Thursday, September 18, 2008

Deconstructing The Great Outdoors

If you are a lover of the outdoors, you have no doubt skimmed through advertisements in the back pages of your favorite magazines for lodges, camps, even second homes by pristine lakes, rivers, and mountains. You have passed the luring real estate billboards in the Maine woods, northern Minnesota or in the foothills of the western ranges. If you’re anything like me, you have probably hurled the word "pristine" around a few times yourself. Maybe talking of the lonely forest on the hill behind your home or the rocky, windswept shores by your father’s place on the lake. While it seems harmless, the term "pristine" is becoming elegiac in our rapidly dissolving world. Don’t be fooled by the SUV ads. Roads do not lead to pristine. Despite the grand images on RV’s, they haven’t been there either. Pristine is history. We have effectively turned the word into a relative term. And we are collectively at fault. Both the ATV enthusiast and the birder who just cleared a plot for his cabin in the woods. Until we separate from our debilitating pioneer instincts and begin seeing the American landscape through the lense of ecological time, we will continue to degrade habitats despite our efforts to conserve and restore them.

Ecological relationships have been studied for such a minute fraction of our time on earth, we are only beginning to understand the changes we have wrought. Researchers have coined the term, "Columbian Exchange," derived from Columbus’ discovery, to mark the beginning of major European introductions to North America. Historical analysis has overturned the story of prodigious icons of American nature, including the bumblebee and earthworm, now known to have come ashore on those early voyages. With the bees and the worms, Europeans also brought blight and disease. Upon their arrival on the eastern seaboard, one out every four trees is said to have been an American Chestnut. It is hard to comprehend the American Robin without an earthworm in its beak, or a field of wild flowers without the hum of bumblebees. But natural history oftens around the edges with each passing generation. What is out of date is out of mind.

Referring to any landscape in present day America as pristine is to be simply misinformed. That is not to say there are no places of spectacular beauty. America is endowed with plenty of natural wonders, from the yawning chasm of the Grand Canyon to the unpeopled bog in your own neighborhood. Yet the insidious truth is, we have in many cases so fundamentally changed the landscape around us, that present manifestations of the natural world are due, in large part, to mans influence. For so long have we altered our ecosystems, we are close to losing the example of a pristine landscape anywhere on the continent. Without pause, our nation, and planet for that matter, has embarked on an experiment involving ourselves and the land we inhabit. It is an experiment, however, in which it is difficult to still find a control, an original model by which to gauge the lands health, and ultimately use for future decisions of management and restoration. How can we know what is the correct action to take in any given ecosystem when we have lost the pristine model by which we draw comparisons?

Take the Everglades for example. Almost any visitor could find joy in seeing a flock of ibis flying low over the saw-grass, the sun setting red behind them. Images of that nature are what keep the calender business alive. Unfortunately the Everglades today can be likened to a human body kept alive through life support. Lake Okechobee served for millennia as the heart of the region, during the rainy season pumping a sheet of water across the marshes. The ebb and flow rhythm once sustained the ecosystem now under such distress today. To the average eye it may seem untouched. But in reality the Everglades are a fragile specter of their former days. Dredged, leveed, and plumbed to near collapse by the Army Corps of Engineers, the Everglades seasonal cycle has been thrown off balance. Wading bird populations are so low, that hearing estimations of their historical abundance invites disbelief. It has since taken convincing research, hard work and several billion dollars to bring about a plan for the Everglades restoration. A recent buyout of 300,000 acres of sugar cane plantations on the south end of the lake is certainly cause for hope. But to undo the damage done by a century of mismanagement will likely prove difficult. Unfortunately, the short sightedness responsible for such a mess is not only confined to the historically persecuted marshes of America.

