26 April 2012


The other day I wrote a post on logical fallacies, noting that if more people applied logical reasoning and mutual respect when entering into debates over political, economic, or religious issues, we would be more likely to arrive at a middle ground where workable solutions can be devised.  In today's polarized, rigid climate, that middle ground can be elusive.

Here is a perfect example of a volatile issue which tends to push people into opposing, black-or-white opinions ~ wilderness.  Half a century ago when I was growing up in northern Montana, the debate over wilderness had not coalesced. My rural boyhood included many Boy Scout camping trips into the nearby Rocky Mountains, and many family visits to Glacier National Park.  For anyone to suggest back then that wilderness has limited value, would have been inconceivable.  I felt completely at home in the natural world, and held the wildlife which lived there in high regard.  There is no more healing, more nurturing place.

It wasn't until I grew up that I became aware of the pressures being exerted upon wilderness from many vested interests ~ the mining, agriculture, grazing and timber industries, along with human expansion into former wilderness areas, along with our contamination of the air, water, and land with pesticides, noxious gases, industrial and human waste.  The picture became more grim with each passing year.

Thankfully I wasn't the only one who loved and wished to protect wilderness.  Conservation and environmental groups formed, with tactics ranging from working within the system to effect protection, to working outside the system to obstruct "development".  (This same duality existed in the civil rights and women's movements, and I'm convinced that both approaches are necessary.)  In recent decades, as human population has continued its inexorable expansion, the battle lines have become distinct and vocal, sometimes violent.  As species have been pushed to extinction and entire ecosystems have disappeared, even non-conservationists have begun to wonder what we've done to our garden planet ~ especially now that predictions of anthropogenic global warming and climate change are clearly coming true.

I recently discovered a video in which each side in the wilderness controversy eloquently presents its case.  In Wilderness:  the Great Debate, those who see wilderness as a treasure to be preserved square off with those who see wilderness as a resource to be exploited.  It is a highly informative journey.  As you might predict, I am foursquare on the side of preservation.  On the other hand, I grew up steeped in the land use ethos of the West, so I can understand the point of view of those who fear outsiders' intervention into their lives.  (What many locals fail to recognize or admit is that wilderness does not belong to whomever lives closest ~ it belongs to everyone, including those who may never in their lives experience it.  More to the point, wilderness and wildlife have a right to exist for their own sake.)

We need more voices of moderation to bridge the gap.  Each camp feels that right (or more precisely, righteousness) is on its side.  But often valuable information is simply missing from the debate ~ information which could lead both points of view to realize that they share more commonality than differences.  For example, the shrinking timber industry longs for the good old days of clearcutting, unfettered access to old-growth forest, and the support of the agencies which are supposed to regulate forest activity.  But half a century ago, the lumber produced was being used for home construction within the U.S.  These days, much of that lumber is being loaded onto ships and sent to other nations.  We are, in effect, giving away our wilderness to people who live halfway around the globe.

Granted, we live in a global economy.  That is simply reality.  But when it comes to wilderness and wildlife (whether in the U.S., or in Botswana, or in Costa Rica), once it's gone, recovery takes many decades ~ assuming that the native flora and fauna survive in sufficient numbers to re-establish themselves.  So wilderness is a special case, and requires careful handling and thoughtful discussion.  The film link is a good start, but only a start.  And time is running out.

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