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Nature Without People?

So if our glass is still a quarter full, a question to ask is: Why? The most obvious answer, of course, is that we’re rich and can afford to safeguard some portion of our natural heritage without great hardship. This is doubtless true, but plenty of other rich nations have not had even the same limited successes.

In Terborgh’s opinion, America’s federal lands are the key to our limited success, and provide an example that should be emulated around the globe. He concedes the obvious: the managers of our national forests have cut down too much of their domain, taking the production of lumber as their main mission. The rangeland managers of the Bureau of Land Management have overgrazed their vast western holdings, giving in to the political influence of ranchers. Nevertheless, Terborgh insists, what biodiversity we still possess can largely be found in these lands—90 percent of old growth forest in the Pacific Northwest can be found on federal territory. Private land has been so routinely abused that a flight over Oregon and Washington’s checkerboard of clearcuts is at least as depressing as a flight over the smoking Amazon. And though many of those clearcuts are in National Forests, nonetheless, “the reason so much biodiversity is concentrated on federal lands in the United States,” Terborgh writes, “is that federal law prohibits changes in land use. A national forest is a forest by law. A national grassland is a grassland by law…. Most federal land has never been plowed or planted; hence it retains disproportionate value for biodiversity.” Much of the soil on federal lands, in other words, is intact, or at least more so than on the neighboring private tracts. Terborgh writes, “The history of land use in the United States convinces me that the nation stumbled fortuitously onto a highly desirable mix of public and private landownership.”

Drawing on that example, Terborgh argues that as much land as possible in the tropics should be put under government supervision. Though he admits that the governments are likely to be weak and corrupt, he believes they are still likely to do less damage than private owners, whether they are peasants or multinationals. He calls, in other words, for a system of well-run parks and federal lands, on the American model, in the nations of the tropics. The rich nations should use foreign aid dollars, debt-for-nature swaps, and park trust funds to pay for the land; they might also fund “elite corps, well-trained and well-paid,” of park rangers that could guard these wildlands against encroachment, and a Nature Corps analogous to the Peace Corps to help oversee them. What is needed, Terborgh writes, is a global watchdog organization, akin to Amnesty International, “to monitor the health of parks around the world.”

Most of all, Terborgh doesn’t want people living in these parks. He insists that squatters, and even indigenous peoples, erode the biology of the reserves. Natives may have hunted for thousands of years without destroying many species, but now they have guns as well as chainsaws and medicines that unleash a “demographic explosion.” As indigenous people demand more rights, park authorities will inevitably “make concessions at the expense of nature.” Unlike American parks, where people enter temporarily and then leave, an inhabited park is soon so decimated by human activity that “at the end of the process there is nothing left of the park but its name.”

Terborgh has spent most of his professional life in the tropical forest and his bleak analysis of deforestation rates seems grimly accurate. His zoological absolutism deserves respect. He presents a cogent case for the emerging understanding that, if we are to preserve anything like our current biodiversity, we need large “mega-reserves” that are big enough to contain predators, and to allow species to travel freely north and south. Along with academic colleagues like Michael Soulé of UC-Santa Cruz and Reed Noss, president-elect of the Conservation Biology Society, he has been at the center of a new approach to conservation practice. Working with many others in the Wildlands Project, they have produced a series of maps for North America, and increasingly for other parts of the planet, that bring together existing public lands with corridors of wildness; in so doing they suggest ways to improve the haphazard process of park and preserve formation that has dominated to this date.

These conservationists care more about biology than about scenery, more about herds of bison than herds of Winnebagos; their bold but carefully conceived visions for different regions, which often appear in the invaluable and lively quarterly Wild Earth, are blueprints for a working planet. In Continental Conservation, a recently published anthology of essays about the project, Terborgh and Soulé write,

The goal is to restore, over large portions of the continent, the abiotic and biotic processes that sustain biodiversity. Essential processes include fire and flooding that shape the physical environment, predation, [and] movements such as migration and dispersal…. Beyond science, what we need most is the political will to succeed in an exciting venture that will ensure a better future for all.

If that political will is to be mustered, however, it will be important to avoid at least some of the despairing distrust of human beings that sometimes seems to possess Terborgh. It’s true, as he says, that we should accelerate efforts to control the growth of populations; but in a world of six billion human beings heading for ten billion, there are plenty of places where people will unavoidably be part of the landscape, and those places—though damaged in certain ways—are not off-limits to conservation. There are other approaches for these spots which don’t depend on armed international guards, and aren’t so insistent on separating human beings from nature.

Begin in Brazil. As I have said, Terborgh disdains efforts to set up “extractive reserves,” in which groups of rubber tappers can make a living from the forest without cutting it down. The 45,000 square kilometers of reserves that were set up after the murder of Chico Mendes could not be economically sustained, he says, when Brazil ended rubber subsidies—whereupon rubber tappers abandoned the land and headed for the cities, and “rubber tapping, a marginal lifestyle at best, ceased to be an economically viable proposition in an open market.”

But Terborgh doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, the local rubber tappers have since managed to persuade the Brazilian authorities to restore the subsidy, and to expand the reserves. Some of the tappers have been elected mayors and senators in the region; and others are starting to return from the city to the reserves. They are not Yellowstone Park, these extractive reserves, but their inhabitants are a vigilant force against the kind of land conversion that Terborgh fears most.

