Commanding view 

Manning offers straight talk on Great Plains

In the opening of his new book, Rewilding the West, Richard Manning points out one of the most fundamental—and destructive—paradoxes of the American West: that its landscape fosters “the illusion that we command.”

Pointing out that he himself is a Westerner by choice, one initially drawn away from the Midwest by nothing more than the landscape of the Rockies, Manning nevertheless contends that the mystique of the Rockies, and the illusion it generates, is, undoubtedly, the most looming threat to the West. “I am a sucker for this illusion even now,” he writes, “when I understand how dangerous it is. The truth is, we do not know this landscape, not at all. Deceiving ourselves into believing we do is precisely why this land grows nothing so much as failure.” 

Clearly, Manning doesn’t mince words.

And, in many ways, Rewilding is a candid lesson in both history and conservationist politics, of the American West in general and the Great Northern Plains in particular. To the lay person, one without a background in either sustainability or ecological restoration, the topic can sometimes feel daunting, not unlike walking into the middle of a Sierra Club meeting that’s already been hammering out business for several hours. However, despite the sometimes dense material, Manning’s eloquence and forthright argumentation provide an astute and provocative solution to the barrenness of the American Plains.

The fact is the area exists as a veritable ghost ranch. Wild populations of passenger pigeons, bison, prairie dogs, wolves, peregrines, etc. neither roam nor fly in the plains anymore. Agriculture has used up the area’s plowable land. Finally, the human population has been in steady decline in the plains since just after the end of World War I. While the Great Plains have been among the least protected of lands, they are the landscapes, according to Manning’s research, most likely to have once produced the most wildlife: “Creatures favored these places for the very reason agriculture does. Native grassland systems produce enormous amounts of…grass, and because ungulates eat grass, the prairie can host a food chain with…a link capable of supporting bison and elk by the millions as well as…grizzly bears, which are the planet’s most threatened category of wild animals.”

Having presented the problem of a landscape with increasingly diminishing returns, Manning turns his attentions throughout much of the book to describing just how this once rich land was gradually emptied of its resources and, ergo, its life. In a vividly detailed historiography, Manning unravels the de-wilding of the Great Plains. Beginning with the highly cultivated, yet unsustainable trading habits of the Native American tribes (commerce with the European settlers compelled them to over-hunt the bison, furthering that animal’s endangerment and, thereby, gradually rendering Native Americans dependent on white traders for beef, land and safety) and moving into conservation and New Deal politics, Manning peels back the layers of the agricultural history of the Plains. Again and again, through anecdotes and seemingly exhaustive research, the disenfranchisement of the resources of the plains are illustrated, showing just how the illusion that “we command” has depleted the once-richest portion of the earth.

Having looked through a historical lens, Manning then takes a forward approach, offering a solution to re-wild the West: “…any attempt to undo the damage…must begin in Phillips County, Montana.” Why? Phillips County, home to “the Missouri Breaks,” the spot where the flat plain “breaks” to form the basin of the Missouri River, offers a 3.5 million acre territory that could serve as the first “American Prairie Reserve.” The Prairie Reserve could be bought up and controlled by conservationists, much in the same way that tracts of ranchland are currently leased to ranchers by the government. Instead of overgrazing the lands, as ranchers typically do, the reverse could happen, with conservationists working to re-establish the vital prairie ecosystem.

Certainly an essential research book for environmentalists, Rewilding the West presents the nuanced story of what was once the most bountiful land we had. However, Manning’s prose and seamless storytelling reminds us that this is not simply a tale for the scientist or for the conservationist. If nothing else, the story of the plains, specifically the Missouri Breaks into which Manning discloses a fascinating history, illustrates how our relationship to public lands—how we use and honor and dishonor them—is constantly in flux. Yet, he reminds us that we’re not in command. “But there is an odd thing about this landscape: It seems to get what it demands…,” he writes. “This is my fascination with grassland landscapes; they slowly, inexorably, return to what they wish to be.”

Their return “to what they wish to be” is why Manning’s history is so important to anyone with an ounce of the conservation spirit in them and why his solution of 3.5 million acres of American Prairie Reserve, albeit grand in scale, is, nonetheless, grand.

Richard Manning reads from Rewilding the West at Fact & Fiction Thursday, June 11, at 7 PM. Free.
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