Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Conclusion by Moderator Anders Halverson


If you’re looking for a cheap thrill, I recommend a little etymology. A little research and suddenly a word you have been taking for granted all your life becomes a window on history and the human condition.

Take for example, the name of the language in which this is written. English derives from the name of a Germanic tribe that migrated from the Jutland peninsula across the North Sea to Britain some time around the fifth century A.D. These Angles received their name from the Romans, who derived it from the Latin word ancus, or hook. Why? Most references will tell you it is because Jutland hooks into the North Sea. But since this shape is really only apparent from high in space (and even then it takes some imagination), an alternate explanation from historian Timothy Rawson seems much more likely to me: the Angles got their name because they caught their fish with a line and hook, instead of a spear or net like most of their contemporaries. And if that etymology is correct, we are thinking and communicating in a fishing language.

In the same vein, consider the rainbow trout. Taken for granted the world over, these fish are in fact layered with human history and all of its contradictions. They are a repository, a symbol of the different ways we have related to the natural world over the last 150 years and more. And to me they are a reminder of the need for humility as we consider where we should go from here.

My stint as moderator comes to an end this week. Thanks to all who enriched the discussion through the online comments. And thanks also to those of you who simply took the time to read the blog and/or the book.

Rainbow Trout
A reminder: I will be speaking at the National Conservation Training Center on February 27th at 7:00 pm and I will also be doing a broadcast discussion with Mark Madison. I am looking forward to more discussions in those events.

If you want to know more about the book, please visit http://andershalverson.com

And finally, if you would like to contact me about other speaking engagements or simply to carry on the discussion, please contact me here.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

What Will They Say in 50 Years? By Moderator Anders Halverson


This morning, I received an email from someone who had attended a talk I gave recently. He asked: “Is there anything going on nowadays that you would consider comparable to the Green River poisoning? Is there anything that we are currently doing that is as stupid or outlandish or that will be considered insane 50 years from now?”

Good question.

First, for those of you who haven’t read that chapter of the book yet: In 1962 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the fish and game agencies of Wyoming and Utah poisoned all the fish in the Green River above Flaming Gorge (a watershed the size of Connecticut and Massachusetts combined). Their goal was to eliminate anything that might interfere with the fishery they planned to create by stocking (nonnative) rainbow trout. 

And let me emphasize that there are still people today who argue (quite convincingly) that the operation was neither stupid or insane, but a logical response to the dams that were being built on the river (see Wiley, 2008).

The white lines in the river are
rotenone, a fish poison that was
applied to the Green River in 1962
That said, clearly such an operation would never even make it onto the drawing board today. In fact, we have now spent more than $100 million trying to recover several of the same fishes that were poisoned out 50 years ago.

So is there anything we are currently doing in fisheries or natural resource management that will have people tearing their hair out in a few decades? Of course.

But one of the most striking things to me about the Green River incident is how absolutely noncontroversial it was when it occurred. When I began my research, I was surprised at how hard it was to find newspaper articles about the incident. After a lot of scrolling through the microfiche, I eventually found a few, but they were mostly puff pieces in the sports section. It took a long time for me to realize that most people in that era simply didn’t think in the same native/nonnative dualism that has become so prevalent today. To them, fishes were divided into the game fish and the trash fish. Neither did Americans seem to have the same skepticism about progress and our ability to engineer natural systems. It was commonly believed that scientists were able and duty-bound to accomplish these things.

That’s why it is so difficult to guess what they will be saying about us 50 or 100 years from now. I’m sure we are doing things that future generations will consider stupid, outlandish, or insane. But we’re all too wrapped up in our worldviews and preconceptions to know what those things may be.
Robert Miller (L) and Jerry Smith
(2nd from L) were some of the only
people who opposed the Green
River poisoning.

I have some ideas of course, at least in terms of concepts that seem ripe for rethinking. For example, the native/nonnative dualism that shapes so much thought in natural resource management today will surely have to be deemphasized if not thrown out. Climate change is about to show us how quickly ecosystems can change and organisms can move.

In addition, I think the incredible emphasis that we currently place on conservation of species will one day seem hopelessly simplistic. (The same thing goes for biodiversity since, despite the best intentions, it is almost always quantified in terms of species.) Though it seemed a relatively well defined concept through most of the twentieth century, the very  definition of “species” is once again generating some serious head-scratching in the biological community, just as it did for Darwin.

Finally, at risk of stating the obvious, let me declare that just because we're going to make mistakes is not an excuse for not taking action. Only a call for humility when we do.