So, too, at least in some cases, with respect to indigenous peoples. Indians have established their legal right to about 20 percent of the Amazon—300,000 people living in an area twice the size of California. Some of them are hunting with rifles, and that may diminish the possibility for long-term survival of “top” predators and at least some portion of the region’s biodiversity. They may even cut deals with loggers and miners; but they can, and do, stop the endless expansion of the cattle ranches that is the leading cause of deforestation. According to Stephen Schwartzman of the Environmental Defense Fund, the boundaries of the indigenous lands and the extractive reserves show up on satellite images of the region—you can tell there’s someone there defending the land from the chainsaws and the torches.

And it’s not just the Amazon. In Tibet an America-based NGO, Future Generations, has been at work for many years. Its director, Daniel Taylor-Ide, grew up in the region; fascinated by the legend of the Abominable Snowman, he spent years searching through the lush forested valleys that run up to the edge of the Himalayan rocks and ice. He also spent years getting to know the people—he was an educational consultant to the Dalai Lama in his exile but also had extensive contacts with those who remained in Tibet and with the Chinese authorities. He watched in the 1960s and 1970s as deforestation, road-building, and hunting with rifles started to wreck the habitats of animals and reduce their numbers. He provided assistance in the 1980s and 1990s for environmental protection efforts, doing so less out of a desire to preserve biodiversity than because “conservation thinking began to be accepted as a better way of doing development.”3 Twenty-eight percent of Tibet is now protected from ecological destruction, and there are plans to raise that figure to 40 percent. Reforestation in many areas has been so successful that wind speeds in the Lhasa valley have decreased by one mile per hour; animal populations in some regions have doubled, thanks to laws banning the sale of skins, horns, and body parts.

The instrument for much of this progress has been a national park, the Qomolangma (i.e., Mount Everest) National Nature Preserve, but it is not a park Terborgh would completely approve of. Human settlements intermingle with wilder areas, and it is in these settlements that most of the conservation work has been concentrated. Each village sent a resident to be trained in primary health care, after residents decided that this was something they needed. Tree nurseries now produce thousands of seedlings that village workers plant near their houses, mainly fast-growing willows and poplars whose leaves give fodder for animals and whose branches provide fuel. Some areas in the national park have been identified as less environmentally critical; there fields are plowed and given to families who had been living on more fragile land.

Perhaps most important, the preserve has been successful enough to serve as the model for a much larger park project in the Tibetan headwaters of China’s great rivers. Chinese plans for the park were accelerated after the disastrous floods in the Yangtze, which were caused in part by the deforestation along its upper reaches. It is too soon to know if old habits of environmental destruction will really change in China, but as Taylor-Ide points out, “the first test of any preserve is not the writing of a plan, but getting the people who were damaging the land to change their behavior.” By this measure, some hopeful things have been happening in the Himalayas.

There is even precedent in the US for large-scale approaches to preservation that take the interests of human residents into account. Besides the federal lands concentrated in the West, America has one other interesting model—the enormous Adirondack State Park in northern New York, where I live. At six million acres, the park is larger than Glacier, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Yosemite combined. Half of that land is state-owned wilderness, protected by the New York constitution from any alteration. The other half is in private hands, much of it used for timber-cutting, though under enough restrictions to prevent enormous abuse. The public and private holdings in the Adirondacks are intermingled, with small towns dotting the landscape at distant intervals.

By Terborgh’s calculation, it should be a difficult place to make conservation work. And indeed it is not biologically perfect. But a hundred years of slow recovery from nineteenth-century deforestation have yielded surprisingly good results. First the beaver and the bear moved back in; in recent years the moose has returned; now we are discussing the possibility of inviting the wolf to reappear as well. The mere fact that the residents of a semi-wild place are actively considering reintroducing the region’s top predator, exactly a hundred years after their forebears succeeded in extirpating it, should be encouraging for Terborgh and his colleagues, and remind us all that there may be more than one way to save a catamount, a puma, a grizzly.

The Adirondacks also suggest an answer to a question that Terborgh never really gets around to: Why bother with biodiversity anyway? Not, as he points out, for new medicines. Maybe for theological reasons—out of the sense that it’s criminal to tamper any more than we must with the handiwork around us. But maybe, too, in the hope that the wilderness can teach certain lessons to human beings. This is not a sentimental argument. Human beings need to change if they’re going to deal at all with problems like global warming, which will do at least as much damage to biodiversity as deforestation.

The lessons that we might learn from the natural world—especially the idea that we are only a part of things, one component of a marvelous creation—can be learned from a visit to Yellowstone. But perhaps they can be learned even more thoroughly in those places where human beings live in intimate daily contact with the natural world, learning to make the compromises necessary to preserve both their own lives and the myriad forms of life around them. Tibet, the Adirondacks, the Amazon—these and places like them are the epicenters of some of the most radical and interesting stories on earth at the moment, even if hardly anyone wants to write about them.

  1. 3

    Daniel Taylor-Ide and Carl E. Taylor, A Just and Lasting Future: A Handbook for Practitioners (forthcoming from the University of California Press, 2001).

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