Monday, January 30, 2012

Optimist or pessimist? by Moderator Scott Weidensaul

As I mentioned in my first post, the consensus among my friends and colleagues when I set out to retrace Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher's original Wild America trip was that, all in all, it would be a pretty grim experience.

Looking for the beating heart of wild North America after half a century of burgeoning human population, eroding habitat and species loss, everyone agreed, would be a depressing exercise. And I have to admit, I thought so myself.

Gray wolf, Denali National Park, AK (©Scott Weidensaul)
And there were many times when that sober prediction was made real – the sprawl that had gobbled up so much of my native East, the insidious effects of environmental toxins like estrogen mimics – even situations that would be comic were they not so tragic, like the collapse of sea otter populations because of a cat parasite carried into waterways by flushable kitty-litter.

But to my surprise, I came away from my own travels feeling more energized than I had been in years – yes, there was bad news, but it was largely eclipsed by all the good things that we'd accomplished. I found a deeper understanding of what enormous environmental hurdles we'd overcome in the past decades, and returned with a recharged confidence in our ability to effect great change.

Return to Wild America was published in 2005, in the midst of an administration overtly hostile to many environmental causes – "a fire-sale mentality at the federal level, a damn-the-environment attitude on a scale we haven't witnessed in generations," as I wrote in the book's conclusion.

Yet I felt sure this was just a temporary hiccup, and the best, I believed, lay still ahead, if we were bold enough to seize it:

Grapevine Hills, Big Bend National Park, TX
(©Scott Weidensaul)
"We have, I think, a responsibility to stretch beyond what common sense tells us is possible, because if the past half-century carries any lesson for conservationists, it's that we can do far more than we think we can. We will never have a pre-Columbian America, complete in all its too-much splendor, but such is the resiliency of wild America that mostly what we need is the courage to dream big and set goals that are equal to this majestic land. The key is hope, because hope, when paired with the ferocious love Americans feel for their land, becomes action."

It's been seven years since then – seven years that have seen a change in administrations, but a souring of political discourse and a hardening of divisions; a steady march of public opinion, at odds with the rest of the world, away from recognition that climate change is real and dangerous; a financial crisis that has left many people focused merely on survival, and which spawned draconian budget cuts in critical programs at the federal, state and local level; and the rise of a political movement that uses opposition to environmental protection as a blunt weapon, and sees almost any kind of regulation as an incarnate evil.

Pisgah National Forest, NC
(©Scott Weidensaul)
Closer to home, I've seen the biggest surge in energy development in memory, driven largely by natural gas drilling, and a gold-rush mentality (exemplified by my home state of Pennsylvania) in which even the most cursory oversight of fracking is considered anathema by our elected officials, even while we begin to alter the landscape in ways we haven't seen since the coal-mining boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Am I as optimistic as I was when I lifted off from the Pribilof Islands, after my 11-month sojourn around North America? I'd have to say that I'm not, though perhaps that's inevitable; one reason I came away so confident is that by following a trail laid down in 1953, I saw the world through twin visions – today's reality, superimposed on the harsh facts of Eisenhower-era conservation.

But what about you? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Why, and about what issues? I doubt anyone falls wholly into one camp or the other; what gives you the most cause for hope, and what engenders the most grief and despair? What are the biggest roadblocks, and where are the greatest opportunities for conservation?


Bill Sherwonit said...

Living in Alaska, where the state's political leaders seem to see the only good as development, I frequently teeter on the edge of despair (as more than one politician has emphasized, "Alaska is open for business"). The state's pro-development bent ranges from local government to the legislature to the governor's office and our 3-person Congressional delegation, including Democratic Senator Mark Begich, who has pushed for oil and gas development in both the Arctic Refuge and offshore. Ugh. Besides that, we have a regressive wildlife-management regime that has escalated its predator-kill programs to levels not seen in decades (since before Alaska was a state). The latest includes the snaring and shooting of black and brown/grizzly bears -- including females with cubs and the cubs themselves -- in one predator-control area, and, beginning this spring, the aerial shooting of grizzlies in a portion of the Arctic. Very discouraging stuff. Also disheartening is what's happening at the national (and international) level, in response to climate change: our so-called political "leaders" are doing little to nothing to seriously address global warming. Which reminds me that there's a new push for coal development in Alaska, including one proposed scheme that would destroy a significant salmon stream, across Cook Inlet from my adopted hometown of Anchorage.

