THE POLITICS OF SCALE author Nathan Sayre

Rangelands are unforested and uncultivated land on which grazing is the primary agricultural activity; they cover between one-third and one-half of the earth’s land surface. Such vast landscapes and the associated ecological, climatic, and historical diversity, make the science that guides rangeland management challenging, interesting, and often political. It is within this context that Professor Nathan Sayre’s book The Politics of Scale offers a provocative historical analysis of rangeland science.

Much of the Politics of Scale is devoted to how Frederic Clements and his theory of plant succession had an outsized influence on the direction of rangeland science and policy. Clements’ successional theory — the idea that plant communities, baring disturbance, trend towards a stable “climax community” — was developed through research on the relatively moist grasslands of the Midwest. While successional theory and its management applications was useful on midwestern grasslands, his theory was adopted as orthodoxy by US land management agencies and applied inappropriately across with many different climatic regimes.

Even today, some of the degradation of rangelands in the US and globally can be attributed to successional theory, however, it is not the only idea or practice that has oversimplified the science and practice of rangeland management. Other common and often misapplied practices reviewed in the book include set-stock grazing, the proliferation of permanently fenced pastures, predator and rodent eradication programs, total livestock removal, and fire suppression.

The book devotes a chapter to political, social, and cultural rangeland topics as well. Among these are the differences between ranching based on private property rights versus the idea of pastoralism in which rangelands are a community resources. The once familiar refrain that “freedom in a commons brings ruin to all” is being challenged by community-based conservation groups working to successfully manage rangelands together.

Lastly, Sayre discusses the practice of holistic planned grazing. The scientific community remains skeptical of this approach despite widespread reports of its efficacy because the practice does not lend itself to controlled, discrete, and replicable scientific experiments. However, we hope that The Politics of Scale contributes to the growing recognition among scientists, academics, and environmental groups, that grazing animals can be a positive part of healthy rangeland ecosystems and that proper herd management, rather than removing or banning livestock from rangelands, can restore land. 

Healthy working rangelands, and the communities and livestock they are a part of, offer a model for how humans can exist as part of functioning ecosystems.  Embracing the complexity of rangeland ecology is a crucial part of creating a new paradigm for rangeland management. To that end, The Politics of Scale is a worthwhile read for those interested in the history of the west, ecology, and ranching.