Wilderness and the Value of Doing Nothing

Dana blog

by Dana Johnson

 

Along the high-elevation, wind-swept ridges of the West, a long-lived, gnarly-branched pine is in trouble.  A species of stone pine known for its high stress tolerance and adaptability, whitebark pine is slow-growing and can live between 500 – 1,000 years.  Lacking wings for wind-dispersal, its calorie-dense seeds are spread primarily by Clark’s Nutcracker, a member of the crow family with a specialized bill for extracting large seeds from pinecones and a pouch under its tongue for stashing and carrying seeds long distance.  Those seeds are a prized food source for a range of species, including the imperiled grizzly bear. 

As tough as the species is, whitebark pine is facing mounting pressures from climate change, decades of fire suppression, blister rust, mountain pine beetles, and competing conifers migrating to higher elevations in response to warming temperatures.  Already found at high elevations, many worry that whitebark pine will have nowhere to run. 

This cocktail of stressors has landed whitebark pine on the short-list for federal listing under the Endangered Species Act.  Unfortunately, the proposed listing rule allows logging and other “forest management” activities in whitebark pine habitat, and is, per usual, loudly silent on actions that might address the underlying causes of global warming.  Instead, it focuses heavily on intervention and manipulation strategies—like selectively breeding and planting blister rust resistant trees, pruning and thinning stands, fighting back other migrating conifers with logging, applying insecticides and pheromones, and even wrapping pinecones in wire mesh to keep red squirrels and Clark’s nutcrackers from getting at the seeds.

This is a familiar story.  Humans are exceedingly bad at exercising restraint and simply not doing things.  Rather than drastically reducing consumption, travel, recreation, and development—things that take real personal and political sacrifice but create space for other species to exist—we put an enormous amount of effort into developing technologies that enable us to continue with business as usual or at least provide a veil of plausible deniability regarding our impact on the world.  Slap enough windmills on the hilltops, and we’ll never have to slow down.  Gather enough data on wildlife, and we can invade their space with abandon.  Or, worst case, fire up the helicopters, pluck the critters from their homes, slap tracking collars on their necks, and drop them elsewhere.  There is a deep tendency to treat everything as if it is merely an engineering challenge that is solvable with enough data and ingenuity (and money). 

This is not to say we shouldn’t pursue things less harmful than our current things—we’ve dug quite an overwhelming hole with climate change, and we need to be creative in how we deal with it.  But too often our efforts are tunnel-visioned on maintaining the status quo, and the tougher conversations about how we exist on this planet are altogether muted. 

Take for instance grizzly bears.  A widely cited research paper states that “[h]umans are the primary agent of death” for grizzlies.  We know this.  When humans and bears mix, bears end up dead.  So, areas with less human access and activity (e.g. recreation, logging, fast-moving cars and trains, etc.) are areas with fewer dead bears.  And in areas with greater human activity, we sorely need greater tolerance (and compassion) for bears.  As with so many other species reacting to rapidly changing conditions, we need to provide grizzlies with the space to move and adapt, and we need to keep open minds about what that might look like.  Yet, in the whitebark pine listing rule, the Fish and Wildlife Service downplays the importance of whitebark pine as a food for grizzlies calling them “opportunistic feeders.”  But whitebark pine is often found in remote, high elevation sites away from humans.  When whitebark pine seeds are scarce, bears search out other food, which often brings them into lower elevations and in closer contact with humans.  We don’t much care for the idea of sharing our favorite creek-side trail with a berry-munching grizzly or dealing with potholes in our golf courses from a bear digging up earthworms, so when an “opportunistic” bear ends up in our space, we trap the bear and move him back to his allotted “recovery zone.”  And if the bear crosses our line in the sand again—looking for food, or a mate, or a new home—we kill him, and we go to great pains gathering more data and rationalizing all the reasons why this is the way of things, why we don’t need to change our own behavior or ask, “What gives us the right?”

These tendencies toward control and entitlement make our collective agreement on Wilderness pretty remarkable.  Wilderness is a conscious reflection of human restraint—a place where we decided there is value in Nature’s own wild order, in the autonomy and freedom of the wild, and in allowing the land to play whatever hand it is dealt without our intentional interference.  It is a recognition that we don’t and can’t know everything and that we might learn something if we step back and observe what happens when we don’t impose our will.  Because of this, unsurprisingly, Wilderness is some of the best habitat left for species trying to eke out an existence alongside humans.  

