BOOK MARK : "Confessions of an Eco-Warrior," by Dave Foreman : Lose the Wilderness, and Nature No Longer Reigns

Dave Foreman co-founded Earth First! 10 years ago

"No compromise in defense of Mother Earth," urges the militant Earth First! group. Its co-founder argues for defense of wilderness for its own sake. An excerpt.

It has been taken for granted that the implacable forces of industrialization will continue to conquer the wilderness. Environmentalists, as reasonable advocates within the mainstream of society, have gone out of their way to appear moderate and willing to compromise.

We have acquiesced in the clearcutting of ancient forests, in massive road-building schemes on our public lands, in mineral and energy extraction in pristine areas and in the destruction of "problem bears." We have accepted that some wildlands should be developed. We have merely asked that some of these--generally the scenic ones--be spared.

Dreams have been replaced with political pragmatism. "We live in a world of decisions," we are told, "and we must be ready to deal with the people who make decisions." Vision has fallen by the wayside as we have become mired in the "political quag" John Muir dreaded. Meek reaction to bureaucratic initiatives has come to the fore.

In short, wilderness conservationists have lacked a comprehensive vision since passage of the Wilderness Act. In most cases, we have simply responded to agency programs. We've fought brushfires but have failed to articulate and campaign for a wilderness preservation system worthy of the name. We have accepted the dominant social paradigm, the inevitability of continued industrialization and development of open spaces.

We have had no dream for such noble but vanishing species as the California condor, the grizzly bear, the gray wolf. We try to hang on to their diminishing habitats, their puny populations as museum pieces, but not as growing, vigorous living parts of the functioning world.

If the wilderness system is to be anything more than an outdoor gymnasium and art gallery, if it is to preserve representative samples of dynamically evolving natural ecosystems, we must have an inspirational objective instead of obsequiously accepting what crumbs are tossed to us by Louisiana-Pacific, the U.S. Forest Service, Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.) and Exxon. Conservationists must lead instead of politely responding.

We must ask deeper questions: Is 2% of the acreage of the 48 contiguous states adequate for our national wilderness preservation system? Are 25 condors sufficient? Six hundred grizzly bears?

Have we logged too much virgin forest? Have we dammed too many rivers? Have we drained too many wetlands? Were the exterminations of the passenger pigeon, sea mink and heath hen, and the plowing of the Great Plains all monstrous mistakes?

If we fail to ask these deeper questions of the nation, then the wilderness crusade is lost. Remnants to the wild, with truncated flora and fauna, will haunt future generations as the shadows of what once was real.

Real wilderness is far different from that forming our current preservation system. Most areas in the system are small enough to cross on foot in a day; to forest ranger and writer Aldo Leopold, a wilderness was an area large enough for a two-week pack trip without crossing your own tracks. To grizzly-bear cinematographer Doug Peacock, wilderness contains something bigger and meaner than you--something that can kill you.

Thoughtful biologists and conservationists have come to understand in the last 25 years that the destruction of Earth's natural diversity is caused not by the mere excesses of industrial civilization but by the inherent attributes of that society: overconsumption, overpopulation and our notion of mastery over nature. They now realize that designated wilderness areas and national parks cannot survive as effective sanctuaries if they remain island ecosystems, that habitat islands in a sea of development will lose key species--those that require larger territories to maintain sustainable breeding populations.

They have sadly acknowledged that outside effects such as acid precipitation, other forms of air pollution and toxic and radioactive contamination can devastate the natural integrity of protected areas, that no preserve is immune from the fouling of Earth's air, water and soil by industrialism. With horror, they are beginning to recognize that global problems such as the greenhouse effect and depletion of the atmospheric ozone layer will play havoc with all ecosystems worldwide, including those in sanctuaries.

Minor reform of our economic system and better stewardship will not safeguard the incredible diversity of life hatched by nearly 4 billion years of evolution. The long-term protection of natural diversity and the processes that sustain it will require fundamental changes in the role we humans play on our planet.

A vital part of grappling with these formidable problems is to promote a wilderness-preservation system that is truly national and representative, and that preserves native diversity. By clearly stating a dream of ecological wilderness and campaigning for it in the national arena, we would come much closer to safeguarding real wilderness than we would if we continued to fight only for the traditional backpacking parks, open-air zoos and scenic preserves.

The very process of proposing and working for ecological wilderness may be the most effective means of redefining the role of humankind in nature. It may be the best way to bring about the change of consciousness that will, in Leopold's words, transform "the role of homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it."

If the materialistic society of the United States can find the humility to establish substantial nature preserves, we will at last set an example for other nations, particularly those in tropical regions where native diversity is especially abundant and imperiled.

How can we lecture Brazil to cease the destruction of the Amazonian rain forest while we shred the library of ecological richness found in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest? How dare we enjoin starving tribes of East Africa from slaughtering the great herds, when we cannot find the generosity to give the bison, gray wolf and grizzly the range they need?

1991 by Dave Foreman. Reprinted with permission of Harmony Books, a member of Crown Publishing Group.

BOOK REVIEW: "Confessions of an Eco-Warrior," by Dave Foreman, is reviewed on Page 1 of today's Book Review section.

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