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What’s Wild? The Battle for Nature in the 21st Century

It's conservationist against conservationist as those that care most about biodiversity and wilderness argue over the best way to manage and protect what little we have left.
Bison ford the Yellowstone River. (Photo: Fred LaBounty/Shutterstock)

Bison ford the Yellowstone River. (Photo: Fred LaBounty/Shutterstock)

In 1964 the Chevy Impala broke all sales records, My Fair Lady won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law after an eight-year legislative battle involving 60 different drafts and 18 public hearings. I was barely walking at the time, and my one-year-old self failed to appreciate the significance of this new era in conservation: Namely, that car-happy America would manage its dwindling supply of roadless areas specifically for their wildness, not for logging, mining, or even tourism. Instead, these places would remain “untrammeled” where “man ... is a visitor who does not remain.”

As conservationists celebrate the 50th anniversary of the act in 2014, the battle lines have reformed. And this time, the war is internal.

The revolution is led by Peter Kareiva, the iconoclastic chief scientist of The Nature Conservancy, one of the largest non-profit conservation groups in the world. In a provocative essay published in 2012 by the Breakthrough Institute, a maverick think tank known for challenging traditional environmentalism, Kareiva, colleague Robert Lalasz, and Santa Clara University ecologist Michelle Marvier argued that conservation’s obsessive focus on biodiversity and wilderness has failed miserably, both in protecting species and engaging people. They noted that, despite a tenfold increase in protected areas since 1950, the world is “losing species and wild places at an accelerating rate.”

Even worse, at times protected areas have forced indigenous people off their lands or generated local backlash because of restricted use. Instead of pitting people against nature, they argued, conservation should focus on enhancing nature’s benefits to people: clean air, clean water, productive soil, and a slew of other benefits scientists have dubbed ecosystem services. Simply setting aside wild places as islands of nature in a sea of urbanization, agricultural expansion, and logging won’t cut it, they said. Instead, if we want to save biodiversity—and if we want people to care—we need to embrace the unwild places in between.

All of these scientists agree that climate change will alter ecosystems, causing some species to shift poleward and others to go extinct. And as globalization intensifies, invasive species will continue to disrupt established ecosystems, spreading even into treasured places such as Yosemite and the Smokies.

The old guard is led by Michael Soulé, professor emeritus of environmental studies at the University of California-Santa Cruz and a revolutionary himself back in the 1980s when he founded the interdisciplinary field of conservation biology. In those days, most academic ecologists studied the basic ecological processes driving interactions between species and the environment. Their applied cousins in natural resource management focused on producing more trees to cut, fish to catch, and game to hunt. But this dichotomy wasn’t working for conservation, or for those of us starting our careers at the time. When my undergraduate advisor at Cornell University asked me why I was majoring in natural resources—apparently surprised that so many women were now populating a program that traditionally drew a (presumably male) hook and bullet crowd—I mumbled something about Jane Goodall and saving wildlife and wondered how he could be so dense. Soulé’s groundbreaking 1980 book Conservation Biology: An Evolutionary–Ecological Perspective, with Stanford ecologist Bruce Wilcox, was a welcome sign that at least some scientific energy would now go toward conserving biodiversity; the spectrum of species, ecosystems, and genotypes that populate the planet.

Today, the Anthropocene—the era in which human activities affect every corner of the Earth—is forcing another rethinking. Science writer Emma Marris tagged this new nature a “Rambunctious Garden” in her 2011 book of the same name: constantly changing, shaped by people, cultivated in some places but wild in others, and responding to conditions that we can’t always control. Not all change is bad, she argued, and cited a slew of recent research challenging long-held ecological assumptions, among them that invasive species are inherently bad, that native landscapes are always more diverse, and that species need to co-evolve over eons of time to form functional ecosystems. Instead, she wrote about endangered willow flycatchers depending on Middle Eastern tamarisks in the American Southwest and plant diversity doubling on Chile’s Easter Island because of human introductions. Nature is where you find it, according to Marris, and most people don’t find it in remote wilderness areas far from home, but in their local park or own backyard.

Kareiva agrees and claims that nature isn’t as fragile as conservationists make it out to be. He points to Bikini Atoll, the site of atomic testing during the Cold War, which he claims now has a greater number of coral species than before the bombs. He attacks iconic figures such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau as hypocrites who nourished a romantic notion of pre-European pristine nature that never really existed. Ecosystems are constantly changing, argue the “new conservationists,” and humans—from prehistoric migrants wiping out mastodons to modern cities gobbling up countryside—have always altered them. Yet the pristine paradigm promoted by Muir persists in conservation to this day. Kareiva and his cohort argue that we can no longer afford this fantasy. They point to polls showing that ideals about the intrinsic value of nature appeal to only a slim segment of the population: the largely white backpacking crowd.