Still, I have learned (or perhaps better put, I'm still learning) to balance my sadness and dismay with the joy that comes in regularly connecting with the wondrous wild, often right outside my house (this ties back to some of the discussion in Scott's first posting). Today my life was brightened by the chatter of black-capped chickadees, the sweet warbled songs of pine grosbeaks and the cawing of ravens. And I crossed paths with three snow buntings, an uncommon sighting in Anchorage.

At the same time, I am now more of a wildlands and wildlife advocate than I have ever been. This helps: doing something. And I am also cheered by the efforts of friends, colleagues, and many more people whom I don't know, who continue to do good work on behalf of the wild Earth and our world's inhabitants.

So, I'm not sure I see myself as either an optimist or pessimist. I simply know that I ride a pendulum that swings between hope and despair. When caught up in the sorrow, I try to remember Thich Nhat Hanh's reminder that all of us who "walk on earth" are part of a miracle (whether we recognize it or not). Amen to that. And occasionally I'll think of Mary Oiver's question, "what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I've mentioned some of what I do above. Or her "Instructions for living a life.
"Pay attention.
"Be astonished.
"Tell about it."

Happily for me, the life of a nature writer involves all three of those actions: paying attention, being astonished, and telling/writing about it.

So. Enough said for now. Thanks Scott, good food for thought (and action).

Mark LaRoux said...

I guess a lot of my optimism comes from knowing that multiple attempts at extermination of a species, whether intentional or 'accidental' (is there still such a thing?) are not universally kept across our culture. I've argued this issue on several websites, that part of the fascination with native cultures was...and is...their diversity. One tried to kill a certain species, while it's neighbor saw this same species as a holy animal, and a third may just ignore it. Eventually the species will re-disperse. Even snakes were not universally persecuted by all. With our homogenous culture, especially via internet/TV, we are expected to 'act as our neighbors act' and keep a green yard (killing the past creatures with monotonous grass) to keep false mortgage values up, shoot snakes (all of them...who knows which are poisonous any more?) shoot coyotes (or anything coyote-ish), etc. It's like we are all expected to draw our wisdom from fictional westerns when we encounter anything beyond our normal routine.
Choot it! Christina Eisenberg's 'ecology of fear' is so encompassing to nature's trophic cascades, but our own thinking is brought to life in much subtler ways....Twilight series...'The Grey', etc. We have a small child in each of us living the fear in our dreams at night, and I think many times that child awakens with the residual hate of the fictional animal it dreamed about, having its view skewed by movies and unreal animation. -Lots of Jungian stuff to explore in this....for another time I guess.-
I see hope in setting one tribe, one state, one group apart from the others, and giving each species a chance to re-disperse over time. It worked with wolves and beavers out West...apparently not so much with ivory-billeds in the East (if only we had kept one small group...if only).
It seems to always be the same sales pitch from the opposition too: be scared, buy now, national security, etc. We are duped again and again into allowing a false emergency (i.e. energy 'crisis')...that creates a real one. --how about no more false emergencies-- (like Scott said about Pa). If there is a solve for this, in my view, it's to teach people a) environmental awareness, food waste, personal responsibility, etc.--normal BSA/Scout values--, and b) critical thinking...make it obligatory in classes, so we aren't continually duped by 30 second commercials on TV/internet blogs.
Let's just hope we keep all the pieces we can in our times, to be used at a later date to a greater good by some wiser than us...our kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. It's the only hope we got.

Jason said...

As many crazy, manic-depressive personalities exist in my head...I change from pessimist to optimist almost hourly these days. So I polled some of my other personae and asked them why? Here's a few of "our" thoughts: Pessimist - the conglomeration (working for govt or big biz) red-tape/policy/bureaucracy I lovingly call "red tide." It raises my blood pressure and brings about tears and/or anger so often you think I'd learn and just say "it's the way it is" like others...but I don't. When policy and trying to look "politically correct" get in the way of good science, outreach and/or getting work done in the field, to me it becomes a huge roadblock that needs to be changed. But it rarely ever happens. Instead - more policy and paperwork is usually added. :(

Optimism - I am lucky, VERY lucky, to get to work with youth and volunteers and daily - usually when I most need it - I get to see a spark in a child's eye when they finally GET how pollution can affect a whole watershed. Or garner knowledge of a local area from an elder volunteer whose brain filled with local lore and tidbits is a treasure chest for an interpreter learning a new area. In these things I see hope. In the volunteers I see people caring enough to basically work long hours for free - to help and do what they know in their hearts is right - regardless of policy or politics. And in the kids - man - if anyone out there is feeling pessimistic about the state of conservation...I encourage you to teach a group of 4th graders and take them on an exploratory wildlife walk outside. And then, when that eagle or bear or deer or frog or fish jumps/swims/ambles or flies by them and they can't stop talking about it for hours and their eyes are nerfball-sized...then tell me there isn't hope. Because if we can teach kids early to know and care - they will most likely do so as adults. This will form the way they think and vote - and this can affect change in government - and hopefully - keep the environment, conservation, endangered species, climate change and the like - important issues in this country and not sidebar anecdotes.

