The word wilderness instantly conjures up images of untouched mountain ranges and preserved forests. But as society settles into what is increasingly being called the Human Age, or the Anthropocene, many conservationists and biologists are questioning whether true wildness actually still exists.
Have factors like industrial development, human population growth and, most importantly today, climate change permanently erased our planet’s few remaining wild places?
Environmental journalist Jason Mark explores that question in his new book Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man, published Sept. 28.
InsideClimate News spoke with Mark, editor of SIERRA magazine and the co-founder of San Francisco’s largest urban farm, about how climate change is threatening America’s wilderness, why we should care and what, if anything, can be done to protect these fragile ecosystems. Also, read an excerpt of the book.
InsideClimate News: How did you first become interested in the state of the world’s wildness?
Jason Mark: As an environmental journalist, I had begun to overhear and then follow a conversation that started in academia about wilderness and wildness in the 20th century, what people are calling the Anthropocene, the Human Age. It has really roiled the field of conservation biology in recent years. What does conservation look like, in a world altered by climate change and other connected environmental challenges? A lot of people were arguing that wildness was dead and we needed a total rethinking of what conservation would look like in the 21st century. I just thought that was an intriguing point of view and so I just dove in.
ICN: How do you define wildness?
JM: “Wildness is the preservation of the world”—A line from Thoreau. For 150 years, wildness has been a touchstone for how many people think about nature. They probably think about pristine, someplace ripped from the pages of a World Wildlife Fund mailing. Now, most obviously because of climate change, we know there is no place on earth that is completely untouched. Humans’ fingerprints are everywhere.
But actually, when you look at the entomology of the word, wildness doesn’t mean pristine, it means un-dominated. It doesn’t mean untouched, but uncontrolled. If we do live in the Anthropocene, wildness becomes even more important than ever as kind of a barometer to understand the degree to which we are dominating a landscape.
ICN: What were some of the major early factors threatening wilderness?
JM: It was just sheer human development. Our increasing spread across the landscape. By the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, we were completely interrupting natural systems. Large-scale mining was putting things like mercury and arsenic in waterways and literally blowing apart mountains to get at gold underneath. With proto-industrial agriculture there was widespread land-clearing. It was in reaction to that that the American conservation movement was born: The Audubon Society because of the over-hunting of birds and other beasts, the Sierra Club to preserve wild areas in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and prevent the building of a dam in the middle of Yosemite National Park. Those pre-Rachel Carson conservation organizations were just responding to what was the essentially reckless and wanton destruction of landscapes.
We were making these massive changes on the landscape, but climate change has really been the global game changer in recent decades.
ICN: What challenge does climate change pose to wilderness?
JM: The field of conservation biology is at this inflection point because of climate change, because of what is essentially the dislocation of flora and fauna from their traditional habitat. Look at the word dislocation: It literally means being shoved out of their home. We are seeing plants and animals having to move either poleward or upward in elevation to cope with the changes from rising temperatures and from changing precipitation patterns.
I interviewed National Park Service director Jon Jarvis for the book. He joked, “Are we going to have to start irrigating the sequoias’ in Sequoia National Park to sustain them? Will the parks service have to engage in the assisted migration of the joshua tree if it can no longer thrive in Joshua Tree National Park?”
How do you conserve a landscape if the mental image we have of that landscape changes? Professional conservation biologists and ecologists have long understood that ecosystems change. That is one of the first rules of ecology. But those changes are now happening so quickly that plants and animals can’t keep up. That’s when you start to have to make tough choices about intervening in otherwise natural systems.
ICN: Out of all the places you visited in reporting the book, where is climate change having the most drastic impact?
JM: The on-the-ground consequences of global climate change have been felt most intensely at the poles. Not just in gross temperature increase, but then the knock-on effects. On a complete fluke because of bad weather trying to get the Brooks Range in a tiny little bush plane, we had to land in a place called Arctic Village, which is one of the communities of the Gwich’in people. I had a chance to have dinner, a moose stew, with a couple of Gwich’in old timers. Their stories were really evocative. These are folks in their 60s or 70s and in their memory have seen incredible changes that are unmistakably the result of climate change. Warmer temperatures in the winter, less ice over the rivers, changes in rain patterns. I was told of a couple that spends a lot of time hunting and fishing and trapping. They went through the ice into a river on their snowmobile. They turned out OK, but of course it was a very scary and dangerous episode.
ICN: Did you see wildlife nowhere near where it should be?
JM: Yes. I’m out on the tundra, having this lovely hike and I have what I think is an organic, natural wildlife sighting when I spot this red fox chasing caribou and then hunting bird nests. I go back to camp and share this story with our guides. They were surprised that I had seen a red fox that far north. When I got home, I found out the red fox’s range is moving northward to the determinant to its smaller cousin the arctic fox. Alaska Fish and Game is considering whether it will have to hunt the red foxes in order to protect arctic fox range.
ICN: There’s been a strong push by environmental groups recently for the Obama administration to stop approving drilling leases for oil and gas on public lands. How does that play into this issue?
JM: We have our national parks, wilderness areas, fish and wildlife reserves and seashores, but the vast bulk of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land is not under any extra protection. They are supposed to be managed in the public interest and this can mean mining, grazing and oil and gas leasing. The broader environmental movement is being very smart in saying that if the federal government doesn’t want to be fueling climate change, it should stop these extractive industry leases on public land.
I talked earlier about flora and fauna being dislocated from their homes because of climate change. Our parks as these little islands of protection are not sufficient. We need to create corridors—interlocking, overlapping migration lanes—so that things can move northward if they have to. A lot of that will have to happen on public land. We can’t have a fracking pad every square mile.
ICN: There’s a scene in the book where you are working on an urban farm in San Francisco, nestled under a highway, and someone says how great it felt to connect with nature. How do you protect land when a growing number of Americans have little or no experience with true wild places, and therefore don’t see the value in them?
JM: It is important to remember there are many natures. The American conservation movement is built on preserving big landscapes and deep, remote wilderness. I am a huge fan of those places. That is what the book is all about, defending them. But it is important to know that for most people, their most intimate connection with wild nature is not going to be in a big remote wilderness. It is going to be with the local seashore, beach, state park, regional park, or the woodlot behind town—what the Sierra Club calls the “nearby nature.”
That said, yes, I am worried. I know the big green groups are worried, too. It is a political challenge because people don’t fight to protect what they don’t love. And they don’t love what they don’t know. If for most people the wilderness is nothing more than legend or myth, if it is something that is esoteric, there is not going to be a political constituency to protect these places. We’re seeing a real push to try and expose and engage people with wilderness.