In the desolate sage brush steppes of the Great Basin one can drive mile upon mile of seemingly endless wild country. There are three-structure towns, scattered cattle, and lonely high-way junctions. Nature, it would seem, is having its way. When settlers first arrived in the Oregon desert they found arid grasslands of well adapted plants and animals. They let their cattle go. Today much of those grasslands have been trampled by livestock, the water diverted for them and sizeable tracts replanted with "better" grasses for the livestock to eat. Such activity over the scope of roughly a hundred years has pushed much of the landscape past the ecological tipping point. What was once grassland has turned, throughout untold acres of land, into a more homogenous sage-brush community. Such shifts went un-noticed for most of the century before ecologists realized the complexities of the range ecosystem. Land managers, responsible for the health of public rangeland, recognize the debilitating affects of livestock grazing on grasslands, terming the transition from perennial grassland to other plant communities, "retrogression." The "state and transition" model put forth by Westoby, Laycock and Friedel in the Journal of Range Management, proposes that range ecosystems can reach multiple thresholds, turning over into a series of stable plant communities. A stable plant community suggests one that has not and is not changing. The cliche stands–things are not always as they seem.

The American people should not be entirely discouraged by this. Rather awakened. It is detrimental to everyone if we are to look with contempt on the images of our world. Coming to grips with the scope of the damage does not erase the beauty of living systems and certainly not the opportunity for change. Staring over the spare sage flats of the Great Basin, it is difficult to think anything has ever changed. It still looks wild. Indeed it is wild. But essentially the land has been pressured into a shape we now consider normal.

This idea of normality in the American landscape continues to steer us toward a turbulent future. Here "normality" is defined as the assumption that the environment exists in a static state, where change is perceived in relation to the chronology of our lives. By this definition it is no wonder east Oregon appears pristine. There are perhaps only handful to remember it any different. If allowed to be misconstrued long enough, histories can lean toward extinction as well. Had the loss of original grasslands been a serious economic hit, perhaps they would be better remembered. Life goes on. Grazing cattle is the new history.

We have a tendency to keep measurements of environmental fluctuations on the short leash of our calender. Using the human life span as unit of time measurement is absurd when dealing with natural processes. This direction of thought is ignorant of geologic time, therefore ignorant of the state of the pre-human world. I once assumed that before the house I grew up in was built, there was a forest on the hill. Turns out the construction company built the hill too. I understand humans relating to their natural world is the foundation by which we have recorded the history of the human condition. If I had the audacity to scorn that, these words would not exist. But from an ecological standpoint, our lack of insight into the physical relationship between humans and the history of our environment is proving tragic.

America’s southwestern population boom is one such mistake continuing to unfold. It should go with out saying that a place like Arizona’s Sonoran desert would have little water. But common knowledge, especially pertaining to our environment’s carrying capacity, has gone unheeded. We deal with our need to inhabit more land by dividing science into parts. Technological science for progress can out perform the restrictions of natural science. Or so we have been led to believe. We have chosen to ignore the fact that there is a finite amount of water, soil and energy, and that simple harness and manipulation of resources gives us only the illusion of having more. And so humans continue to file into the southwest without regard to troubling trends. New studies, focused on core samples taken from ancient (2000-3000 yr. old) bristlecone pines in the upper Colorado basin, have shed light on a grim reality. Looking back, the West has not always been the land we have constructed our cities upon. It has fluctuated from periods of dry weather lasting a few hundred years, to times of a wetter climate, such as the one now seemingly ending. The Colorado river no longer mixes with the sea. How far north will it whither? In an article for National Geographic, Robert Kunzig says "the West was built by dreamers, as the climate that underpinned that expansive vision vanishes, the vision needed to replace it has not yet emerged."

As a society we have demonstrated trouble absorbing the staggering number of environmental pressures we face (see global warming). Overwhelmed and unable to absorb the scale of the issues, we continue to attack problems separately with mixed success, as if each stems from an entirely different set of causes. And yet there arise new problems, confounded by attempts at solutions, which further our frustrations. A few realizations were conducive to action. When America had the wits scared out of it by Carson’s Silent Spring, we reacted with a ban on DDT. The fire on the Cuyahoga river in Ohio helped awaken people to the industrial pollution being spewed into our waterways. Over the years we have been able to gain a handle on such"point source" problems. These first mainstream dilemmas were relatively easy to single out and address. Proving arduous still, is addressing the underlying modes of thought which keep us at odds with our ecosystems. While short sightedness is partly to blame for our ill planned settling of the desert, possibly the most important concept still plaguing us is one regarding limits. Discovered in the early cases of Silent Spring and the Cuyahoga, were concrete thresholds leading to clear cases of cause and effect. Somewhere a line had been crossed. Falcons and eagles were dying. Rivers were burning. Environmentalism grew out of the realization of planetary limits. Why we have continued on a path oblivious to them has much to do with economics, politics and population growth. However, blaming the engines of "progress" furthers ourselves from our individual duty to incite change. What may be stalling America’s capacity for a reformed land ethic is more ingrained, innocent and difficult to divorce. I’m talking about the American fancy for the pioneer.

