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A New Challenge for Wilderness: To Intervene or Not to Intervene?

What does “untrammeled” mean in the Anthropocene

In northern Idaho and Montana, whitebark pines are “keystone species” that play essential ecological roles in high-country forests. They are among the first plants to establish following a fire or landslide, creating shade that nurses other trees’ growth, and helping to reduce snowmelt, soil erosion, and avalanche risks. Grizzly and black bears gorge on their large seeds – the size of big popcorn kernels – and Clark’s nutcrackers and other birds and red squirrels cache the seeds for winter stockpiles.

Pinus albicaulisphoto by Matt Lavin, on FlickrHealthy whitebark pine trees.

The trees are also, however, in danger, and today are an official candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act. White-pine blister rust, a non-native fungus, infects more than two-thirds of whitebark and other pines in the region. The rust kills trees, curtails seed production, and leaves forests, potentially already weakened by climate change, more susceptible to fires and other insect outbreaks.

Amid this threat, it’s perhaps some relief that nearly half of whitebark pine stands are protected within national wilderness areas, where industrial activities are prohibited. The Wilderness Act first recognized and designated such areas 50 years ago this month, defining wilderness as large tracts of land of “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation” and “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” But wilderness boundaries have done little to slow blister rust. In fact, wilderness protections may even constrain efforts to control the rust’s spread.

Some whitebark pines have shown a genetic resistance to the rust, leading researchers to breed and plant trees that can withstand the blight. But that confronts researchers with an unusual dilemma, says Beth Hahn, of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute. In areas protected as “untrammeled” and where planting is typically prohibited, should managers make exceptions and directly manipulate landscapes – particularly if we’re indirectly causing harm through invasive organisms, fire suppression, and climate change?

Such decisions are part of the raging debate facing wilderness advocates in the Anthropocene epoch in which human impacts have intermingled with and overtaken natural processes. Taking action to protect whitebark pines seems like a no-brainer, but at what point does action – even in the name of restoration – diminish the qualities of wilderness itself?

“The science is the relatively …more

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The Wilderness Act Is Just Getting Started

It’s time to launch an ambitious project of rewilding North America

The problem with wilderness today is there’s not nearly enough of it.

One of the most prescient pieces of legislation ever passed, the federal Wilderness Act has saved 110 million of North America’s wildest – and thus loveliest – federal acres, and inspired comparable state protection systems that have saved millions more. But the Wilderness Act needs another half century to reach its full fruition. Given that we humans are just one species among tens of millions, most of the world ought to be wild – outside of human domination – while huge parts of it should be strictly protected from commercial exploitation and kept unmanaged, as the Wilderness Act does best. Conservationists, environmentalists, animal lovers, naturalists, outdoors-people – everyone who cares about the natural world should be working together to protect, restore, and reconnect wild lands and waters. We need to free semi-developed areas of roads and dams so that they qualify for wilderness protection. And we need to do this at local, regional, and continental scales, before the extinction crisis becomes an all-out biological meltdown. 

Hummingbird Springs WildernessBureau of Land Management, on FlickrHummingbird Springs Wilderness, Arizona.

In short, we need an ambitious, continent-wide project of rewilding that will provide other plants and animals with the space they need to thrive.

The case for rewilding begins with the humble acknowledgement that we humans have taken far too much. We are expropriating for our one species close to 40 percent of Earth’s primary productivity. Humans have fragmented and diminished most ecosystems on Earth. The results include escalating extinction rates, dooming tens of thousands of species to premature demise.

Parks, wildlife refuges, and designated wilderness areas have helped to stem the tide of extinction, and they remain important to help meet the needs of relatively sedentary species. But these protected areas are too often isolated – islands of wild nature in a sea of human development. Fragments of wild nature
generally will not long afford secure homes for sensitive and wide-ranging animals like bears, otters, wolves, big cats, migratory ungulates, raptors, songbirds, butterflies, trout, salmon, whales, and seals. As human-caused climate chaos worsens, many plant species, too, will be susceptible to habitat fragmentation, and some will go extinct if not given grounds and waters to move northward …more

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Why Wilderness?

Hint: It’s not all about us

As a species, we have been lousy members of the ecological neighborhood.  We’ve followed with a vengeance the Old Testament advice to make the crooked straight and the rough places plain.  That means conquest and control, breaking the will of self-willed – or wild – land. What’s left are remnants – islands in a sea of modified land. At present in the contiguous United States the amount of protected or designated Wilderness is very close to the amount of pavement – about two percent each. And you know which way the wind is blowing. Wilderness is an endangered geographical species, and our generation needs to appreciate its accountability.

