A couple of weeks ago my friend Dave Mason sent me an interesting article from the New York Review of Books. The article was “It’s Time to Live with the Birds”, a review of a book by Ecologist John M. Marzluff entitled Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife. Let me quote an excerpt from the review:
“Marzluff and other urban ecologists find a gradient in bird life. A few tough survivors hang on in the urban core; the open country outside has many birds. In between—in leafy, variegated suburbia—there is the richest mixture of bird species of all. This finding is counterintuitive. One would have imagined that what he calls the “urban tsunami,” the global shift of populations into cities, would result in homogenized biological deserts with only a few starlings, house sparrows, and pigeons for bird life. That fails to take into account many wild animals’ elemental will to survive, and their capacity to adapt rapidly to new opportunities.”
The book’s argument is that suburban environments constitute a new class of ecosystem that could be studied and leveraged for the benefit of many species. Despite that, I’m not likely to take my next hike in search of a wilderness experience in Barrington, Illinois. But Marzluff’s work reminds us to consider – from an admittedly odd context – that the best way to care for a wilderness might be to leave it alone. Whatever changes and challenges the area faces, Nature itself, with its relentless motive to adapt, will find a better way then well-intentioned human beings who try to manage it ever could.
The “Leave Wilderness Alone” philosophy has been the ascendant position for many decades, represented clearly in the values that led to passage of the National Wilderness Act 50 years ago. The reasons for this preference were reflective of the definition of wilderness given in the Act, namely “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain…” or, by implication, manage. Undoubtedly the opposition to wilderness management was fed by the historical divide between preservationists and conservationists, for whom “managing” wilderness typically meant large scale silviculture in order to maximize the utility and productivity of the forest for industry, or development to support a wide range of recreation.
Of course, we never really did leave wilderness alone: we have always tinkered with it. How could we not, given that pristine wilderness was our own creation rather than a fact of Nature? I like this quote from Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, who clearly knew this truth: “The idea of wilderness as an area without man’s influence is man’s own concept. Its values are human values. Its preservation is a purpose that arises out of man’s own sense of his fundamental needs.” So in a real sense we shaped wilderness in our own idealized image, and in so doing we tinkered. Whether it was building lean-to’s or installing water bars, nailing up trail markers or clearing downed timber, we never left wilderness untrammeled. Still, as a matter of degree, the protection of wilderness has largely meant leaving it be.
But if the ensuing decades have proven the wisdom of the men and women, both nationally and here in the Adirondacks, who prevailed with a leave-it-alone ethic, they have also taught us that leaving wilderness completely alone may not be not enough after all. In the face of voracious urbanization, environmental degradation, the spread of invasive species and climate change, it is generally agreed that wilderness needs our help. The terminology has changed: in order to reflect a caring aesthetic over a utilitarian one, the preferred word has shifted from “management” to “stewardship.” Whatever the term, Wilderness Stewardship is now accepted wisdom. Here’s the language from the National Wilderness Conference, just held a few weeks ago to honor the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, organized by a coalition of environmental groups that comprise a who’s who of the wilderness movement:
When the Wilderness Act passed, managing Wilderness often meant just leaving it alone. Today, new threats require more proactive approaches, the field of Wilderness stewardship has grown and become more professionalized, and Wilderness faces unprecedented challenges in our evolving physical and social environments. This track offers stewardship insights from leading agency practitioners, researchers, academic scholars, and partners.
I raise all of this because some might oppose any changes in the currently-open-for-review Adirondack Park State Land Master Plan (SLMP) for fear of unwarranted tinkering. As anyone who knows the history or has read Bill Ingersoll’s thorough review of the same, that fear is hardly unwarranted, as all too often “tinkering” meant exploitation. But that does not mean that the guidance provided to the SLMP should be hostile all the possible tinkering that might benefit the Forest Preserve.
As always I believe we should be informed by science and research, however within very strict limits. Like virtually everyone who loves the Adirondack Wilderness would no doubt agree, I draw the line at cutting trees. That I do or don’t draw that line is irrelevant as the New York State Constitution draws the line for us, in explicit terms.
But consider what we do when the Emerald Ash Borer arrives at our doorstep, as it surely will. There are improved insecticide treatments that show promise in arresting the progress of an infestation. Cutting down ash trees in the Forest preserve to form a buffer is out, but what about use of an insecticide? Or consider drainages for storm runoff. With the increasing likelihood of regular Irene-like storms, what options to mitigate those effects might make sense yet fit within the existing constitutional framework?
In considering ideas for how changes to the SLMP might address the requirements to be good stewards of our Wilderness in the face of these growing challenges, I think about the historical approach to the SLMP. Article XIV draws some clear lines in the sand and leaves the details to interpretation. The SLMP states that it is to be considered “constitutionally neutral,” but it does interpret the details by setting parameters. Primarily these parameters are organized around recreational activity and impact: specifically the recreational “carrying capacity” for a given area of land, which impacts its classification. Suppose that the SLMP added to that an ecological carrying capacity of a kind? Here science would lead in order to define baselines for ecological health and parameters by which we would, with reasonable objectivity, determine whether or not a particular act of constitutionally defensible stewardship was warranted.
This ecological approach needs a lot of work if it is to be complete enough to make sense for the Park. Much science needs to be done. But to set such a direction, something the SLMP did with recreational use when it was issued four decades ago, seems increasingly important. We cannot afford to be passive protectors of our wild places. Some tinkering – some stewardship – is called for.
Photo: Old Growth Forest in Winter