Saving the land —with cows?

The title of Dan Dagget’s latest book is Gardeners of Eden, but the subtitle does a better job of saying what it’s about: Rediscovering Our Importance to Nature.

Our importance to nature? Isn’t the best thing we can do for nature to leave it alone?

Well, no, Dagget argues, and he’s got the environmental creds to make the case: For years he was a leader in Earth First!—that monkey-wrenching gang of eco-radicals that was the bane of loggers and developers in the West—and later he worked for the Sierra Club.

At one point Dagget found himself working on environmental projects with Arizona cattle ranchers, and he learned that some were such excellent stewards that they actually improved their land over time. From that experience and others, he came to believe that environmental groups of the “leave-it-alone” school had it all wrong.

Human beings belong in nature and are a part of it, he realized, and until recently have always had a positive impact on the natural environment. It’s wrong to think that early tribal peoples didn’t manipulate the land. In California, for example, the native Indians regularly used fire as a way to clear out underbrush and create more grassland for deer and antelope.

It’s only lately, actually, that we have become “aliens,” as he puts it, whose idea of authentic nature is of big parks—called wilderness areas—with no people in them other than our fellow urbanized aliens who’ve come to visit.

Dan Dagget

Last Thursday (March 15) Dagget, a stocky man with gray hair and goatee who lives in Santa Barbara, was at Chico State University spreading the word. His talk in Holt Hall was the final presentation in Chico Performances’ delightfully provocative On the Creek lecture series on sustainability and ecology.

Using a series of the excellent photos (by Tom Bean) from his book, he presented examples of ranchers and others who have had far more success at restoring abused land than could be obtained by leaving it alone. At the U Bar Ranch, in New Mexico, the ranch manager created an environment in which the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher thrived, while on a nearby preserve they numbered zero. The birds and the cows, it turned out, had a mutual relationship that worked for both.

He mentioned a couple, Tony and Jerrie Tipton, who live in a purple bus in central Nevada. Working with little support and less money, they have developed a revolutionary way of restoring blasted land. In one case, done as a trial, they tackled a former heap leach pad, the relic of a gold-mining operation, a 300-foot-high pile of crushed rock leached with cyanide and encrusted with salt.

Their method? They put down a layer of straw and native plant seeds, covered it with hay and straw, and set loose a herd of cows on the site for several days. As Dagget describes it in his book, “The cows ate most of the hay and a little of the straw, and what they didn’t eat they trampled into the rocks along with the seeds and the microbe-rich organic fertilizer they provided from their guts.”

Six months later, a community of native plants had grown there. Three years later, it had become home to a diverse community of wildlife, and birds’ nests, rodent burrows and lizards, along with coyote and deer scat, were present.

Should anyone doubt the importance of having healthy rangeland, Dagget pointed out that an acre of good grassland eats up more carbon dioxide than an acre of rainforest.

It’s OK to use the land, he said in Holt Hall: “Nature can be protected by using it.” Besides, he added, “the use relationship is at the heart of nature"—in the food chain, in the process of decay, everywhere one looks, in fact. Human beings are part of that process and always have been.

He’s talking of course about positive engagement with nature. Most of our use of nature these days is exploitive and done by big corporations with negative consequences, he said. That must change. The more we engage positively with nature, understanding that the relationship must be mutually beneficial, Dagget said, the more we will understand our importance to nature.

“We’ve got to face it, guys,” he told the Holt audience. “We’re natives. We’ve got to start acting that way.”