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Book Review
Welfare Ranching: The Subsidized Destruction of the American West
Edited by George Wuerthner and Mollie Matteson, Island Press, 2002, 366 pages ISBN 1-55963-942-3 (cloth, $75) ISBN 1-55963-943-1 (paperback, $45)

Reviewed by Richard H. Schwartz, PhD

Through wonderful pictures and thoughtful essays by leading historians, scientists and economic and policy experts, this book superbly shows the environmental crisis that the U.S. West faces because of livestock production, an industry that uses more land and water than any other.

A statement on the cover flap summarizes the problem well: "Over decades, the placement of exotic, water-hogging, ill-adapted livestock on Western lands has changed

diverse native plant communities into monocultures of weeds; turned perennially flowing creeks into dry streambeds; relegated large predators such as wolves and grizzly bears to only the most remote wilderness areas; and forced many wildlife species to the edge of extinction."

The book is awesome. Instead of the common book size of 5-by-8 inches, it is an eye-catching 12-by-13.5 inches. Many of its spectacular pictures completely cover two facing pages. Particularly effective are three consecutive such pictures, showing (1) "How It Was" (a beautiful natural area with a variety of covered plants), (2) "How It Is" (many cows and their manure on land completely devoid of plants), and (3) "How It Can Be" (another natural area with grass and some native animals).

There are more than 90 consecutive pages of pictures under the heading "How to Look and See," with text referring to numbered places on the pictures that illustrate harmful effects of animal grazing.

The wide variety of photographs vividly shows the contrast between land used to raise cattle and the relatively few places that have been protected from its damaging effects. To dramatize the scope of the problem, each odd-numbered page without a picture has "300 million acres at stake" written at the bottom. This area, equal to that of three Californias, or the entire Eastern seaboard of the United States from Maine to Florida, plus Missouri, is the amount of public land grazed by livestock in the U.S. West, at great cost to society. What makes the situation even worse are the many subsidies, courtesy of taxpayers, that public lands ranching operations receive, including low-interest loans, predator "control," fencing, government-funded range "developments" and emergency bailouts--hence the book's title: "Welfare Ranching."

The book does more than just paint a negative portrait of current conditions on public lands. It also presents an alternate vision that can renew and restore these lands, if enough citizens demand that governments shift land management priorities toward benefiting people and the environment and away from facilitating private gain.

Richard H. Schwartz is author of Judaism and Vegetarianism and Judaism and Global Survival. He has more than100 articles related to vegetarianism at