National Geographic : 1989 Jan
Heart of theWest T OUGH, PUNGENT sage brush carpets some 220,000 square miles from Mexico to Canada. Blocked by the Sierra Nevada, moisture from the Pacific rarely falls on the region. Indeed the Great Basin desert, center of sagebrush country, proved so forbidding that it was the last area of the U. S. to be explored south of Alaska. It was not un til 1844 that John C. Fr6mont, finally accepting that none of the area's rivers reached the sea, labeled it the Great Basin. All told there are some 90 basins, corrugated by more than 160 ranges running north and south. Settlers following the Hum boldt River west often found arid 160-acre homesteads to be giant gambles. The government land office later became the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which today controls about a hundred million acres of sagebrush country. Added to the 25 million acres managed by the U. S. Forest Service, that makes 90 percent of the region public land. Conservationists urge higher grazing fees for ranchers and greater public say in the use of the land, as do some residents of fast-growing Las Vegas and Reno, where 85 percent of all Nevadans live and where gam ing tables bring in most of the state's revenue. Ranchers and miners, attuned to rhythms of boom and bust, respond that the land is much too dry and remote to be useful for other purposes. Sagebrush Country: America's Outback PLANT DOCTORS Rick Miller and Jianguo Wang (above) of the Squaw Butte researchstation near Burns, Oregon, take a sagebrush'svital signs. Poorfod der for cattle, the shrub is often dug up or burned off. Yet increas ingly, range managersvalue sage brush as food and shelterfor wildlife and as an efficient way to reseed areas scarred by fires, road construction, or mining. The plant also reveals water and soil condi tions: Areas where it grows less than three feet tall are not consid ered arable. Crushedleaves glow ing under ultravioletlight (left) identify a sprigas mountain sage brush, one of numerous subspecies.