The idea of Wilderness as a self-willed landscape has been a difficult one for land management agencies.  They have an ingrained history of modifying public lands to achieve “desired conditions,” an idea laden with value bias even in the best of times.  Throw climate change and all of its uncertainties into the mix, and the increasing urge to actively maintain static conditions becomes all the more problematic. 

Even though the agencies often resist it on the ground, their policy guidance reflects the value in Wilderness.  Agency guidance states, “Wilderness areas are living ecosystems in a constant state of evolution[,]” and “[i]t is not the intent of wilderness stewardship to arrest this evolution in an attempt to preserve character existing” at some prior time.  And, “A key descriptor of wilderness in the Wilderness Act, untrammeled refers to the freedom of a landscape from the human intent to permanently intervene, alter, control, or manipulate natural conditions or processes.”  And, “Maintaining wilderness character requires an attitude of humility and restraint. We preserve wilderness character by … imposing limits on ourselves.”  In Wilderness, we “[p]rovide an environment where the forces of natural selection and survival rather than human actions determine which and what numbers of wildlife species will exist.” 

Agency policy is taking a notable turn.  One agency stated its “policy prior to climate change was to take a ‘hands-off’ approach where overt human influences were not the primary reasons for population fluctuations.”  It now believes its role is shifting to  adaptive management to maintain “natural conditions,” and this conversation is growing across the agencies.  This—at its core—is a conversation about whether we will allow Wilderness to persist into the future. 

This shift is reflected in the proposed whitebark pine rule.  It lists Wilderness under “Challenges to Restoration,” setting the stage for conflict between an imperiled species and an imperiled landscape.  But this is likely a false conflict.  Roughly 29 percent of whitebark pine habitat is in Wilderness.  Given the variables and unintended consequences inherent in manipulations, that 29 percent should be set aside as an important baseline for comparison to our tinkerings elsewhere.  The listing rule acknowledges “a high degree of uncertainty inherent in any predictions of species responses to a variety of climate change scenarios. This is particularly true for whitebark pine given it is very long lived, has a widespread distribution, has complex interactions with other competitor tree species, relies on Clark’s nutcracker for both distribution and regeneration, and has significant threats present from disease, predation, and fire.”

It also acknowledges “[t]here is no known way to control, reduce, or eliminate either mountain pine beetle or white pine blister rust…particularly at the landscape scale needed to effectively conserve this species.”  In fact, “the vast scale at which planting rust-resistant trees would need to occur, long timeframes in which restoration efficacy could be assessed, and limited funding and resources, will make it challenging to restore whitebark pine throughout its range. One estimate indicates that if planting continues at its current pace, it would take over 5000 years to cover just 5 percent of the range of whitebark pine[.]”

This does not appear to be a scenario where we have to grapple with fine lines.  There is no discrete, human-caused disruption in Wilderness that can be corrected with a discrete, short-lived intervention.  This is not an errant patch of spotted knapweed along a stock trail that can be pulled.  But it is illustrative of the moral and ethical questions coming our way.  Climate change will continue to cause vast changes in the world as we know it, and we will see more attempts to mitigate the effects through ongoing, counterbalancing manipulations.  The question will be whether we lose Wilderness in the process. 

------------------

Dana Johnson is the staff attorney for Wilderness Watch, a national wilderness conservation organization headquartered in Missoula, MT, www.wildernessswatch.org.

 

Big Whitebark Keith Hammer


Photo: Keith Hammer

Wilderness Experienced—The Boundary Waters
Wilderness Experienced—Floating the Grand Canyon
 

Comments 78

Guest - Dan Sullivan on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 20:05

This film addresses some of the same concerns as many do.

This film addresses some of the same concerns as many do.
Guest - Chris Byknish on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 20:05

We need to STOP taking everything, as if there is a finite supply - We are to care for this planet - The animals & oceans, not sell off to the highest bidder - We need to go to Hemp farming - something sustainable, that can be used for many products - This planet would do much better w/ LESS humans on it - Unfortunately we are the major destructive force, as the ones who really care don’t have the $$

We need to STOP taking everything, as if there is a finite supply - We are to care for this planet - The animals & oceans, not sell off to the highest bidder - We need to go to Hemp farming - something sustainable, that can be used for many products - This planet would do much better w/ LESS humans on it - Unfortunately we are the major destructive force, as the ones who really care don’t have the $$
Guest - Pamela S. Goodman on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 19:48

Humans have always been the problem, not Nature. We need to stop destroying nature and restore it.

