Painting ourselves into the landscape


As I set out on my hike, I knew that by the end of it I would be breaking the law. Three easy miles and two steep ones brought me to the edge of Headwaters Forest, a 3,000-acre tract of ancient redwoods that was the cause célèbre of the California forest protection movement in the 1990s.

As my hiking companion and I gazed into the depths of the forest, we found ourselves face to face with a sign barring our entrance to the grove. Instead of a timber company, it was the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that warned us to keep out.

It struck me as odd that after the state and federal treasuries had ponied up $380 million to buy an extraordinary piece of land, it remained closed to visitors. Not off-limits merely to dirt bikers and ATV-drivers, not closed just to horseback riders or dog-walkers, but closed to any human visitors whatsoever.

Many environmental activists rejoiced at this state of affairs—some even pressed the agencies for it—believing that it’s time to have a preserve that is not managed for recreation and sightseeing. And certainly the justification for ransoming Headwaters Forest from the corporate raiders who owned it rested on its value as wild habitat, not on its attractive qualities as a destination for eco-tourists.

But honoring the needs of the land and its wildlife needn’t mean excluding people altogether. The more I thought about the closure of Headwaters Forest, the more I decided that it epitomizes a wrong-headed approach to the role of people in nature and strengthens the already potent divide between the two. It poses a false dichotomy—humans running roughshod over the land vs. animals enjoying the protection of a people-free preserve—and alleges that the state of nature is its unpeopled condition.

The stakes in this knot of misconceptions are higher than simply whether forest-lovers can amble through the old-growth without looking over their shoulders for park rangers in hot pursuit. The impacts, rather, are measured in the weakening of our affection for nature—in the rise of the misconception that by being human, we are irretrievably harmful to the rest of the biosphere around us. It’s a misperception that extends far beyond Headwaters Forest to other preserves, and indeed to the mindset that motivates much work in the conservation movement today.

As usual, the debate over closing the unlogged parts of Headwaters Forest to visitors did not turn overtly on these issues. Instead, it was couched in terms of the best science, in accordance with the official decorum of all environmental decision-making. By convention, these discussions must be phrased in terms of science, regardless of the emotional pull of the conclusions that either side may seek.

The Headwaters Forest conversation revolved around a rare seabird, the marbled murrelet, which lays its eggs in depressions in the moss atop old-growth tree branches and is thus dependent on coastal ancient forests to reproduce. The murrelet had already played a major role in the protection of Headwaters Forest—its threatened status under the Endangered Species Act had halted logging in much of its nesting habitat. But the young of this gentle bird are vulnerable to ravens, crows, and jays. Let people in, the theory goes, and they will leave food scraps that will attract those predatory corvids. What’s more, they’ll make noise, bring dogs, and otherwise wreak havoc in the Edenic calm of the ancient forest. Comments by the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters (BACH) on the BLM’s plans for the preserve even refer to visits as “incursions,” as though the hikers were an alien species. “We recommend minimizing trail extent, use, and access in every way possible,” wrote the coalition’s Karen Pickett.

It’s unlikely that hundreds of people a day would make the five-mile trek to see the forest, when more spectacular ancient redwood forests are available a few miles away, within spitting distance of convenient pull-through RV parking.

Even if hordes of potentially boorish visitors did appear, banishing all people from the old-growth forest is not the only way to handle that eventuality. Overuse by visitors is an issue in many preserves, and a variety of relatively fair approaches is possible—everything from a reservation system to a daily lottery for a limited number of slots. Most importantly, the approach needs to be tailored to local ecological constraints. For instance, in the US’s desert southwest, mosses, lichens, and soil micro-organisms form a fragile crust, known as cryptogamic soil, which retains water and inhibits erosion in that arid environment. In that case, the goal needs to be keeping people on established trails and on slickrock so they don’t destroy the crust by stepping on it. Elsewhere, the concerns turn on the amount of feces that human visitors will leave behind—which has led, in the case of the Grand Canyon and other heavily used areas, to a requirement that visitors pack their human waste out with them.

On the ocean side of Vancouver Island, the West Coast Trail is one of the best-known hikes in British Columbia, Canada. Park rangers now cap the number of hikers who can start from either end of this 47-mile route at 26 per day. All backpackers must attend a mandatory hour-long orientation before being allowed onto the trail.

In the Gwaii Haanas preserve on Haida Gwai’i (Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia, Canada), the restrictions are even tighter. At five ancient village sites, no more than 12 visitors are allowed at a time, both to protect the quality of the experience and to reduce impact to the sites. Visitors must radio ahead to find out whether there is room for their party before they come ashore. Again, this etiquette is communicated to visitors through a mandatory orientation, and enforced by indigenous rangers who patrol each of the sites.

Similar strategies could be used in Headwaters Forest to keep visitors from harming the murrelet. Closing the forest during nesting season, arranging for volunteer docents to lead hikes, and limiting the number of hikers in the old-growth would all make a difference. The agency could even bar hikers from bringing food with them into the ancient forest, in effect requiring them to fast while they were in the grove—an approach that might turn a forest hike into a pilgrimage of sorts.

Regardless of the merits of these suggestions, they wouldn’t address a deeper concern that motivates the “people-not-welcome” policy. “One of the ideas I had in helping to save Headwaters was that it would be untouched,” says Josh Brown, a former Earth First! organizer who guided me into the forest. This priority has carried the day with the BLM as well. “This is more of a reserve than a recreation area,” says the BLM’s Area Manager Lynda Roush. BACH’s Karen Pickett goes even further. “If I had my druthers, the place would be entirely off-limits to human beings,” she says. “The footprint of a well-intentioned person sinks just as deeply as anyone else’s.”