Scott Weidensaul said...

As someone who has been an annual or biennial visitor to Alaska for the past 30 years (and a lifelong hunter and angler), I continue to be amazed by AK Dept. of Fish and Game's ability to lower the bar on wildlife management and march resolutely back to the 19th century.

The kinds of shenanigans that Bill described, as well as the 2010 decision to remove a buffer zone on the northeast side of Denali National Park that protected a wolf pack studied since 1939, and which follows caribou herds out of the park in winter, is typical. Looking at AKDFG's decisions, it's hard not to conclude that many of them are made less out of conviction than specifically to poke a stick in the eye of critics in the Lower 48 and rouse the rabble at home.

So yes, I feel a lot of anger and despair over that sort of thing. Because I've been watching raptors since childhood, and studying hawks and owls for more than 25 years, my feelings about predator conservation are especially keen.

And while the idiocy in Alaska, and the fallout of the forced Congressional delisting of gray wolves in the northern Rockies, are both deeply disheartening, I take a lot of satisfaction from seeing how overall attitudes toward predators have shifted tectonically in the past few decades.

A couple of weeks ago I had an fascinating conversation about many of these issues with a few friends, one of whom used to run Oregon's fish and game department. At the time, he said, they considered wolf reintroduction but reluctantly concluded that the wilderness cores in the eastern part of the state were too small for wolves.

What happened? The wolves from the northern Rockies disagreed, and colonized the state successfully. Now, one of them has traveled more than 500 miles and become the first wolf in California since that state's last packs were exterminated in the 1920s.

These events have not been universally welcomed, of course; a lot of the predictable fuss and fume has come from the predictable quarters. But overall, the reaction has been positive and welcoming - this from a species that has spent most of its recent history trying to eliminate large predators.

The wolves of the western Great Lakes also had their time at the white-hot center of controversy. One of my father's high school friends, Craig Rupp, was the superintendent of Superior National Forest back in 1970, and was one of the first in those pre-Endangered Species Act days to work for wolf protection when he banned their killing in the national forest. I remember him visiting our house around that time, and talking about the death threats he received as a result.

Today, of course, wolves have reoccupied most of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, with an estimated population of 3,000 in Minnesota alone, and increasing wolf sightings in the lower peninsula of Michigan. The USFWS just delisted the Great Lakes wolves, meaning that the states have full responsibility for their management – but I don't think they'll make a political bloodbath of it, the way the Western states have, because wolves are now largely an accepted part of the natural landscape.

We obviously have a lot of work to do, and a lot of battles that we'll inevitably lose. But the gray wolf story in the Lower 48 is a heartening example of how little breathing space it sometimes takes for nature to make enormous strides toward recovery.

Scott Weidensaul said...

I couldn't agree with Jason more – working with kids is hands-down the best way I know to recharge my drained batteries. Two examples:

--For the past 15 years I've directed a big project here in Pennsylvania to study the migration of northern saw-whet owls. We have an all-volunteer crew of about 18 banders and 85 helpers - mostly adults, but we've also had some terrific kids who, with a lot of support from their parents, worked as full members of the banding team.

Some of them started as young as 9, 10 or 11, and basically grew up on our project – and some of them have gone on to great things, like ornithological field research and Ph.D. programs in climate science. I couldn't be prouder to call them friends and colleagues.

--I also teach every summer at Audubon's historic Hog Island Camp on the coast of Maine. One of the sessions is called Coastal Maine Bird Studies – basically, it's an intensive, week-long immersion in field ornithology for teens.

It also overlaps with a session of adult field ornithology – and we always get some nervous adults at the beginning of the week, who say, "I didn't know I was going to have to spend a week on an island with a bunch of teenagers."

At which I smile a sly smile, because I know that the most common complaint we get at the end of the week from the adults is, "I didn't get to spend enough time with the teens." These are amazing young men and women, deeply passionate about birds and the environment, many of them already doing college (or even graduate) level research while they're still in high school.

Whether I'm at the banding station or on Hog Island, like Jason, I take a huge amount of comfort and energy from seeing who's coming up behind us, anxious to pick up the torch and make this a better world.

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