Restoring the West

This wonderful collection of essays documents efforts to right historic wrongs

Patricia Nelson Limerick wrote one of the founding documents of new Western history, 1987's The Legacy of Conquest. That book, a thorough debunking of the romantic myths of the 19th century West, changed the way many people thought about the migration and settlement of Americans beyond the hundredth meridian, showing that manifest destiny, the myth of the frontier and all of the other self-serving storylines Americans held dear were just that—stories and narratives to use in place of the truth.

In her new book, Remedies for a New West: Healing Landscapes, Histories and Cultures, Limerick has gathered a diverse group of her academic colleagues from the University of Colorado at Boulder and elsewhere to make a case for the healing and restoration of all that has been lost in the West, whether it be a river's native habitat destroyed by a dam, a tribe's native language and culture forgotten due to forced assimilation, or an animal-migration corridor split up by second homes and freeways.

In 11 essays by various scholars and a long prologue written by Limerick, Remedies for a New West presents a strong case for the kind of restorative thinking put forth since at least the late 1980s by groups like the Society for Conservation Biology and the Society for Ecological Restoration. These groups seek not just to conserve what we have left, but to restore what has been lost. Perhaps the most well-known and controversial of the projects pushed by such groups are the reintroductions of wolves into Yellowstone National Park and New Mexico over the last few decades.

Wolves and other keystone predators were largely extirpated from the West by the 1930s in favor of ranchers and settlers. But, as scientists have shown, taking large predators out of an ecosystem has ripples: In Yellowstone, for example, riparian habitats were dying out because elk and other ungulates were overgrazing along streams, leaving the streams unhealthy and susceptible to non-native incursions. Since the reintroduction of wolves to the park, according to an essay in the collection, the park's habitat has changed for the better. Wolves keep the elk in check, and the ecosystem manages itself.

Limerick writes in her epilogue to the collection that "the West seems to be a hotbed of restoration, with multiple efforts under way to move beyond regret, resentment and blame, and to find and apply remedies for earlier damage and loss."

This collection presents field reports on many of these efforts. There are excellent essays—written with little of the typically turgid academic prose one sometimes finds in likeminded studies—on topics including trends in New Urbanism across the West, strategies for cleaning up abandoned hard-rock mines and "rewilding the Rockies" through the use of innovative wildlife bridges and other methods to help animals migrate through lands occupied by humans.

There are also several essays on restoring native cultures, including a fascinating contribution to the study of the Matachine dance in the New Mexico pueblos, a tradition that, like most Western traditions and cultures, is a mash-up of the new and old worlds that has become a completely new species.

Another essay tells the history of the Rocky Flats nuclear-weapons complex along Colorado's Front Range—an area whose population has been exploding for years. A good many of the bombs in our Cold War arsenal were built at Rocky Flats, and now, just a generation or so after the war's end, the plant has been turned into a wildlife refuge and may open to the public in the near future for biking, hiking and hunting. While this seems like an unqualified success on the surface, writer Len Ackland worries that the stories of former Cold War sites are largely being told according to the "Cold War Hero" narrative: It is just another round of Western mythmaking to positively spin the story of what amounts to a 40-plus-year murder-suicide pact, Ackland writes. If you don't think this is happening, take a tour of the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita. There is little mention there of the destructive power of, or even of the ambivalence Americans felt toward, the weapons once hidden there.

This important collection is a gift to all of us who care about the West. It belongs on the shelf of every Westerner who questions the narratives of the past and wants to contribute to those of the future.

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