It’s sad to think that the very presence of people, no matter how few, how restrained, or how respectful, can be seen as inherently problematic. More than six billion of us Homo sapiens are running around the planet these days, and it will become increasingly difficult to fence us off from wild nature entirely. Posing a choice between the presence of humans and the survival of wild nature leads to a dilemma that can be resolved only by self-immolation or the destruction of the wild. Instead, lasting hope lies in reforming us so that we can resume our place in nature without breaking it—a process that will have to include immersing us in nature.

The idea that exposure to the forest changes those who venture into it is actually borne out by the experience of those who helped to save Headwaters Forest from the chainsaw.

Sacred and illegal

On another hike to Headwaters last year, I was joined by Francine Allen, who had hiked into the groves several times while they were still in timber company hands, helping Earth First! to reconnoiter the area.

Back then, she had to hike four miles up a steep gravel road by night and duck into the deep woods at the first opportunity. This time, we rode in a government van to a BLM-guided hike, and sauntered along in broad daylight.

“It’s weird to walk along talking so loud,” Allen observed. “We used to talk like this,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. “We revered the forest. Now it’s too easy, too simple to get here.”

The difficulty of sneaking into Headwaters Forest while it was still privately owned made people behave as though the forest were sacred. Special practices had to be observed before entering the forest to ensure the hikers’ safety. They could only travel at night. They had to scout the road ahead to make sure the timber company’s security guards weren’t awaiting them.

It was a place of awe. Two ingredients in that humility were the hikers’ careful preparation for the journey and the knowledge that there was something in the forest bigger than they were—hired guards. In effect, they weren’t at the top of the food chain, they were merely one species among many.

That attitude will have to become much more widespread for humans to reconstitute a way of life that provides for the survival of humanity alongside the other species that share this planet. Fortunately, there’s precedent. That’s the way it was in much of North America for thousands of years.

In their well-researched anthology, Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians, Thomas C. Blackburn and Kat Anderson document the ecological role played by indigenous people in everything from maintaining oak groves to setting regular fires that kept coastal prairies open. In effect, these areas were acorn orchards and pastures for deer and elk. Nor was California the only place in North America where native people played such an important role—the same has been demonstrated from the Sonoran Desert to the Great Plains.

The European migrants who came to North America were blind to the natives’ effect on the landscape, seeing it as wilderness. Ironically, the environmental movement perpetuates a similar error. It ignores the possibility that people can have a salutary effect on the land—just as the conquistadors and pioneers could ascribe the continent’s bounty only to the hand of God, not to the so-called savages whom they met there.

This blind spot isn’t unique to environmental activists. Modern urbanites drive through fields and forests that they call “open space.” To name it “open space” is to see it for what it isn’t, just as the pioneers saw land that wasn’t plowed or logged as an empty canvas for their agrarian dreams. Instead, most land has a purpose in the minds of those who are now entrusted with it, whether as watershed lands, cropland, parks, pasture, or woodlots. The appellation “open space” makes those uses invisible—even though some of them represent a mutually beneficial relationship between the land and its human inhabitants.

At various parks across the US, the National Park Service is hard at work trying to obliterate traces of those very uses. At Point Reyes National Seashore near San Francisco, the Park Service has demolished ranch buildings and prevented the preservation of other historic structures. In Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands National Park, the agency has obliterated evidence of fishing and farming, according to an essay by environmental historian William Cronon in the magazine Orion. “Park visitors deceived by this carefully contrived illusion not only fail to see the human history of the places they visit,” Cronon writes. “They also fail to see the many features of present ecosystems that are inexplicable without reference to past human influence.”

Wiping away signs of prior human occupation of now-preserved land contributes to the fiction of a pre-human Eden. But people have been shaping this landscape since we first came over the Bering land bridge more than ten millennia ago—sometimes more, sometimes less harmoniously with the land. Now it falls to us to cross a different bridge, a conceptual bridge that will lead us back into nature as members of the community of species.

The importance of this crossing is sometimes easier to see when we contrast our own cultures with those of our neighbors. About 40 miles south of Headwaters Forest, I used to teach at an independent high school, one highlight of whose curriculum was regular cultural exchange with Mexico. One year, we were visiting the town of Túxpan, Jalisco, where our students were hosted by a youth group before dispersing to three-week homestays in nearby villages. Our student-artists joined forces with theirs to paint a banner, showing our two home-places joined by clasped hands.

On one side, the Túxpanites painted the two volcanoes that tower over Túxpan, known as the Volcano of Fire (smoking) and the Volcano of Snow (dormant). In the foreground were stalks of corn, a Catholic shrine, a man and woman in traditional dress, and a rabbit, recalling the Náhuatl meaning of the word Túxpan: “place of the rabbits.”

On the opposite side of the canvas, our kids depicted the Mattole River and the hill that stands between our school and the Pacific, framed by the trunk and branches of a Douglas fir, a wild iris at its feet, and a salmon leaping from the water. A beautiful, well-crafted scene, but it included not a single human being.

Once we start painting ourselves into the landscape, we will be back on track to a worthy relationship with the land that ultimately is the fount of our survival.

—Freelance writer Seth Zuckerman divides his time between Puget Sound and California’s North Coast.

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