What is 'wild'?

By Candace Ricks-Oathout
From Eco-Logic


In "B.C." Wiley's dictionary, he defines the term eco-system as "an array of reverberating mantras emanating from well-meaning environmentalists".

How can we plan for and manage something we can't even define?

Mark Twain once said, "the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug".

E. O. Wilson, in his book, The Diversity of Life states that "The origin of most biological diversity, in a phrase, is a side product of evolution." He, then, writes at great length of the need to somehow achieve a "steady state eco-system" where bio-diversity can thrive without change.

How can this be, when the very definition of evolution is constant change? He goes on to list reasons why species are determined to be Extinct, Endangered, Vulnerable, and Rare according to the Red Data Books published by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as follows:

Destruction of physical habitat - 73% of species
Displacement by introduced species - 68% of species
Alteration of habitat by chemical pollutants - 38% of species
Hybridization with other species & subspecies - 38% of species
Overharvesting - 15% of species
If the definition of evolution is constant change and the adaptation of species to changes in their environment, why are changes in habitat, hybridization and displacement of such grave concern? Aren't they a part of the evolutionary process?

Darwin, in his seminal work The Origin of Species, stated "Of the species living now, very few will transmit progeny to a far distant futurity." Why should we expect all species and all diversity to remain frozen in a particular state of being when the very basis for the argument of evolution and bio-diversity is continual change and adaptation?

Another word that defies precise definition is "wilderness". It is impossible from the research available today to accurately establish how large an area constitutes true wilderness or even if a true wilderness can be established.

Bill McKibbon, in his book The End of Nature, argues that true wilderness is already lost because there is literally nowhere on the planet that is not impacted in some way by human existence. On the other hand, in theory, if a person does not see, hear or smell civilization he is in wilderness.

The Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission's report of 1962 defined wilderness as areas over 100,000 acres containing no roads useable by the public. This land is also supposed to show "no significant ecological disturbance from on-site human activity".

There is a disturbing assumption that when acres of landscape are altered by human activity, or are no longer virgin, they are written off as somehow lost, as if they had vanished from the earth. Based on my research, most environmental groups want to restore vast expanses of the American Continent to the mythic Eden it never was.

Some of the terms used to describe this are the "Buffalo Commons," and the "Re-wilding" of the American Continent, and now the National Forest Protection Plan. There is a very selective cultural memory regarding what this continent was and who inhabited it prior to the European expansion. The concept that "wilderness" can exist only if large tracts of land are placed in government ownership and locked away from public use by reducing access through the elimination of roads and the establishment of strict quotas at trail heads is simply unacceptable. It is a misconception at best.

The reality of the situation is that according to Evan Eisenberg, in his book The Ecology of Eden, America was not a wilderness when white people arrived; it was a humanized landscape, though one humanized far more subtly than Europe had been. In fact, most of the first white settlements were on clearings the Indians had farmed for centuries.

A Tuscarora Indian, named Richard Hill, has observed that, for the Indian the whole universe was civilized. One of their chief's said it best: "The West wasn't wild until the white man got here". Though the Indians had their sacred places, they felt no need to set aside vast tracts of land as wilderness preserves, for they felt themselves to be part of the wilderness. Many Americans completely discount the concept that there were civilizations, settlements and cultures across the American Continent prior to the European Expansion on to it in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Both the terms "Buffalo Commons" and "re-wilding," propose to return a major portion of the United States to what it is perceived to have been prior to the establishment of the United States and the Western Expansion. The conventional wisdom is that these lands were untouched by human influence until they were "discovered" by European explorers and settlers.

In fact I have had long, heated discussions with a wildlife biologist at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California, regarding whether horses are native to the American Continent. Since the existence of a small band of wild horses does not fit into his agenda for the use of park resources, he has determined that they are not a native species and must be removed from the park.

My argument is that if this band of approximately 30 horses has lived in the Coyote Canyon area of the park for at least fifty years and possibly as long as fifteen hundred years, they are in equilibrium with their habitat and are, therefore, a native species. My research has shown that horses (the species equus) had inhabited the American Continent and, then, disappeared approximately 10,000 years ago. Skeletal remains have been found in the Northern Plains and Canada. So, if they don't fit under the term "native" they are, at a minimum, a reintroduced species and should be supported as such. Needless to say, this is not a popular concept.

Another interesting term that fails reasonable definition is "old growth". If we look at the evidence provided by historical record, research on lake and pond bottoms and aerial or satellite imagery we learn that forestation is successional and is linked to climate change, development, insect infestation and a number of other causes.