...an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.Mike+Tiffy, on Flickr

Laws protecting wilderness (notably the Wilderness Act of 1964, which was signed by President Johnson 50 years ago today) were an American invention and one of the best ideas our culture ever had. The traditional argument for them was very anthropocentric.  Whether involving scenery, recreation, tourism economics or nature’s "services," it was all about us. But a new, eco-centric argument looks at protected wilderness as a long overdue demonstration of restraint on the part of a species notorious for its excesses. This way of thinking sees nature as a community to which we belong, not a commodity we possess.  It understands that natural rights philosophy could extend to the rights of nature. This means that humans should – in some places and in some ways – stand down.

When we defend or extend the National Wilderness Preservation System we deliberately withhold our technological power. We put limits on the civilizing process. Think about self-willed land:  we didn’t make it, we don’t own it, it’s not "about" us at all! When we go to designated Wilderness we are, as the 1964 Act says, "visitors" in someone else’s home. As such, there are house rules to be followed. Some of them concern what we bring into those places where the wild things are. Of course this restraint means some conditioning of our freedom, but that’s the price we pay for membership in …more

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A Watery Wilderness

The ocean is the biggest wilderness on the planet. But legal protections are scant.

Note: This article has been modified since its original posting. In addition to directly managing the 13 marine sanctuaries referenced in the article, NOAA co-manages four marine national monuments with the USFWS.   

 

The waters off the US coastline, the eighth largest in the world, have long been a vital source of sustenance, transport, recreation and inspiration for Americans. It’s hard to stand on the shore looking out in the distance and not experience a sense of wilderness. 

Yet the 1964 US Wilderness Act, which established the framework to protect the country’s wildest places, made no mention of these waters and resources, primarily because 50 years ago we knew little about the importance of our oceans, the complex web of life they support, and the need to protect them.  The general thinking was that due to its sheer size and seemingly inexhaustible resources, the ocean could overcome any environmental disruption. Since then, however, sophisticated technology and research have enabled scientists to better explore and understand the beauty, health, and value of our marine ecosystems.

Stormy Weatherphoto by Adventures of KM&G-Morris, on FlickrStorm over the Atlantic.

What we have learned is that the ocean, covering 70 percent of the planet, is critical to life on Earth. It regulates our climate and produces 97 percent of the planet’s fresh water through evaporation and condensation.  Ocean phytoplankton produce up to three-quarters of our oxygen, and absorb CO2 at up to twice the rate of land-based plants. Our seas provide protein for half the world’s population, and employment and recreation for millions of people.

Yet, there’s much we still don’t know.  As the hunt for Malaysia Airlines MH 370 – lost on March 8 – starkly revealed, the seascape is vast and deep. Scientists estimate that 95 percent of this realm is still unseen by human eyes.

Unfortunately, as with wilderness areas on land, unseen or “untrammeled” doesn’t necessarily mean unharmed. We now also know that human activities have pushed marine ecosystems to critically dangerous limits.

Three-quarters of the world's fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce; 90 percent of all large predatory fish – including tuna, sharks, swordfish, cod and halibut – are gone. Invasive species, such as the lionfish off the nation’s East Coast, are devastating native species and altering ecosystem …more

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In Seattle, an Ongoing Effort to Save the Region’s Green Spaces

The Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust aims to find a happy balance between development and wildlands protection

Whenever I go back to Seattle after a long time away, I’m struck by how green it is. The streets are lined with trees; there are parks everywhere; and I can see snow-covered peaks to the west, the east, and the south.

Those green spaces – the urban, suburban, and nearby wilds – are important both for people and for wildlife, says Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a Seattle-based author, naturalist, and eco-philosopher. “A tree outside a hospital window – just one tree can speed healing from surgery. One tree outside of a Chicago housing project can increase the attention span and the study habits for a student that lives in that project,” she explains. “Time in nature, even if it’s a small urban green space, makes us smarter, more creative, happier, and healthier.” At the same time, she adds, “creating even a small green space will invite more species diversity into a city.”

Mailbox PeakPhoto by Monty VanderBiltMailbox Peak trail, east of Seattle. The Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust's model of protecting key tracts of land and wildlife corridors and of working with developers could be replicated in many urban areas throughout the United States.

