adorn fundraising appeals from wildlife advocates.