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We need to carry wildness through the hourglass of climate change

Shrouded in the Atlantic mist, I carved my paddle through the calm waters of the Kennebec River.

I had joined a small armada of joyful canoeists and kayakers who were floating the 17-mile stretch of the Kennebec River above the capital city of Augusta, July 2, 1999. A day earlier a backhoe had breached the Edwards Dam turning the Kennebec into a free flowing river on the stretch for the first time since Nathaniel Hawthorne walked its banks 160 years earlier.


Paddling against a head wind through a thunderstorm, we glided past wide mud flats and banks littered with a sofa, car tires, a refrigerator. Six-Mile Falls and other rapids, which had been drowned by the backwaters of the dam, suddenly reappeared.

The day before, this band of conservationists stood with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Maine Gov. Angus King, industrialists, utility executives and fellow environmentalists as the ancient dam came down after a decade-long, bitter battle they had all fought. For men like Steve Brooke and Brownie Carson the event marked the beginning of a new era in river conservation.


The Kennebec’s renewal signaled a shift of even more significance. The dam had been erected during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, harnessing the energy of an entire watershed to power saw and grist mills. This was the end of a geologic epoch known as the Holocene. It was the beginning of the restoration century.


The Holocene began 12,000 to 11,500 years ago at the end of an ice age and epoch known as the Pleistocene. During this period humans thrived as they shifted from hunting and gathering to animal domestication and agriculture.


As much as any species we adjusted to habitat throughout the world and even mastered our environment. But with the Industrial Revolution came humans’ ability to reshape the earth on a geologic scale.


Dams transformed entire drainages. Canals made rivers flow in new directions. Mines and roads altered the landscape. Pollution changed the chemistry of waterways and the atmosphere, eventually altering the climate in ways we are only beginning to understand.


A year after the Edwards Dam came down atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer suggested the Earth had entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene, when ice core evidence showed that greenhouse gases were rising in concentration in the atmosphere.


The debate over the term Anthropocene, has gathered steam in the last decade, reaching into the popular culture in 2011. Many geologists believe it’s too soon to declare a new epoch. Inherently these things are labeled after the fact.


Whether the Anthropocene started with the Industrial Revolution, the Atomic Age or some other moment the critical point for us as a human race was when we recognized it.


That day was April 22, 1970, Earth Day. It came after the great boom in development following World War II that had turned America’s rivers into sewers and covered its cities with shrouds of air pollution. These conditions triggered the birth of a new movement as powerful as the industrial revolution in shaping the future of civilization.


A new term “environment,” defined this new public interest. It often was framed by environmental disasters that included a leak from an off shore oil well near Santa Barbara in January of 1969 spread three million gallons of oil across the beaches of southern California killing 10,000 sea birds, choking marine life and left the entire region smelling like a refinery. Another in June, brought national attention when floating oil and other pollutants on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. This prompted Time Magazine’s famous description: “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown," Cleveland's citizens joke grimly. "He decays."


Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson came up with the idea of Earth Day and a band of young student activists organized a national event that attracted 20 million Americans in 2000 communities and 10,000 schools, who planted trees, cleaned up parks, buried cars, marched, listened to speeches and protested how modern life was messing up their world. In New York, local organizer Marilyn Laurie convinced Mayor John Lindsey to close off Fifth Avenue to cars and filled it with thousands of people to hear speakers like Paul Newman. In Washington D.C., Senators shared the stage with Pete Seeger, the Chambers Brothers and 25-year old Denis Hayes, the coordinator of the national event. Students at San Jose State buried a car. Arturo Sandoval led a march of students with reporters from the three national television networks in tow through the dirt roads and adobe houses of Albuquerque's poorest neighborhood to smell the choking odor of the city sewer plant.


The participants were World War II veterans, housewives and mothers, student radicals, Republican cabinet members, artists, accountants, scientists, labor leaders, autoworkers, civil rights activists, elected officials and children. By the end of the day the environmental movement was born.


I was one of those students in a high school in the Fox River Valley west of Chicago where the rivers and creeks were too polluted to swim and air pollution from the Chicagoland area was thick and sometimes deadly. A Junior High School teacher James Phillips got so fed up that he began plugging industrial pipes of sludge, capping smoke stacks and spilling hazardous waste on the carpet of corporate executives’ offices. The Fox, as he called himself, kept his identity hidden until he died in 2001, capping a second career as an inspector during the 1970s of the same plants he had targeted in the 1960s.


I lived on a small farm next to a forest preserve where I was allowed from a young age to run free to explore, fish, hunt and play, forming imaginary adventures to the wild places I read about in Field and Stream, Sports Afield and National Geographic. My grandmother, a devote Christian Scientist, sent me to the church’s Sky Valley Ranch in the Colorado Rockies at 10 where I rode horses, camped and climbed mountains. Later I went to a YMCA camp in Michigan where at 12, I canoed 200 miles down the Pine and Manistee rivers.