Pioneer history, coupled with our unwillingness to think long term, has set the stage for the debasement of the American landscape. As a nation we cannot seem to let go of the romanticism of the "great outdoors." I certainly hope we don’t. For within this obsession is the hope of salvation. Each year billions of dollars are spent on hiking, hunting, fishing, and camping. Millions of miles are logged on to RV odometers and ATV sales are continuously astronomical. Paradoxical, though, is this love of the American outdoors. On one hand, the potential exists for we Americans, who harbor at least some form of appreciation for nature, to acknowledge the limits of the land and begin the process of rehabilitation. On the other hand, we are simply loving the outdoors too much. Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone, Paul Bunyan, coonskin hats, bearskin rugs, Rocky Mountains, The North Woods. It’s all familiar nomenclature for the popular history and image of the American wild. And it is increasingly detrimental. While commercial enterprises have capitalized on our obsession with the frontier days, we have failed to realize that our country isn’t so big anymore. Somewhere out there, we all want to believe, is a hidden valley, lost lake or secret mountain. Anyone who enjoys the outdoors is guilty of such romanticism. It’s at the heart of the allure.

Whether unfortunate or not, the days of hunting for our food, chopping wood and knitting sweaters out of necessity are largely over. Instead technologies have homogenized our yearly routines. We simply spend more on oil to heat the home through the winter, our roads are plowed, our offices air conditioned in the warm months. Life has become easy and boring, a trudge from one managed environment to the next. It’s no wonder that more and more Americans with disposable income and a wistful imagination play pioneer or cowboy, or both. That old conqueror of the wild is still playing with fire inside us. Harsh winters offer a challenge, reminiscent of those early days. Perhaps one reason why we gravitate to the colder climes and mountains to construct our playgrounds. All over the country lakes and ponds are dotted with cabins and homes where people go to get back or get away. It has become a distinct American dream. But pioneers must be turning in their graves. In the inter-mountain West traditional ranches are being divvied up by developers and sold as twenty acre (I cringe at the word) "ranchettes." If this continues at its current pace, environmental stressors will increase beyond merely eliminating suitable habitat for wildlife. With our attention focused on meeting the dream of frontier history we continue to build in unsuitable regions. The cyclical burning of chaparral in southern California and the dry forests of the West are prime examples. If there is any pristine out there now, the future is looking grim. Still the average American is entirely in the dark about what is at stake and what has already been irretrievably lost.

In 2004 I spent some time exploring South Carolina. I was a Yankee fresh out of school with only preconceived notions of the South. Haphazardly, I discovered the lesser known Congaree Swamp National Monument. The preserve contains 15,000 acres of old-growth flood plain forest bordering the slither of the Congaree river. I knew immediately, that it was a mythic place, an icon of the old south; and an ecosystem confined to its fading place in history. Not only is it the largest remnant forest of its kind, but it is one of the most biologically diverse forests on the continent, with over 20 distinct plant communities. In the first stretch of trail there are twisting sloughs of water tupelo, some anchored by stilt like roots. Impressive bald cypresses surround themselves with knobby knees protruding from the black water. Glades of sedge and subtropical palms catch the sun from openings in the canopy. It is the epitome of primeval. Before major logging in the 20th century these forests filled the river valleys of South Carolina’s coastal plain. Now those forests are long gone, the tupelo sloughs have been cut and planted with crops. Driving around the countryside, you can see farmland and fence-rows, pass endless acres of neat pine plantations, or smouldering piles on red clay from the forests which preceded them. If I had not been seeking trails to explore, I would have never known the forest to exist. I would have found other places to excite my interests, only further disassembling its history. My stereotype of South Carolina contained an old plantation home, obscured by a tree laden with Spanish moss. I was normality at work. What was once flood-plain forest became a farm and soon a subdivision. The forest is an oddity. The farmland is normal. The subdivision–inevitable.

