Thursday, January 24, 2013

where the wild things are

Why does it matter that we preserve wilderness in the United States?

Some people argue that we need to preserve wilderness for its own sake; others that wild places heal and replenish the human soul, and are necessary to our very being. There is a current wave of “neo-environmentalists” who argue wild places have economic and social value and should be preserved for those reasons. The point can also be made that wild plants and animals may hold medical secrets that could benefit humans, and there are countless other reasons stretching across time and literature and academia. But none have held up against our ongoing march toward progress.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Ralph Beistline from Alaska ruled against afederal Fish and Wildlife proposal to protect a 187,000 square mile chunk of the Arctic – an area larger than California – from oil and gas exploration to preserve rapidly shrinking polar bear habitat. Judge Beistline's ruling was applauded by nearly every public figure in Alaska: Governor Sean Parnell called the ruling a victory against “the latest in a long string of examples of the federal government encroaching on our state's rights.”

I have never been inside the Arctic Circle, and I have never seen a wild polar bear. I do not have personal experience of the financial and physical struggles of families living on Alaska's North Slope. But I like to think that I have a degree of empathy, and I've worked closely with Alaskan teenagers who have come from such families. I've spent many weeks in the wilderness with them and many hours paddling canoes and talking with them and I think that in the process I've gotten a glimpse into life in villages of the far north. It doesn't sound easy. But a line has to be drawn somewhere.

Though I haven't met with a polar bear in the wild, I have watched one at the Chicago Zoo – a massive creature with a range of hundreds of miles in the wild, forced to swim in circles in an artificially blue pool in 90 degree heat in the middle of Chicago. I've also encountered a good number of wild Alaskan brown bears, and their smaller black cousins. I've paddled a canoe next to a swimming brown bear, watched them snatch salmon from a river and spied on them through binoculars as they lumber over brown tundra. And I have seen enough other large animals – sharks, manta rays, whales, wolves, moose and buffalo in the wild – to know the contradictions that exist in such creatures: violence and grace side by side, power on one side of the coin and fragility on the other.

In response to Judge Beistline's ruling, Gov. Parnell issued a statement that he is “pleased the State of Alaska was able to fight off this concerted effort to kill jobs and economic development.” Meanwhile, environmentalists elsewhere in the U.S. have raised their collective megaphones to express outrage over the decision, protesting on behalf of the bears. All well and good, but their voices aren't heard in the one place where it matters most: Alaska, which, as a state, sued the federal government for trying to intervene in local affairs. Alaskans know that a bunch of liberals in Washington D.C. don't know shit about what goes down in northern Alaska. It's a different country up there, a different culture. And when students are dropping out of school to hunt walrus to support their family, it's hard to turn down development that brings jobs and hope to a region still struggling to define itself in the modern world.

In New Zealand, where I am spending six months, there are no large native mammals. The only native land species of any substance were the moa – large emu-like birds that were hunted to extinction by the Maori – and the Haast eagle, which died along with their main food source, the moa. True there are dolphins and whales in New Zealand's waters, but it is utterly strange to tramp through thick forest, beneath towering peaks and glistening glaciers, in deep valleys that seem as wild and remote as you can get – and not have the slightest fear of running into something that can kill you. Edward Abbey said that it ain't wilderness unless there's something big out there that can kill you, but perhaps he had never been to New Zealand. It's plenty wild down here on the South Island, but you can cook dinner right in your tent without fear of a bear attack and walk barefoot up the trails without worrying about a snakebite.

In a way, it's freeing: a hiker's paradise, free of danger as long as you bring the right clothing and don't get lost. It offers a relaxed sort of wilderness experience, and that's a nice change after spending months camping in bear country. But imagine a world where all the wild places were like that? It would get boring pretty fast. Part of the allure of spending time in the wilderness is not knowing what you'll see, what you might run into around the next bend. There's a sense of trepidation and excitement. There's the knowledge that you're not the biggest, baddest thing out there.

So why preserve wilderness? Because it's of value to use as a species, because we need it as much as it needs us, economically and spiritually and ecologically. Preserve wilderness for its own sake, in the spirit of altruism. And preserve wilderness because I personally do not want to live in a world where buffalo are nothing but a roadside attraction on the outskirts of Yellowstone and polar bears swim in hopeless circles in Chicago and people can walk in the wild places without any chance of encountering something that bigger than they are, something very much alive and breathing.

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