The next year my grandfather, father, uncle and brother and I canoed into the Boundary Waters of Minnesota and Ontario. There I discovered a world of golden-brown waters, ancient rocks, thick forests and loons, whose haunting call echoed through the evening light. The wild country and a free outdoor life on the farm had led me to a psychic path that tapped into a shared memory of human life before the civilization that reprogrammed our synapses.


So when Northland College in northern Wisconsin sent me a brochure with pictures of people canoeing in Lake Superior that announced it was starting an environmental studies program, I signed up.


By luck I arrived on campus August 27, 1971.  I didn’t know it then but the men I could see milling around the student union building included Nelson and author and conservation leader Sigurd Olson. They had just decided to organize the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, which would reach out to communities in the Lake Superior Country to help them reduce their impact on the region.


Later I became a member of the Environmental Studies Committee that advised the new institute’s leaders. That got me into the cocktail party at the president’s house the evening of Olson’s speech to kick-off the opening of the institute. There I met Sigurd and Elizabeth Olson.

Olson, a former Boundary Waters guide, had brought the wild and nature to a generation quickly losing touch in the mass urbanization of post-war America with many books since his 1956 best seller “The Singing Wilderness.”  Born in the 19th Century, his vantage point was from growing up around people who had pioneered development on the edge of civilization. Sigurd Olson drafted part of the original wilderness act that passed in 1964 and was one of its major advocates.

When Sig got up in the Alvord Theatre the overflow crowd gave him a standing ovation. In the audience were captains of industry, major donors to the new institute. Sigurd Olson didn't direct his speech to the rich and powerful in the room. He directed his words to me and the hundreds of other students who were beginning our formal environmental education. We were the children of Earth Day. And his speech, "Challenge of the New Frontier" was a call to arms.

He was not evoking the images of direct action and protest that were a central part of the environmental movement of the early 1970s. He already was looking beyond the revolution that he and contemporaries like Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, David Brower and Gaylord Nelson had started.

"We know," Sigurd Olson said, "that man is part of nature and cannot survive unless he becomes once more an integral part of it, that his hunger and discontent is a longing for the old simplicities and satisfactions, that we are in truth children of the earth."

The decision to seek a new relationship with nature was as important in the history of man, Olson said as the decision to plant seeds and domesticate animals, and to abandon life on the land and gather in villages and cities. And it would have as profound an impact on the lives of humans worldwide as the Industrial Revolution.

He told us to study and prepare for the hundreds of thousands of new careers that would result from the new environmental consciousness. And he underscored the importance of the choice we had taken.

"It is more than wilderness, more than beauty or peace of mind," Olson told us. "It is the survival of the civilization we have built and perhaps the survival of man."

And he warned of the dangers of over population, of the threats of uncontrolled industrial growth. He even warned about global warming. But he didn't tell us to tear down the civilization that had been built in generations of human achievement.

"We know we cannot abandon our technology, but we can and must seek a balance between it and ecology," he said. "If we can accept the premise that there is a limit to growth, that population must be controlled, that our global ecology can be one of harmony, then we can look with confidence to our future. If we can use our enormous knowledge with the technology it has produced to work toward the preservation of the earth instead of its destruction, if we can change our priorities, achieve balance and understanding in our roles as human beings in a complex world, the coming era can well be that of a richer civilization, not its end."

For me that speech became the foundation of my life and the last 40 years in the North Woods, in the mountains of the Northern Rockies, the forest and rivers of the Pacific Northwest, the Maine Woods and wild places in Canada, Russia and Africa. Like most of Olson’s writing and speeches it sought to connect its listeners with the spiritual values of the wild.

As a journalist I followed the environmental movement’s efforts to save and protect what it considered the last remnants of the earth unspoiled by humans. These were the last throes of Holocene thought.   In my lifetime 109.5 million acres have been designated wilderness. I watched as President Clinton set aside another 58 million acres of land as roadless national forest in 2001 along with several national monuments. I paddled with Idaho conservationists through the Owyhee Canyonlands in a cold spring storm and put us all on the edge of hypothermia. Today 512,000 acres of this most desolate desert landscape is protected as wilderness along with 315 miles of Wild and Scenic rivers.

I rafted through down 100 miles of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River with scientists and political leaders seeking a way to prevent its wild chinook salmon from going extinct. I would follow anglers, Indians, farmers and dam operators up and down the Columbia River as a region as large as France struggled with reconcile its booming economy with the needs of these fish that swim 800 miles and climb 6,500 feet to Idaho to spawn.

The restoration job on the Kennebec continues though its transformation is astounding. I returned in 2005 to canoe the same stretch of river to see what had changed. It was like a biological diversity bomb had gone off.