The fierce wild land fires we have suffered in the last few years in the western United States are proof that deforestation can and will occur through natural causes, such as lightening strikes. They are proof that "old growth" stands of forest are a part of the evolution of natural acreage, in fact, they are a successional part of the evolution of forestlands. They appear to be the end-stage product of the evolution of forests and, as such, may not be the best and most productive stands. Lightening strikes are much more apt to cause widespread fires in older, mature trees that are drier.

Discussions of deforestation always appear to assume that reforestation either cannot happen, or will not be acceptable, to the species that inhabit the pristine forest. This is simply not true. In fact, many species adapt quite well. Reforestation is alive and well in the Upper Peninsula Region of Michigan and along the Eastern Seaboard with literally thousands of acres that had been logged off by the early settlers for fuel, building, agriculture and pasture lands significantly reforested.

In 1920, the United States had about 600 million acres of forest. In 1994 it had approximately 728 million acres, and this number continues to increase annually. Ancient forests are renewable too! Most, if not all, of the irreplaceable "old growth" forests found in the United States today have been destroyed by glaciers, fire, insect infestation, and many other "natural" factors that just happened to occur before we began keeping written records of these events.

If we accept the concept of evolution and diversity of species, we must accept that all species flourish on the earth for a finite period of time, and will vanish from the earth in time with or without exposure to human activity. As Greg Easterbrook put it in his book, A Moment on the Earth, "It is incumbent upon mankind to stop shortening the moments that other creatures survive on earth".

As I have studied the Environmental Impact Statements and Reports for the implementation of the Four Forest Management Plan Update and the Yosemite National Forest Management Plan Update, I have followed threads of a bio-centric rationale that frankly display a trend that, I believe, does not bode well for future generations. This same rationale appears in the Anza-Borrego State Park Management Plan Update, the Southern California Mountains and Foothills Assessment, and a number of other EIR/EIS documents that I have had the dubious pleasure of reading and studying.

This concept is the "coarse filter model" which posits that we can and, indeed, must return a wilderness area or eco-system to the way it would have developed had there been no human influence in a given area. This concept is extremely biased and cannot be used in the policy and decision making process. It is not possible to establish a reference model. There is simply no way to determine when a given area has not been exposed to human influence.

It is impossible to definitively determine reference model conditions; therefore, it is not possible to determine if, or how closely, current conditions mirror them. The underlying concept that the conditions of wilderness areas and eco-systems pre-human influences are superior to current conditions is based on an extremely biased worldview that is seriously flawed.

The hypothesis that all Endangered Species need vast tracts of wilderness to survive has simply not been proved out by species recovery. The least Bell's vireo, while seriously endangered due to habitat loss in Southern California, has quite successfully rebounded when it can find the particular riparian corridor habitat niche it prefers.

Trails systems and flooding in the Tijuana River Valley and Coyote Canyon in Anza-Borrego State Park have proven beneficial to nesting and population growth. The peregrine falcon, which has been delisted, and the bald eagle, which is being considered for delisting, have rebounded, and are thriving in the Midwest. Both these species are regularly seen foraging and nesting adjacent to heavily populated areas along the Mississippi River near Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Human impact is much less a factor on species survival than adequate food and shelter sources that are affected by topography and water sources. Peregrine falcons regularly nest on high-rise buildings and smoke stacks in metropolitan areas. White tailed deer are so prevalent on the eastern seaboard and along the Mississippi River corridor that many suburbs and towns have ordinances prohibiting the feeding of them due to the danger they present to motorists. Mountain lion populations are increasing throughout the Pacific Northwest, Southwest, and Canada. The Minnesota River corridor in southwestern suburbs of Minneapolis is home to at least one mountain lion who has been photographed several times.

Many species, both predator and prey, now thrive in semi-rural and even urban settings, we have come to an age of coexistence in which we must accept that humanscapes are not exempt from other species' searches for usable habitats. Although it is, or should be, obvious that the large predator-human interface should be minimized, it exists and will continue to grow. Bears and mountain lions are proving that they are more and more a danger to humans as the interface between these species expands. Wolves, at present, are primarily a danger to livestock, but if existing packs continue to grow and spread they can rapidly become a danger to humans as well.

If we truly value wilderness, we must find ways to reconnect with it on every level. To quote Baba Dioum, an African biologist; "In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught."

We cannot possibly learn to love that which we cannot experience because we are shut out of every opportunity to live in it or visit it. My greatest fear is that we will find ourselves unwilling participants living a Sierra Club commercial, camping on the center of a highway median because that is the only place left open to the average citizen.


Candace Ricks-Oathout, is Chair of Citizens Against Recreational Eviction of Minnesota.


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