Sunday, May 17, 2009

Wilderness, Continued...

Book Review continued from Part I: Reading List: Wilderness and the American Mind

Aldo Leopold's ideas of a 'land ethic' and 'ecological conscience' offered a touchstone for a new movement - giving birth to the idea of instilling Americans with a love and respect for their land. While mostly known for the amazing work 'A Sand County Almanac', it's interesting to see how Leopold came up through the ranks of the government system through US Forest Service in New Mexico and other locales. The ideas of working within the system (for the 'man' if you will) to expand the National Parks and Wilderness Area designations is novel. It was a struggle but eventually succeeded in developing an expanded and official role for wilderness protection. Leopold's influence expanded to others such as the pioneering planner Benton Mackaye whom among other victories was responsible for the Appalachian Trail.

:: image via Wikipedia

The dual ideas of planning and ecology definitely opened a new thought for looking at wilderness and it's benefits in new ways. "The science of ecology came of age during Leopold's lifetime. In rapid succession a series of breakthroughts revealed the way in which land and the life that shared it constituted a complex organism functioning through the interaction of its components... Ecology enabled him to concieve of nature as an intricate web of interdependent parts, a myriad of cogs and wheels each essention to the health operation of the whole." (p.195)

Others joined Leopold on this fight in the 20th Century, including Robert Marshall, Sigurd Olson, Howard Zahniser and notably, earth-day founder David Brower - along with a number of official organizations that continued and expanded the fight for wilderness across the country. While the New Deal worked for progress, proponents such as Marshall looked at the inevitable issues facing a wilderness ethic. Quoted in 1935, Marshall concluded: "What makes wilderness areas most susceptible to annihilation, is that the arguments in favor of roads are direct and concrete, while those against them are subtle and difficult to express." (p.204)

The Echo Park Dam became the new fight in the mid-1900s - centered around part of the Colorado River Storage Project which would dam multiple wilderness areas, including the Dinosaur National Monument, a significant area of fossil concentrations. This again became the touchstone of the movement, with references to Leopold. MacKaye referred " Leopold's notion that wild country provided 'an exhibit of normal ecologic process.' Dinosaur National Monument and other wildernesses... constitute 'a reservoir of store experiences in the ways of life before man.'"

:: Dinosaur National Monument - image via National Parks Traveler

The Echo Park Dam was deafeated, which was a new rallying call after the defeat at Hetch Hetchy earlier in the century, and language was added to preclude National Park lands from water system projects for the Colorado River Storage Project. Those areas not so lucky were outside of the boundaries, and including the famous Glen Canyon Dam - which always makes me thing of Edward Abbey for obvious reasons. The next target was a big one as well - and much more known... dams within the Grand Canyon.

For the Grand Canyon the stakes were definitely high, and the national prominence of this feature made it easier to win the hearts of the public. The rhetoric changed somwhat, but continued to include the spiritual, the historical, and most important, the health and wellness of our society. Zanhiser, quoted in 1964 - summed up beautifully the position: "Out of the winderness has come the substance of our culture, and with a living wilderness... we shall also have a vibrant, vital culture, an enduring civilization of healthful, happy people who... perpetually renew themselves in contact with the earth." (p.233)

:: image via Wikipedia

These references back to Thoreau, Muir, and Olmsted were used often and continued to carry weight in the fight for wilderness, and was ultimately successful in removing dams from the Grand Canyon. Although thousands of acres of other wilderness were flooded in the search for water in the west, the victory was a big one for the Wilderness movement, and has influenced the environmental ethics of our modern society.

Another aspect of the book references some of the counterculture ideas of wilderness as we grappled with our desire to inhabit metropolitan areas, our love of the pastoral middle ground, and the desire to visit wild nature - all in conflict with one another. MacKaye folds this idea into the idea of our evolution, in three centuries, from "...the implantation in human nature, especially that of Americans, of a desire to be simultaneously "the pioneer, the husbandman, [and] the townsman." He further this into the field of environmental planning, showing that it "...must permit man to indulge the 'three sides of [his] inward nature.'" (p.243)

The idea of biophilia continued to be used as a reason for wilderness protection - with pyschologists lauding the stress-relieving qualities of interaction with nature. As our cities continued to expand, this tenet in which Olmsted based much of his work continued to be included as a vital aspect of our burgeoning urbanism. Another aspect that continually was used and gained additional rigor was the idea of ecology. "Wilderness played an important role in, and was a major beneficiary of, this new ecology-oriented conservvation. In the first place, the concept of wilderness was a pointed reminder of man's biological origins, his kinship with all life, and his continued membership in the biotic community." (p.253)

:: Forest Park (Portland, OR) - image via Travel Portland

The made it more difficult to rationalize our long-standing idea of the dominance of nature for many reasons - as we had become folded into the idea of wilderness - not removed from it with economics, religion, or politics. "From this perspective of dependency on the environment came a view of man 'as part of the system of nature, not demigods above or outside it.' This idea of a continuous web that includes man was, of course, the essence of the ecological perspective." (p.253)

The final section of the book, the Epilogue entitled 'The Irony of Victory' is another interesting historical evolution of wilderness. The sum of this chapter is that the success of wilderness protection and education has created such increased visitation to our National Parks and other areas that they have essentially been 'loved to death.' Gear, guided trips, and information made it possible for many to access these areas - seen by many as our rights due to their inclusion in the public trust. This parks-for-people vs. loving-to-death is something we still grapple with, and its interesting to see this in the context of the late 60s... roadless areas, hotels, viewsheds, and other issues that continue to threaten our parks - even airborne pollution and poor fire management - all degrade the idea of wilderness and public access.

Ecology again proved vital, in determining the 'carrying capacity' and the ability for wilderness to handle the impacts by visitors, and what was the threshold where ecosystems would collapse. Half of this was functional, as the impacts degraded wildlife and ecological function - but the social aspect was just as important - how many people can inhabit 'wild' lands before it ceases to be wilderness.

:: image via Picassa

So is it quotas, more area, better education, more services...? None of these is the silver bullet - but looking at the rich and varied history of the American experience of wilderness gives us something to apply to both urban and wild nature - and continually look to this history to see what mistakes we've made and avoid repeating it over and over. I'm curious to see how Nash has modernized the text, and hope to read the new material to see how it fits into our modern world - but as it's own piece of work - the 60s era version of 'Wilderness and the American Mind' is necessary reading for anyone claiming to have a green bone in their body.

Read Part I: Reading List: Wilderness and the American Mind

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