When I went back to paddle the same stretch in 2005, aquatic insect, snail and other invertebrate populations had grown 10 to 30 times almost overnight due to the larger flows that increased the oxygen levels.  The state of Maine reclassified the stretch of river from a Class C classification, which meant it was badly polluted, to Class B, which is the second cleanest.

Species throughout the food chain responded. In the first year alone sea run fish like Atlantic salmon, sturgeon, sea lamprey, eels, alewives, blueback herring, striped bass and American shad were seen in the Waterville area where we put in our canoes. Alewife of between 1 million to 2 million of returned to the Sebasticook River, a tributary to the Kennebec, turning the river black with the baitfish that are important feed for many fish in the ecosystem.

More than 1,199 dams have come down since the Kennebec was breached. In 2011 I spent a day with Interior secretarys Ken Salazar and Sally Jewell and hundreds of other conservationists, Indians and government officials at the ceremony beginning the removal of the Elwha Dams in Washington. The next day I flew to Maine and paddled in strokes of Henry David Thoreau on the West Branch of the Penobscot River. Later that year the Great Works Dam near Old Town was removed downstream, opening up yet another waterway to the fish that were once blocked off and the diversity bomb again exploded. The latest big dams coming down are on the Klamath.

As the restoration century began in the 1990s a new generation of environmental thinkers were moving past the long time view at the end of the Holocene expressed years earlier by Aldo Leopold that "one lives alone in a world of wounds." Emma Marris, author of the 2011 book Rambunctious Garden, instead observed “Nature is almost everywhere. “But wherever it is, there is one thing that nature is not: pristine,” she wrote.

Marris has grown up in a world where there are no unexplored places on maps, like there were when I was a kid. Marris is one of the first to recognize she grew up in a new epoch. Marris shares the values for wilderness, wild places and most of all nature with her boomer colleagues. But she did not share our long time myth of untrammeled wilderness.

Instead she said we must recognize that even when we set aside places where we will take no action we are intervening in the natural process. Returning to pre-human or pre-European settlement, long the goal or baseline that scientists measured against, is no longer relevant.

It is unrealistic in many cases to return to a place that will never be again. Rapid climate change will destroy or at least move the habitats on which many species we seek to preserve, depend. Even as boomers have come to terms with the view of Marris and other “gardeners” as Conservation Biologist Michael Soule derisively labeled them, the most surprising reality is just how resilient ecosystems and many species have turned out to be once the limiting factors are removed. The quick recovery of the Kennebec is one prime example.

The return of the wolves is another. I watched as the first wolves ran into the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho in 1995. And a little more than a month later I was one of the first to hear free wolves howl in Yellowstone National Park. In less than a decade there were more than 1,000 wolves roaming the Northern Rockies, far more and far faster than biologists predicted. In Wisconsin the growth had matched that of the Rockies and by 2012 this predator that has been killed nearly to extinction in the lower 48 states by livestock owners and trappers was removed from the federal Endangered Species list in the Midwest and Northern Rockies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service now wants to take them off the list throughout the U.S.

But it faces a backlash from wildlife enthusiasts and conservation biologists who say we need more to ensure their survival. This view comes in part from the mathematics of conservation biology.

Simply restoring a viable population for today does not ensure a population will be viable 100 or 300 years from now. Conservation biologists have argued that species need both habitat and numbers to ensure viability over time before calling them recovered. But in a world where habitat conditions are shifting so quickly this kind of assurance is nearly impossible, especially for wide ranging predators which inherently conflict with human activity or even threaten lives like grizzly bears.

The drive to stop the loss of biological diversity gathered steam after Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac reached a wide audience in the 1960s. It soon rose to the top of environmental concerns at the end of the Holocene.

Leopold wrote “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” This became the bedrock value of the children of Earth Day, identified as the precautionary principle.

Leopold’s powerful statement, along with the Earth Day-generated environmental fervor of the early 1970s, led Congress to pass the Endangered Species Act of 1973 by an overwhelming majority. President Richard Nixon signed it into law, making Leopold's lofty goal of preserving all the parts, the law of the land.


     What most congressmen and senators missed as they were demonstrating their

environmental credentials was that they were approving the clearest, most unequivocal

environmental law ever written. In other laws, federal agencies are required to provide protection "where practicable." It was those two words that had prevented the Endangered Species Act of 1966 from stopping the decline of eagles, whales and whooping cranes. The authors made sure "where practicable" was purged from the final version of the 1973 law.


In doing so, they made protecting endangered species the highest legal priority of

The federal government. It handed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service ultimate veto power over all other federal agencies and over other activities funded or regulated by the federal government. Because of this legal tool, the precautionary principle, grew into the top conservation imperative. Today biologists are predicting as many as 20 to 40 percent of all species could be lost in this century due to climate change. Holding on to “every cog and wheel” will be nearly impossible if the approach and attitude of the children of Earth Day is to play out. But read Leopold again and he acknowledges a role for tinkering. What Leopold called tinkering Marris describes as intervention.

