A Colorado Eco-Story With a Dash of Humor

The last Ranch:

A Colorado community and the coming desert

By Sam Bingham

Pantheon, 363pp., $27.50

When a skillful writer draws together universal themes, colorful characters, and compelling narrative, the potential for a good book is close at hand. And when he does it from real life instead of making it up, history and story-telling can merge to the reader's advantage.

Such is the case with Sam Bingham's "The Last Ranch," which focuses on a recent year in the life of a rural community in Colorado but offers a message that is important for much of the planet.

The area is the San Luis Valley, several hours south of Denver and just east of the Continental Divide. There, a 19th-century way of life is confronting 20th-century environmental sensibilities and economic development - often to the detriment of the land.

Ranchers like Donnie and Karen Whitten are struggling to support their family. Eco-activists want livestock (which well-known conservationist John Muir called "hooved locust") off the land. Developers use their political and economic muscle to push for control of the water that has always been the arid West's most valuable resource.

It's beautiful country, but trying to make a living on the land here is tough in a way that most people never experience, (as it is in much of the west).

"If the water table drops, if credit dries up, if prices fall, if soil salinity increases, if fuel and chemical costs rise, if exotic pests multiply, the green makeup will crack right off the hard dry face of it," Bingham writes.

Desertification is as much an issue here as it is in parts of Africa. Or as Bingham puts it, "In significant ways, rural Colorado has more in common with Burkina Faso than with Denver...."

In recent years, a few ranchers, federal land managers, and environmentalists have been trying to develop new ways to preserve both the environment and cattle grazing. Some practice "holistic resource management," an approach that is suspect in the eyes of most environmentalists and traditional cattlemen's groups (and which therefore is probably worth trying).

Bingham's skill is in presenting such efforts - including the complicated details of wildlife and plant biology, the physics and chemistry of surface and underground water - in a way that is both interesting and understandable. And often pointedly funny, as if Aldo Leopold and Edward Abbey had collaborated.

He raises important philosophical questions as well, weaving these into episodes worthy of an accomplished fiction writer. If he had written the section about fending off a big water-development scheme as a screenplay, it would have been a combination of "Mindwalk" and "The Milagro Beanfield War." The discussion moves smoothly back and forth between gritty ranch life, water law, and chaos theory.

Much has been written of late about the "Old West" versus the "New West" - traditional culture being inundated by transplanted urbanites and "recreationalists" (an epithet among some old-timers). It's more than politics or economics, however. As Bingham perceptively observes, it may be that society, like nature, moves through stages of "succession" toward a stable state. But science, whether it is natural science or social science, can track or influence what one hopes will turn out to have been progress only so far.

"I still believe my thesis that true progress, progress not borrowed against the health of Earth, must come from individuals learning to do the right things at the margins, in the San Luis valleys of the world where the desert bares its teeth at our fabulous global economy," Bingham writes.

The late Wallace Stegner, one of the best Western writers ever, once said the West needed to have "a society to match the scenery." What Bingham authoritatively and movingly (and often humorously) describes is an important attempt to form that society.

* Brad Knickerbocker is a Monitor staff writer who covers environmental issues.

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