Greater Seattle’s green spaces were hard-won, says Doug Schindler, the deputy director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. In 1991, as the Seattle area’s population started to grow rapidly and exert pressure on remaining undeveloped land, a group of conservationists, business leaders, and nonprofits came together to protect key green spaces and wild areas in three Western Washington watersheds. They started to negotiate and bargain in order to preserve a greenway that stretches from the Cascade Mountains in the east to the Puget Sound in the west. The aim of the project, according to the trust’s mission statement, was to find a “long-term balance between people and nature.” This model of protecting key tracts of land and wildlife corridors and of working with developers to find ways to incorporate green space in new developments could be replicated in many urban areas throughout the United States, thus ensuring access to nature for generations to come, Schindler says.

If anything, the threats to greater Seattle’s remaining green spaces have been growing over the years. Seattle is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States, according to the 2013 census. That said, the …more

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In Conversation: Darren Aronofsky

Hollywood director wrestles with Alberta’s “out of whack” tar sands on a trip with the Sierra Club and Leonardo DiCaprio

Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky just returned from an excursion to see up close and personal the Alberta tar sands, and judging by his response to how oil companies are impacting the environment, this unregulated part of Canada sounds more like the Wild West than the Great White North. Aronofsky – who directed and co-wrote the $135 million, 138-minute Paramount Pictures adaptation of the Biblical tale of Noah – made the expedition way up yonder with a Hollywood superstar and prominent conservationist.

In this candid conversation conducted by phone shortly after his return to New York City, Aronofsky presents a compelling eye witness account of how the Alberta tar sands extraction impacts the environment and the health of First Nations communities in the region. In his thick Brooklyn accent Aronofsky – who helmed 1998’s Pi, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 2008’s The Wrestler, and who earned an Oscar nomination for directing 2010’s Black Swan (for which Natalie Portman scored the Best Actress Academy Award) – also discusses celebrity activism, how he expresses eco-consciousness in his art, kindergarten, caribou, the Keystone Pipeline and more.

Tell me about your trip to Alberta.

The whole idea of the trip started maybe two, three years ago when I was researching Noah. While looking at the story of Noah we realized that in Scripture there was this big environmental message about how man had destroyed the world, and that part of the reason for the destruction of the world was because of not taking care of creation. So when we started researching, we started looking at the modern day and looking for places that were the worst polluted places on the planet. My partner is actually from British Columbia and she started telling me about the tar sands and they became a big influence on the visual look of the prediluvian world.

photo of men standing and talking by the shores of a lakephoto by Nico TaverniseDirector Darren Aronofsky (right) talking with Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune watch.

At the same time I’d just met Michael Brune [executive director] at the Sierra Club. I was talking to Michael about possibly shooting out there. We talked about taking a trip up there. It didn’t happen during the making of [Noah]. But we …more

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US Forest Service Moves to Start Clearcutting in Rim Fire Area

Massive logging proposal threatens many spotted owls, currently thriving in the fire-affected acres of Stanislaus National Forest

The US Forest Service issued a draft decision yesterday for a massive post-fire logging project in the Stanislaus National Forest portion of the 2013 California Rim Fire, which covered 257,171 acres on the national forest and Yosemite National Park. A final, signed decision on the proposal is expected this afternoon. 

regenerating underbush in California Rim Fire areaPhoto by Chad HansonA carpet of lupines covered this large high-intensity fire patch in the Rim Fire area this spring, showing that forest is regenerating naturally.

The draft decision proposes over 37,000 acres of intensive post-fire logging, which would remove the majority of the rarest and most ecologically valuable habitat resulting from the fire on the Stanislaus National Forest: “snag forest habitat” created by high-intensity fire in mature conifer forest. (Forty one percent of the Rim Fire area was comprised of non-conifer vegetation, such as grassland and foothill chaparral, and most of the forest area burned at low/moderate-intensity, wherein only a portion of the trees were killed). 

This would include essentially clear-cutting 95 percent of the snags (standing fire-killed trees) in

19,462 acres of the fire area. An additional 17,706 acres of “roadside” logging is planned along roads, including old logging roads, which are not maintained for public use (and many of which are closed roads, long since decommissioned). Much of this would be clearcut too, including live, healthy, mature, and old-growth trees, which would be removed by the thousands, for no credible public safety benefit, based upon profoundly vague criteria that allow just about any tree to be cut.

Because the Forest Service has closed most of the Rim Fire area to public access, and because the agency is not marking trees before they cut them along roads, there is no accountability. 

The Forest Service would keep 100 percent of the revenue from selling the timber from our federal public lands to private logging companies. Most of these funds would be used to pay Forest Service staff to implement future post-fire logging projects, under the “Salvage Sale Fund.”  

As I have reported previously in Earth Island Journal (see here and here), the Forest Service has repeatedly claimed over the past year that the Rim Fire damaged and destroyed the forest, using this as a justification to propose one of the largest commercial logging projects in the history of the national forest …more

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