Humans have always been the problem, not Nature. We need to stop destroying nature and restore it.
Guest - Sandra Kissam (website) on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 19:28

So many professionals feel great pressure to justify themselves in their positions. This means
proposing and taking actions to correct perceived problems. If they don't do this, they think, "What is my relevance? How can I justify my position?"
When combined with faulty reasoning and assumptions, plus arrogance about nature's own systems, as well as the avoidance of taking on root causes, which often stem from corporate behavior----the experts can be downright dangerous to natural ecosystems.
Congratulations on a deeply perceptive article.

relevance?

So many professionals feel great pressure to justify themselves in their positions. This means proposing and taking actions to correct perceived problems. If they don't do this, they think, "What is my relevance? How can I justify my position?" When combined with faulty reasoning and assumptions, plus arrogance about nature's own systems, as well as the avoidance of taking on root causes, which often stem from corporate behavior----the experts can be downright dangerous to natural ecosystems. Congratulations on a deeply perceptive article. relevance?
Guest - Anita Watkins on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 19:06

"Managing" should not be the name for FWS activity - SUPPORTING wilderness should be. PLEASE do the right thing!

"Managing" should not be the name for FWS activity - SUPPORTING wilderness should be. PLEASE do the right thing!
Guest - Kathy S. on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 19:02

Very Well & Undeniably Said! My favorite sentence in the work is "These tendencies toward control and entitlement make our collective agreement on Wilderness pretty remarkable." We share this land, this Earth we call home - all of us- shouldn't we all feel this way?

Very Well & Undeniably Said! My favorite sentence in the work is "These tendencies toward control and entitlement make our collective agreement on Wilderness pretty remarkable." We share this land, this Earth we call home - all of us- shouldn't we all feel this way?
Guest - Aaron Fumarola on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 18:31

Excellent article! Eloquent, compelling, and inspired.

Excellent article! Eloquent, compelling, and inspired.
Guest - Bennie Scott on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 18:18

Thanks for putting it in to words.

Thanks for putting it in to words.
Guest - tom kovalicky (website) on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 18:12

This puts the situation at hand in harmony with wilderness as a resource and the actions of human managers....The actions to be taken are wonderfully and clearly outlined and has to be followed as a partner with climate change rather in spite of climate change......This is a good document, flood the markets and get out the way

This puts the situation at hand in harmony with wilderness as a resource and the actions of human managers....The actions to be taken are wonderfully and clearly outlined and has to be followed as a partner with climate change rather in spite of climate change......This is a good document, flood the markets and get out the way
Guest - jean publiee on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 17:17

i sjpport wilderness

i sjpport wilderness
Guest - Bonnie Karlsen on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 16:41

Very well put. I believe this article should be widely published. It makes no sense to continually destroy and disrespect our true home as if we are separate from all that dwells upon it. There are many more people now who are becoming aware of our interconnectedness and they do what they can in words, acts and deeds. Thank you for all you are doing.

Very well put. I believe this article should be widely published. It makes no sense to continually destroy and disrespect our true home as if we are separate from all that dwells upon it. There are many more people now who are becoming aware of our interconnectedness and they do what they can in words, acts and deeds. Thank you for all you are doing.
Guest - Torun Almer on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 16:28

At the end of this article I was expecting to see some action plan that needed my participation, but there was none. Therefore, all this article does is make people sad, angry and feel helpless because there is no mention of what the writer wants the reader to do about the issues that she writes about. She isn't telling us something we don't already know. Does she want us to write the president, our legislators, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior or some other agency? If something needs fixing there needs to some kind of action suggested, not just someone writing a "woe is us and all of nature" article. Action is needed and she seems to be at a loss as to what to do. And that, in itself, is sad.

At the end of this article I was expecting to see some action plan that needed my participation, but there was none. Therefore, all this article does is make people sad, angry and feel helpless because there is no mention of what the writer wants the reader to do about the issues that she writes about. She isn't telling us something we don't already know. Does she want us to write the president, our legislators, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior or some other agency? If something needs fixing there needs to some kind of action suggested, not just someone writing a "woe is us and all of nature" article. Action is needed and she seems to be at a loss as to what to do. And that, in itself, is sad.
Guest - Larry Benvenuti on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 16:03

Human beings will not only destroy Mother Nature and its wild animals, it will kill off human kind !!!
It has been happening since Homo Sapien existence.