To Soulé, the argument that nothing is pristine is a red herring. “Every ecologist in the world knows that,” Soulé says. But he maintains that a world in which people always come first means that hundreds of thousands of native species will go extinct. In an editorial in the journal Conservation Biology this past year, he questioned how human-centric systems will accommodate “inconvenient, bellicose species such as lions, elephants, bears, jaguars, wolves, crocodiles and sharks – keystone species that maintain much of the wild’s biodiversity.” An expert on carnivores, Soulé’s own research shows that when predators disappear, other species do too. Think Yellowstone without wolves: elk proliferate, devour streamside willows, and reduce bird life dependent on those shrubs. Even more insidious, invasive species are now a routine side effect of global trade, hitching rides on ships and planes, landing in new places and often displacing native species in their new homes. Forget the Anthropocene. Kareiva and Marris’ world would hasten a future that Soulé already has christened the Homogocene, where everything is the same everywhere.

So where does that leave wilderness in the 21st century? All of these scientists agree that climate change will alter ecosystems, causing some species to shift poleward and others to go extinct. And as globalization intensifies, invasive species will continue to disrupt established ecosystems, spreading even into treasured places such as Yosemite and the Smokies. Untrammeled wilderness suggests hands-off management that lets nature run its course. But will doing so now lead, unintentionally, to the Homogocene that Soulé fears?

“You can’t expect wilderness ecosystems to stay the same simply by leaving them alone,” says Greg Aplet, senior forest scientist at The Wilderness Society, the organization that spearheaded passage of the Wilderness Act 50 years ago. Climate change, invasive species, air pollution, and more have changed that expectation. Yet he fears the world loses something if people intervene everywhere. Wilderness originally was about humility according to Aplet: It was about admitting that we don’t always have all the answers, and identifying places on the landscape where we’re just not going to intervene.”To him, part of the answer lies in considering the landscape as a whole. He notes that other, more intensively managed areas—non-wilderness parks, wildlife refuges, forests, rangelands, and other working lands—can be managed for biodiversity as well. “We shouldn’t balance the future of ecosystems on the backs of wilderness alone,” he says.

In truth, we don’t do that now anyway. In my two decades working with conservation groups—on staff, as a consultant, and now a board member—I’ve worked on projects that span the conservation spectrum, from promoting fully protected marine reserves that ban fishing to advising businesses on their environmental stewardship. Pitting the unavoidable Anthropocene against the dreaded Homogocene feels like a false dichotomy. Neither Kareiva and Marvier nor Marris claim that protected areas and wilderness play no role in conservation. “I’m not suggesting we dismantle Yellowstone or that the more traditional approaches end or go away,” Marris told me. “I just want to expand the palette.”

Malcolm L. Hunter Jr., professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Maine, sees little that’s new in this so-called new conservation. He notes that when America’s first chief forester, Gifford Pinchot, applied the term conservation to natural resource management at the end of the 19th century, he focused on conserving resources for human use. Decades later, conservation hero Aldo Leopold expanded the definition in his famed Sand County Almanac and other writings, to include the intrinsic value of all species. “But in doing so he didn’t reject the idea that humans have a role and that conservation should be for humans as well,” says Hunter. In an upcoming essay in Conservation Biology, Hunter and co-authors see a middle ground in conservation—literally. Places with only moderate numbers of people—the farm fields, forests, and coastal areas where people make their living off of the land—provide additional opportunities for protecting biodiversity while also providing benefits to people. Even so, some species will need remote protected areas if they are to persist. “The tent of conservation should be big enough to encompass both approaches,” he says.

Instead, provocative language from Kareiva and his crew has triggered two camps, each lobbing missives at the other in the scientific literature. “You don’t have innovation and real change when everybody’s saying, Hey we’re doing such a great job,” Marvier says. Perhaps. But both sides seem to be tiring of this fratricide. Within the next 50 years the world will reach a peak population of 9.6 billion people (up from today’s 7.2 billion). By then, the top selling car could be a solar-powered George Jetson model and the best films screened entirely on computer chips embedded in our brains. Regardless, one thing seems certain: Fewer places on Earth will remain untrammeled. Avoiding even greater ecological crisis then will take collective action now.