The Anthropocene Bookshelf: Gardening the Earth?
Anchorage April 13, 2016 – The National Park Service will be 100 years old this June. 1916 was a long time ago, but within the memory of my newspaperman grandfather, who for some reason had a collection of memorable photographs of a carvan of early American automobiles lined up in front of various recognizable landmarks of parklands in the west. The idea of preserving land in the face of change was a new one for the nation back then, and a hundred years later we have learned that such a thing is not actually possible. Managers of public lands find themselves increasingly faced with dilemmas involving change that is arriving due in part to the warming climate but also due to encroaching development, invasive species, the pressure of public use, and ways the ecosystem itself is always changing. Toward what standards or conditions should they be aiming their management?
That’s the subject of a collection of essays edited by David N. Cole and Laurie Yung, entitled “Beyond Naturalness: Rethinking Park and Wilderness Stewardship in an Era of Rapid Change.” It’s a real eye opener. Their basic argument is that “naturalness” is not the best goal to aim for. Neither is a climax state of the ecosystem, nor some mythical pre-human or pre-contact state of abundance. Plenty of examples here of the extremes managers are sometimes forced to in order to try to maintain or restore conditions of ideals that may be illusions. The problem of wildfire management is just the beginning. Predator management another. Often the size or dimension of the protected lands is simply not up to the task of providing enough habitat for an intact ecosystem when it gets to the large territories at the top of the food chain. Yet the idea of wildlife corridors has little support from the policy sector and management compromises such as the preserves adjacent to many national parks in Alaska are not the sorts of tools that managers are used to. And then there’s the matter of the National Park Service’s policy of rotating their personnel in and out every few years, which hardly favors meaningful negotiation with local ranchers, inholders, neighbors, tribes, hunters, outfitters and so forth.
If a hundred years is a long time, how about half of that? Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act, wrote in 1963 “We must never forget, we are guardians, not gardeners.” That assumes we know what we are guarding. More to come on this issue as I work my way through Cole and Yung’s 2010 book, as well as Emma Marris’ 2011 “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,” and E.O. Wilson’t brand new “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life.”