Human beings will not only destroy Mother Nature and its wild animals, it will kill off human kind !!! It has been happening since Homo Sapien existence.
Guest - Barbara Wyatt on Wednesday, 05 May 2021 00:29

You are absolutely right, Larry. And those of us who do care are preaching to the choir.

You are absolutely right, Larry. And those of us who do care are preaching to the choir.
Guest - Ray "Lone Eagle" Miller on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 15:39

Dana is smart & has great writing skills! Based on my experience as a career wilderness ranger for NPS & USFS, I think she gets it right. Thanks!

Dana is smart & has great writing skills! Based on my experience as a career wilderness ranger for NPS & USFS, I think she gets it right. Thanks!
Guest - Rob on Wednesday, 05 May 2021 05:48

I completely agree. Excellent essay, Dana. As a career wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service (who also worked on wilderness management issues), I concur with your conclusion that sometimes the best thing to do is resist the urge to manipulate things, and just let wilderness exist, as the Wilderness Act intended.

I completely agree. Excellent essay, Dana. As a career wildlife biologist with the US Forest Service (who also worked on wilderness management issues), I concur with your conclusion that sometimes the best thing to do is resist the urge to manipulate things, and just let wilderness exist, as the Wilderness Act intended.
Guest - Laurrie Cozza on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 15:30

Excellent article. Now if we could all just feel and act as if it is our moral duty to protect and preserve this planet well what a wonderful turn about that would be.
Thank you.

Excellent article. Now if we could all just feel and act as if it is our moral duty to protect and preserve this planet well what a wonderful turn about that would be. Thank you.
Guest - Harriet Greene on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 15:28

Dear Dana,
Having backpacked in the Tetons and Wind Rivers for so many years I have wondered when I finally make it into the heights how these trees survive. You deserve an eagle feather for your story on the radical interference humans have made on Wilderness. It is shameful that we cannot seem to understand that we are not the only species on the planet.

Dear Dana, Having backpacked in the Tetons and Wind Rivers for so many years I have wondered when I finally make it into the heights how these trees survive. You deserve an eagle feather for your story on the radical interference humans have made on Wilderness. It is shameful that we cannot seem to understand that we are not the only species on the planet.
Guest - Dallas E. on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 15:26

Great article, so true. I am now 65 and have watched with great sadness my whole life as humans try to 'manage' what they cannot and should not. Thank heavens for groups who fight for nature and all living things who call nature home. Humans cannot see the true irreplaceable value of all forests for the dollar signs in the trees. They will when it is too late. Look at Haiti, and, now Brazil. I wish future generations well in patching up this generations pathetic narcissistic mismanagement, which seems to be the norm. Will the pandemic change this? I think not.

Great article, so true. I am now 65 and have watched with great sadness my whole life as humans try to 'manage' what they cannot and should not. Thank heavens for groups who fight for nature and all living things who call nature home. Humans cannot see the true irreplaceable value of all forests for the dollar signs in the trees. They will when it is too late. Look at Haiti, and, now Brazil. I wish future generations well in patching up this generations pathetic narcissistic mismanagement, which seems to be the norm. Will the pandemic change this? I think not.
Guest - ahimsa42 on Tuesday, 04 May 2021 15:22

"The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future - deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease." -- The World Watch Institute

“Aren’t humans amazing? They kill wildlife – birds, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice and foxes by the million in order to protect their domestic animals and their feed. Then they kill domestic animals by the billion and eat them. This in turn kills people by the million, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative – and fatal – health conditions like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and cancer. So then humans spend billions of dollars torturing and killing millions more animals to look for cures for these diseases. Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals. Meanwhile, few people recognize the absurdity of humans, who kill so easily and violently, and once a year send out cards praying for “Peace on Earth.”~ David Coates

"The human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future - deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities and the spread of disease." -- The World Watch Institute “Aren’t humans amazing? They kill wildlife – birds, deer, all kinds of cats, coyotes, beavers, groundhogs, mice and foxes by the million in order to protect their domestic animals and their feed. Then they kill domestic animals by the billion and eat them. This in turn kills people by the million, because eating all those animals leads to degenerative – and fatal – health conditions like heart disease, stroke, kidney disease, and cancer. So then humans spend billions of dollars torturing and killing millions more animals to look for cures for these diseases. Elsewhere, millions of other human beings are being killed by hunger and malnutrition because food they could eat is being used to fatten domestic animals. Meanwhile, few people recognize the absurdity of humans, who kill so easily and violently, and once a year send out cards praying for “Peace on Earth.”~ David Coates
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