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The New Conquerors

Just when you thought the wilds were safe . . .

By Carl Pope

“Baja California is a wonderful example of how much bad roads can do for a country,” Joseph Wood Krutch wrote in his classic Sierra Club book, Baja California and the Geography of Hope. Bold words back then in midcentury, when powerful voices were calling for Americans to complete their conquest of wildness, and the open road was held up as the ultimate symbol of human freedom.

But by the end of the century, Krutch, the Sierra Club, and the many others who worked to preserve our wild places were prevailing. In 1996, President Clinton protected 1.9 million acres of Utah redrock as the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument during his reelection campaign. Why? Because it was popular. When Clinton followed up by proposing permanent protection for more than 58 million acres of wild, roadless national forest in his second term, more than a million Americans wrote in to support the plan. As a society, we were embracing what Aldo Leopold called the “land ethic,” which “changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.”

The new century, however, has brought a new set of would-be conquerors peddling their antiquated view of the wild: Man must dominate and master the landscape; economic calculations trump all; if you can’t drive there it doesn’t count. Listen, for example, to President Bush arguing to allow mining inside national monuments: “All land is precious, but the part that the people uniformly would not want to spoil will not be despoiled. Obviously, there are some places where we’re not going to put a drilling rig, some of the crown jewels of our environment.” So Yellowstone and Yosemite may be safe, but that’s it. Beauty spots, not ecosystems, are the goal, just as timber companies leave “beauty strips” along roads to conceal the clearcuts only a few yards away.

A similar perspective underlies Bush’s proposed endangered-species reforms. Cast as a way to enable the Fish and Wildlife Service to devote its “limited resources” to “priority” species, the changes would entrust Interior Secretary Gale Norton with the sole and unfettered power to decide which species are worth preserving and which should follow the passenger pigeon into extinction. Even a court could not overrule her. The Endangered Species Act allows the president to convene a group dubbed the “God Squad” that adjudicates conflicts between the economy and the needs of species that are on the endangered list. Now Bush proposes to bolster the God Squad with the Goddess, giving Norton the power of life and death over hundreds of declining species that aren’t yet on the list.

In their assault on wildness, the new conquerors trumpet the techno-fantasy that we can insert oil wells and roads into wild places without damaging them. The oil industry prates about the small number of acres that would actually be occupied by oil wells in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; columnist George Will puts it at “one-hundredth of one percent of ANWR.” The drill sites, however (with their many miles of roads and pipelines) would be spread throughout the core calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd. If a hospital needs a new furnace, we don’t put it in the delivery room, even if it takes up only a “tiny fraction” of the building’s space.

The wildness conquerors may feign appreciation of a small human footprint in the Arctic, but not in Yosemite. Right-wing columnist Thomas Sowell recently excoriated the National Park Service as “eco–storm troopers” favoring a “bureaucrats’ collectivist utopia” for proposing to reduce the number of private automobiles in Yosemite Valley. Visitors, Sowell laments, will be “herded together and taking the regimented tour,” unable to go where “their interests and need for food and toilet facilities would lead them.” (More portapotties, anyone?) But to be on their own, all visitors need do is get off the shuttle bus and walk. The valley is, after all, quite small and very flat.

The Park Service, Sowell further charged, was “sharply restricting the visits of the great unwashed in their cars, so that Sierra Club types can enjoy Yosemite in splendid isolation.” His evidence? The Park Service shut down a Chevron station in the middle of the valley, forcing motorists to fill up 20 miles away. Worse, the new Yosemite plan would have day visitors arrive via shuttle buses. Sowell equates human freedom with a gas pedal; for him, Yosemite is a scenic add-on to the interstate highway system.

Similarly, when Utah representative James Hansen (R) provided the new administration with a wish list, his first suggestion was to repeal the ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone. The park, to Hansen, is wasted in the winter if humans cannot invade it with noisy, polluting machines. When the timber industry argues for hacking new logging roads into national forests, it claims this will give millions of Americans “access”--as though tourists were lining up to visit panoramas of stumps. For the right wing, it’s almost as if human beings have become cyborgs: part primate, part internal combustion engine.

Cyborgs, beauty spots, priority species, wild places riddled with advanced technology. They all spring from a toxic mingling of greed and arrogance, the belief that humanity deserves to master nature, because it’s strong enough and smart enough to do so--and the process is, for some, enormously profitable. But I’m going to suggest there’s also at least a little fear. The threat posed by wild places is their wildness. They are not under human control and have not been manipulated to meet human demands. They remind us that we are merely part of creation, not above it. Most Americans treasure that reminder. The new order in Washington wants to erase it.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at Up to Top

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