Page 1 of 2 DISPATCHES FROM AMERICA Epic effort to save the Wild West
By Chip Ward
My home sits at the gateway to a national park in Utah, a source of envy among tourists who gather along Capitol Reef's "scenic drive". But after 40 years of living in one desert or another, I know firsthand that America's iconic desert landscapes, places like Monument Valley and Arches National Park, are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that we dig up, dump on, dam, bomb, drill, over-graze, and otherwise abuse our deserts, most of them public lands owned by you, the taxpaying citizen. Generally, our management of the nation's public lands is a disgrace and deserts are exhibit A.
But let's skip the grim survey of how humans are overloading the
carrying capacity of our original earthly Eden that usually opens a report like this. The intent of such a recitation of folly is to compel the reader's attention by underlining the dire importance of the topic at hand. But I assume you understand by now that you woke up this morning on an overheated planet of slums threatened by ecological collapse.
So instead, let's get right to the point: what do we do about it? How do we begin to heal the wounds?
The crises we face and that our children and grandchildren will endure long after we leave them invite a visionary response. On the other hand, the world is already awash in well-intentioned tinkerers. Yet dysfunction and destruction still reign. Maybe it's time to leap to a new paradigm.
Enter John Davis and Trek West. At this very moment, Davis is walking, biking, paddling, and horseback riding 6,000 miles (9,650 kilometers) through a chain of mountain ranges that stretches like a spine across North America from the Sierra Madres of Mexico through the Rockies of the American West up into Canada. He started this winter in the Sonoran desert we share with our southern neighbor and has been heading northward for months. He will cross many of our most treasured national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, the ones that tourists love, but his trek is no sightseeing adventure.
Davis and his Trek West partners along the route are advocating for what they call "landscape connectivity" on a continental scale. Two years ago, Davis trekked from Key West to Quebec, 8,000 human-powered miles. Same theme: conserve and connect.
A conservation revolution
Gone are the days when conservation was all about bullets, hooks, and cameras. Fishermen and hunters are still an important constituency in the conservation community, but birdwatchers now outnumber them. Ecological criteria increasingly frame any debate about how to heal degraded habitat. What the 19th century naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir knew intuitively - that everything in the universe is "hitched to everything else" - has been confirmed beyond doubt by hard science.
Davis is one of the founders of a new school of thought called conservation biology. Its proponents argue that it is not faintly enough to preserve scenic rock and ice parks and isolated islands of wildlife. Wild creatures need room to roam so they can find the necessary water, food, and mates. In the long run, many of America's wild creatures from salamanders to bears will survive only in Disney movies if we box out genetic diversity, block migration routes, destroy nesting grounds, and save only carefully preserved, isolated populations of a species. Connectivity is the keel of an emerging conservation ethic for helping to heal this country.
John Davis envisions an unbroken chain of wild lands spanning North America from Mexico to Canada. When completed, a necklace of "core" areas, including national parks, wildlife reserves, and protected wilderness areas will be linked together and buffered by national forests and private lands. Creatures now boxed into wild islands surrounded by a sea of development will have room to roam.
A connected landscape will be more resilient as climate change puts further stress on creatures and their habitats. Already species from birds to mammals are responding to warming temperatures by moving northward if they can, or to higher ground if they can't migrate horizontally. The famed scientist and conservationist EO Wilson called the project to link together America's wild lands the most important conservation initiative in the world today.
After trekking through the habitat of the last remaining jaguars on the continent, Davis ran into the new wall designed to keep illegal Mexican migrants out of the United States. It is, he pointed out, a far more effective barrier against wildlife migration than the human version of the same and so is lobotomizing the border ecosystem we share with Mexico. As for Davis, he easily climbed it in less than five minutes and was on his way.
Backpacks meet cowboy hats
Although pushing 50, Davis has the trim, muscular build of a professional athlete - and he'll need every toned muscle he has to complete his quest. The day before I met him in Escalante, Utah, he had been surprised by a lingering bout of spring weather and found himself pushing his bike through 10 miles (16 kilometers) of deep snow on top of Utah's Aquarius Plateau. The next week, he planned to paddle through Desolation Canyon, one of the most spectacular river passages on the planet. But when I encountered him, he was taking a break and making a pitch for connectivity before a gathering of federal land managers, concerned local citizens, and ranchers who share the watershed of the Escalante River.
The Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) is the unwieldy name for a grassroots coalition whose aim is to restore the river's degraded ecosystem. The rugged network of high desert canyons that drain into the remote Escalante River have been eroding for years thanks to overgrazing by cattle. They are also choked with tamarisk and Russian olive trees.
Tamarisks are an invasive species that suck up precious ground water, while filling in springs and seeps that are the only water sources for many bird and animal species. The tall, feathery plumes of the tamarisk have taken over hundreds of miles of riverbank in the West. "Tammies" also salt the surrounding soil when they shed their leaves, killing native plants that might otherwise compete. A beetle was imported from Eurasia to eat the tammies and was unbelievably successful. As a result, those thick hedges that still block riverbanks are now dead-dry and ready to ignite. If not cut back, they will burn or regrow. Russian olive trees also crowd stream banks and add needle-like thorns to the unpleasant mix.
The diverse stakeholders in the Escalante River Watershed Partnership may not share John Davis's grand vision of an ecologically whole and "rewilded" continent, but they are intent on sewing together and rewilding their pieces of the torn fabric of American life. As any effective organizer knows, you start where there is common ground - or where there are common weeds.
Ranchers, rangers, biologists, hikers, and back-country guides are in many ways competing constituencies, but it turns out they all share the goal of clearing riparian (wet) canyons of those suffocating tammies. The scientists survey the ground and identify targets. Grants are written to bring in volunteers to do the fieldwork. Last week, a dozen Great Old Broads for Wilderness, mostly outspoken middle-aged women, spent a week clearing unwanted brush as a service project.
As biologists monitor progress and the group discusses issues that arise, inevitably the damage done by grazing cows comes up. It couldn't be a more awkward topic. After all, ranchers are in the room. Cattle ranching in these desert landscapes is a marginal activity. Those ranchers depend on federal grants, tax breaks, and access to public land to make it work. But cows erode stream banks and silt the water, short-circuit forest succession by eating seedlings, and contaminate fresh water with their voluminous poop that also spreads cheatgrass and weeds.
The hope is that eventually the EWRP will become a platform for a public airing of difficult issues like where cattle should be allowed to graze on public land and how many and when.
A roadkill extravaganza
Those awaiting Davis's Trek West presentation this particular day in this particular corner of Utah have already found a scale that seems to fit the desperate needs of our landscape, state, country, and planet. Most of us who believe in change are caught between the seeming futility of small-scale actions - like recycling our trash or using more energy-efficient light bulbs - and the impotence we experience when we push for large-scale change like climate legislation in Congress or international treaties to limit atmospheric greenhouse gases.
On the one hand, too little; on the other, too late. There does, however, turn out to be a middle scale between individual action and national or global campaigns that works well and makes sense: the community. That's the place where people can best embrace their roles as citizens, face off, share, contend, cooperate, create, learn from, and empower one another.
Watershed partnerships harken back to an old ideal. John Wesley Powell, the one-armed general and Civil War hero who later explored the Colorado River and its tributaries, was the first person to grasp and publicize the aridity rather than fecundity of significant parts of the American West. He argued that practices and policies developed for wet Eastern lands were inappropriate for the drier West. He advocated for governance around watersheds where local stakeholders committed to living within the limits they knew firsthand could come together and plan. That's what I'm observing this morning in Utah. In 21st-century terms, think of it as ecological citizenship.