Culture, Ecology, and Policy in the Old and New West


Species of Capital: Ranching, Endangered Species, and Urbanization in the Southwest. Sayre, N. F. 2002 . The University of Arizona Press , Tucson . 320 pp. $48.00. ISBN 0-8165-2158-1 .

The history of ranching and resource use in the American southwest is a time honored-tradition in environmental writing, with numerous influential contributions ranging from the writings of Stegner (1954 )  to more recent contributions by Bahre ( 1991 )  and Remley (2000). In Species of Capital, Nathan Sayre demonstrates that a historical context is as relevant as ever to understanding current environmental issues. Sayre uses the detailed history of one landscape—southern Arizona's Altar Valley and the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge—as a powerful metaphor for understanding how the interaction of culture, conservation, and science and their socioeconomic processes structure ecological systems.

To set the stage, the book begins with a history of the conservation of the endangered Masked Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus ridwayi ), which represents a microcosm of the many follies of single-species management, and the socioeconomic context in which it is imbedded. In the next several chapters, containing one of the finest histories of ranching and resource use, Sayre expands the discussion to reveal the land-use context within which the Masked Bobwhite exists. Starting with the cattle boom of the late 1800s and continuing through the transitions in landscape composition of the late 1900s, Sayre examines how economic systems structure ecological systems by demonstrating that the two big epochs of environmental change in the West, the cattle boom and the real estate boom, were both largely driven by the speculative influxes of capital. This is perhaps the most crucial contribution of the book because it poignantly illustrates the need in solving environmental problems to avoid focusing on issues such as livestock grazing or subdivision as isolated events, but instead to consider them within the context of the larger socioeconomic processes that frequently drive environmental change. Other important subtexts to the story include a detailed history of the evolution of range management in the Southwest and the significance of the ideas of ecologist Frederic E. Clements, the development of state trust lands, and the role of changes in beef marketing and packing in the economics of ranching and its indirect effects on Western landscapes.

Following the initial overview, Sayre focuses on the last 30 years, in which the Buenos Aires ranch shifts from a speculative real estate investment to a federally owned national wildlife refuge. This section links the twin forces described in the initial sections of the book, the culture of endangered species conservation and the socioeconomic process that lead to the New West. Although Sayre's effort at a synthesis between “ranching, endangered species, and urbanization” is admirable, I found that this portion of the book failed to meet the standards set in the proceeding sections. The initial transition chapter, “Producing a State of Nature,” does an admirable job of setting the stage for the environmental and social changes that led to the formation of the refuge, and it contains a wonderfully succinct review of the ecology of fire in desert grassland ecosystems. But the following chapter, “Where Wildlife Comes Naturally,” never attains the level of integration and clarity achieved in earlier portions of the book. For example, whereas seven pages are devoted to discussions of sign use on the refuge, largely missing is a broad synthesis of wildlife policy ( e.g., Tober 1981, 1989 ), or reference to the importance of the legal framework of the U.S. Endangered Species Act, and detailed discussion of federal wildlife law ( e.g., Bean 1983 ). This represents a significant problem because without a detailed review of the social and legal framework of federal wildlife policy, it is hard to put events on the refuge, and the actions of refuge managers, in a meaningful context (e.g. Curtin 1993).

In the closing chapter, “Counterfeiting Conservation,” Sayre returns briefly to the themes of the introductory chapters with a synthesis of the underpinnings of landscape change. Although there is a passing reference to the work of Swetnam and Betancourt ( 1998 )  and a review by McPherson and Weltzin (2000), Sayre never really grapples with the impacts of climate or addresses the current role of environmental change in the Southwest. A more detailed discussion of current ecological research in the Southwest would have provided a stronger foundation for Sayre's critical review of refuge policy. As it was, I found myself wondering to what extent refuge policies were inherently flawed or instead the unfortunate outcome of recent climatic patterns ( e.g., Swetnam & Betancourt 1998; Curtin & Brown 2001 ).

While Species of Capital contains one of the finest synthesises of the interaction of cultural, economic, and ecological forces in structuring the landscape of the Southwest, at the same time it falls short of delivering a synthesis of “ranching, endangered species, and urbanization.” This is because the discussions of wildlife policy lack the clarity and depth achieved in the initial sections of the book on ranch and range management, whereas the final discussion of current ecology and policy lacks the documentation needed to make Sayre's arguments completely credible. Although these shortcomings undermine what is otherwise an important and innovative synthesis, Species of Capital is well written, thought-provoking, and well worth reading for anyone interested in ranching, the West, or environmental history in general.

Charles Curtin