In the case of conserving biodiversity it will require us to move species around and to even engineer for them new habitats, something that today is both risky and expensive. But ultimately we must think differently about how ecosystems and their inhabitants can survive the coming ecological bottleneck. Making such choices isn’t easy. Nor should it be.

And it requires us to balance the need to reduce greenhouse gases with the need to protect biodiversity and other values. Leopold himself laid out a guide in A Sand County Almanac for determining how and when to tinker.  I call this the resiliency principle. “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty

of the biotic community,” he wrote. “It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” This resiliency principle remains the foundation for conservation.


Today and into the future the resiliency principle should be the equal of the precautionary principle, or even take precedence when we are talking about carbon free energy projects that are critical to the survival of thousands of species and perhaps us. This is Anthropocene thinking.

Marris is one of the premier Anthropocene environmental thinkers. She is urging society to expand its vision of conservation to previously ignored areas like canal banks, dried up croplands and blighted urban neighborhoods like Detroit. She and Richard Louv, author of “The Nature Principle,” another new epoch thinker, argue we can turn these areas into ecosystems that can bring nature to people and provide ecological services like filtration and carbon sequestration.

These ideas are not new. Sigurd Olson said, in a talk called “Our Need of Breathing Space,” at a forum in Washington, D.C. in 1958:


“It is wonderful to have national parks and forests to go to, but they are not enough. It is not enough to make a trip once a year or to see these places occasionally over a long week end. We need to have places close at hand, breathing spaces in cities and towns, little plots of ground where things have not changed; green belts, oases among the piles of steel and stone.”


Louv, has turned his bestseller “Last Child in the Woods” into what he calls a new nature movement. His vision is not a rejection of technology or a back-to-the-land trend like the one that came out of the environmental movement 40 years ago.

Instead, he wants to tap nature to boost our mental acuity, creativity and health. At its heart, Louv’s movement seeks to replace the apocalyptic vision that modern society has created. This future vision comes from movies like ‘ ‘Mad Max,’ or maybe Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road.  The environmental movement has not only failed to convince people of the threats of climate change, it has fed into this ominous vision, Louv said. No movement can succeed if its future is a place where people don’t want to go.

“Martin Luther King did not say: I have a nightmare,” Louv told me.

When I listen to Louv I can’t help but hear Sigurd Olson’s voice. Louv’s ideas about the therapeutic value of nature  fits right into Olson’s views about human’s shared memory, a link with our time before civilization.  Rhetoric Professor Brant Short at Arizona State University recalls how Olson’s story of guiding business executives, surgeons, congressmen and admirals in the Boundary Waters, in his essay “Why Wilderness?” tells how the longer they were away from civilization the more they would begin to relax and regain their ability to smell the natural world and to hear the sounds of nature. “There is no doubt that Olson embraced the claim that ““adults had a nature-deficit disorder”’ and it could be reduced through time in nature,” Short said.

The context of Olson’s life experience, as a wilderness guide and advocate for protection when these last islands of wild were under threat of extensive development masks his larger message of the importance of nature in our lives beyond wilderness. Leopold’s insights about the utilitarian values of protecting biodiversity grow out of his ethical imperative that we must extend our community to include the natural world around us. Both men valued wildness above wilderness. Wildness existed before humans. It was the place from which we came. Wildness carved the grooves of ancient truth that Olson identified, into our souls.

In 2010 I visited Shanghai, a city of 22 million with endless skyscrapers all built in the past decade. As we drove into the city at night through the forest of multi-colored digital ads, the blue lights of its elevated highways and the iridescent green of the Lupu Bridge over the Huangpu River, made it seem like we were driving into the world of “Blade Runner.”

I could not help but contrast Shanghai’s “Blade Runner” vision to that of my hometown Boise, which seems more like Norman MacLean’s classic “A River Runs Through It.”

The Boise River Greenbelt is like a portage through the urban landscape. Floaters, hikers and cyclists enjoy the river in summer. Skiers and snowboarders shred the slopes of Bogus Basin in the winter. Along with Boise’s string of riverside parks, community gardens are springing up around the city. The gardens connect with the growing local food movement and rekindle the cultural experiences of Idaho’s agricultural community.  One can walk north into the Boise foothills and cross as few as nine roads by the time they have gone 400 miles into Canada. That’s because there are millions of acres of wilderness and roadless lands in central Idaho.

This Big Wild on the edge of a rich natural urban landscape connects residents to deep stirrings of our wild human souls. This is my model for a landscape and lifestyle that will preserve both what is wild and human about humanity.

We must fight to turn around climate change before it has destroyed even us, while preserving and expanding the spiritual and healing values of nature. Ironically, preserving nature will protect civilization as much as any act of humanity.

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