52°F
weather icon Mostly Cloudy

History has important lesson for ranchers

As the nation in the 1700 and 1800s moved West, emigrants encountered land that appeared less and less fertile the farther west they traveled. The progressively drier land seemed to offer little prospect for agriculture.

But about the time that Nevada became a state, the West began enjoying an extended period of relatively wet years. Those who wanted desert reclamation (turning desert into farmland through irrigation) promoted a notion that if the land was plowed and planted, it would increase rainfall.

“(M)ight not the vicissitudes of nature operate a change likewise upon the seasons?” wrote Missouri trader Josiah Gregg.

It was a claim helped along by politicians anxious to tell the public what it wanted to hear. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the U.S. Geological and Geographic Survey of the Territories wrote that, “It is my earnest wish at all times to report that which will be most pleasing to the people of the West, providing there is any foundation for it in nature” (1871). So, straining to report good news, he filed a report that “the planting of ten or fifteen acres of forest-trees on each quarter section will have a most important effect on the climate, equalizing and increasing the moisture and adding greatly to the fertility of the soil.” It was a way of explaining why the soil became more fertile as settlers moved West and tilled it.

This notion became known as “rain follows the plow.” And as a cause, desert reclamation became something resembling a religion. Since there was little scientific support for the notion, faith filled in. Reclamationists believed deeply — and “rain follows the plow” became a “science” that everyone “knew” was true.

Of course, vultures like land speculators were there to take advantage of all this, selling desert as agricultural land properties on the assumption that rainfall would increase when the land was tilled. And in the 1800s, expertise was up for grabs. People became experts just by renting a hall and speaking out.

As long as wet conditions prevailed, “rain follows the plow” performed. And as the wet years faded, because the movement (for such it had become) for desert reclamation was based on faith instead of science, there was no decline in support. The believers kept believing.

Congress eventually enacted the National Reclamation Act of 1902, also known as the Lowlands Reclamation Act. Then the failings of “rain follows the plow” showed up fast. The first five federal desert reclamation projects included one in Nevada, the Truckee Carson Irrigation District.

Not only did rain not increase as the West was plowed, but the reclamation projects were disappointments. Oh, farms were created and crops harvested. But the amount of water needed to reclaim the desert proved to be far greater than all the believers had expected. The Truckee Carson district has yet to reach its projected number of farms.

The law led to the use of huge amounts of water, diverted from its natural course, for projects that generated relatively small amounts of produce. And plowing did nothing to rainfall.

By listening to “experts” whose claims were not based in science, the nation was launched on a loony era of unnecessary dam building and foolish water policies to try to make reclamation work. But faith springs eternal, and science continues to come in second to the believers.

Today, it’s a case of taking on faith the falsity of climate change, though the science is entirely on the other side. Skeptics and “experts” like radio talk hosts cherry pick the science to find what they want, or ignore the science altogether to employ ad hominem arguments, or cite the teeny minority of scientists who support their views.

Nevada ranchers are facing serious problems as a result of climate change, such as the loss of grazing land and forage because of warming. Land use, commodity production and the very viability of ranching may be under threat. Listening to self-appointed “experts” today would be just as foolish and risky as listening to the “rain follows the plow” experts of the 1800s.

Dennis Myers is a veteran Nevada journalist.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Pets have special place in our hearts, lives

Over $95.7 billion — no, it’s not how much we spent on recent elections — it’s how much we Americans spend each year on our pets, our “fur babies,” our “four-footed friends,” “our cuddly companions,” our… well, you get the picture.

Trump doesn’t require reality to act

Is America finally able to understand the consciousness of Donald Trump based on his behavior? To assist, I am able to ascertain the consciousness of human beings according to Theosophical tradition.

Varying opinions vital to democracy

Periodically, I have to remind readers that the “articles” featured on this page are not news stories. They are opinion pieces.

Time to focus on truth

We are into the first week of a new year that brings new promises and continuing challenges. Of great promise are vaccines against the COVID-19 virus. The city has already received and administered hundreds of doses to health care workers and first responders. The progress that will be made depends on how many doses of the vaccine are available. The city paramedics and the hospital staff will work to provide the vaccine based on the priorities established at the state level. More information is available at www.southernnevadahealthdistrict.org.

Here’s to a better 2021

Today is the last day of 2020. I know I am not the only one who is eager to see this year end.

’Twas the baking before Christmas

A few years ago, many readers commented how much they enjoyed my column about holiday baking and requested that I make this an annual tradition. As you read this, I will be at home, enjoying the fruits of my labor after spending a week’s vacation knee-deep in flour, sugar and spices, in the true spirit of this message.

Public schools need to open

What do the library, post office, police department and public schools have in common? They are all owned by the citizens. All are open for business except, of course, schools. Schools in particular were built using funds collected from taxes that all of us paid. All of the expenses to run these institutions along with teacher’s salaries are paid by us as well.

Celebrate power to get things done

As I write this, a picture comes into my mind. It’s a Sunday in December, 22 years ago, when I wrote my first holiday piece for the Boulder City News and the Henderson Home News. It was the day after the Boulder City Christmas parade. It was 7 a.m.; I was sitting at my desk typing and a light snow was falling.

Are we circumventing city’s advisory committees?

I find that the formation of the city’s municipal pool ad hoc committee, chaired by Mayor (Kiernan) McManus with Councilman (James Howard) Adams serving as the vice chairman, to provide recommendations to the City Council regarding the proposed three ballot questions associated with a new aquatic center can easily lead to a violation of the open meeting law.

Happiness ‘Hallmark’ of holiday movies

I love this time of year. There’s a nip in the air. The leaves on trees glow in shades of red, yellow and orange. Families and friends gather for festive meals. And Hallmark airs countless Christmas movies.