Today the pastoral landscapes that cover much of America are gaining new attention as they too succumb to change. Farmland is part of our culture, it speaks of our history. We delight in its tranquility and romanticize the hardship it signifies. We grow sentimental as it is converted to shopping centers and subdivisions. It is nightmare for the pioneer dream. So we are saving them. While the losses mount, towns across the country are adopting stricter open space regulations. Land trusts are sprouting to conserve the pastoral character of states and regions. Is it wishful thinking to hope that farms can be purchased/saved from development and restored to some semblance of their original habitat? Preserving anything at all is a welcome step in the right direction. It is catching on, that as we develop, we are losing the character which drew us into our most beloved landscapes in the first place.

I could go on. But the well chartered territory of environmental doom and gloom serves mostly to aggravate our anxieties. Bottom line–we are not clueless. We know the water in the desert is running out. There have already been talks of tapping the Great Lakes. Scientist’s know the rangelands are unhealthy, that national forests are dense with young, fire prone trees. We know we need to quit building on flood plains and relying on levees, cutting down original forests and constructing new roads. Tied up with the loss of our pastoral history, and wild lands is the increasing loss of biodiversity.. For the first time in the history of our planet, evolution, the governing force by which all life is shaped, is heading for suspension. I cannot say what it means to disrupt such an elemental force, but there is a growing number of people out there realizing, once again, we have overstepped our bounds.

The popular image of the American landscape must be updated if we are to sustain the biodiversity of North America. An addict cannot come to grips with an addiction until it is recognized as a problem. Americans need to recognize that the land outside our car windows is not healthy because it is green and flowering, because cardinals visit our bird-feeders or because a coyote ran across the highway. Even by the paltry measurement of my life-span we will likely suffer recognizable losses. The red cockaded woodpecker of Southeastern pine forests, California’s San Joaquin kit fox and the ocelots of south Texas could be lost in a mere blink in time. Ecosystem’s can only sustain so much pressure and we are standing at the brink of their disintegration.

Responsible land planning, focused on minimizing fragmentation of habitat is essential as growth continues. Yet careful consideration must be given to the reasons for our decisions. Some developing rural counties have enacted "ridge line protections," prohibiting growth atop ridges frequently falling victim to tree removal and housing construction. While I applaud the measure it only offers us another illusion of continuity, another postcard image of empty promise. What is a lake without fish or a forest without a few old trees? I think of Aldo Leopold and the mountain, Escudilla, stripped of its last bear. How it "hangs on the horizon, but when you see it you no longer think of bear. It is only mountain now."

Will America’s purple mountains maintain their majesty if we squander their riches? If we abuse the land which gave us our identity, should our nationalism still be bound to its splendor? Would you still love your beautiful home if inside the carpet was moldy, the plumbing backed up and the furniture gone? We all know the answer should be no. Whether we can realize the dead end course we’ve set for ourselves, adjust our priorities, and stave off this new age of extinction remains to be seen. The true measure of humanity will be our ability to practice self restraint.
There is, of course, hope. A number of actions by organizations and individuals are helping to take the blindfold off the American people. An important step forward is the willingness of conservation groups to reshape their direction of thought and action. With a surge in new federal Wilderness areas, we’re seeing conservationists working with multiple stakeholders in lands across the country. Grassroots campaigns are giving communities a solid voice. Old dividing lines are crumbling as environmentalists and traditional land users find common ground on social and economic issues. The Oregon Desert Conservation Act, was born of these new efforts. It was constructed with plans to provide meaningful economic assistance to all ranchers who agree to pull their livestock off public lands. As various groups become non-traditional allies, it is up to the American people to see the opportunity for change.

I do believe we can muster the ambition to see our world for what it was and can be. But as we tuck in for bed each night, wait at a stoplight, or pump our gas, everyday realities threaten to nip at the hope. On the bold and dangerous frontier of managed landscapes, will we be able to save the land’s original history? Will the vision resonate with the people traveling to and from the supermarket in Akron, Ocala, Challis or Sun City? Will the new pioneers pay homage, or merely throw another log on the fire and reminisce about the days of old?