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November 1996
The Search for the Real American West

Guest Editorial By Philip Goff


Having recently watched the beautifully produced PBS special, "The West," and having just moved across country (via tox-mobile), I have thought a lot about the western American landscape. The 3400 miles of the American landscape that I have recently experienced is not quite the beautiful setting shown in PBS specials. Our country used to be covered with lush forests, endless prairies, clean streams, towering mountains, and pristine deserts. Only a little more than a hundred years ago, the great conifer forests and rolling grasslands were still extant, at a time when most of the deciduous forests of the northeast and south were being obliterated. The West is still defined by its landscape and scale, although it is gradually becoming as settled and developed as the eastern states. But it is a landscape not of healthy and productive ecosystems, but instead one of manipulation, compromised due to our voracious appetite for land and resources.

What struck me most about the West was that so much of the "natural" landscape is defined by what we eat. Sure, the open-pit strip mining operation in Wyoming was no pretty sight, nor was the endless procession of housing developments in the hills outside of Boise, and certainly not the clearcut Oregon forests. But just as our obsession with automobiles has defined our "built" landscape, America's insistence on a meat-oriented diet has defined our "natural" landscape.

The insidious and inefficient growing of crops to feed livestock knocked me over the head while crossing the country. In Indiana and Illinois, I saw mile after mile of corn, most o`f which is fed to cattle. In Wisconsin and South Dakota, there were millions of acres of soy beans, most of which is fed to cattle. In Wyoming and Montana, wheat fields extend to the horizon, most of which is fed to cattle. And, of course, in nearly every state in this nation are the cows: 103 million of them, according to Montana's Predator Project. Even if you don't see them, you know they're still there. The ubiquitous barbed wire fences followed me along nearly every road and highway I drove on out West. The cattle (and sheep) are everywhere! They are on private ranches, they are on Bureau of Land Management land, they trample fragile grasslands and erode the soil, they defecate in the once pristine streams, and they even roam through many of our national forests. It was demoralizing to see so much of our country degraded because our citizens eat too many hamburgers, steaks, and lambchops, and wear too much leather and wool.

Luckily, while visiting some of the national parks along the route, I did catch a glimpse of the "real" American West. It's ironic that tens of millions of people visit the parks every year simply to see a vestige of what their lifestyles haven't yet destroyed. They come to see not just the mountains and waterfalls, but also to see the few remaining prairies and grasslands and to glimpse a herd of buffalo or wolf. I wonder if it really matters how many wolf or bison reintroduction programs the government funds. As long as grazing cattle dominate the range, hundreds of millions of acres are usurped to feed livestock, and tens of thousands of predators and competing herbivores are exterminated, a functional ecosystem will remain elusive.

The decimation of the West has been on the American agenda for many years. People are horrified that only five percent of our original forests remain. The President has opposed the construction of an enormous mine near Yellowstone and has decreed a huge chunk of Utah protected wilderness. There is even opposition to massive highway projects and sprawling housing developments. Yet very little attention is given to the millions of cows whose big appetites have dominated land-use in so much of the western U.S. The refusal to eat meat is far beyond an animal rights, environmental, or human health issue. It is an issue of efficient land use and scenic preservation. It is that of returning land to the Native Americans from which it was stolen. It is of conserving what makes America great: the land.

The compromise of the West's landscape should inspire millions of patriotic Americans to throw away their steak knives, replant their gardens, and prepare for the vegan revolution!

Philip Goff is currently studying urban design in Portland, Oregon.


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