There’s snow on the ground, snow mist in the air, frost rime on the mountain buckthorn. It is silent. On the ridge where I’m standing in Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, the snow outlines a stand of mature whitebark pine trees: huge, crooked, battered by time and ice, and covered in rough bark that here and there parts to reveal surfaces like polished bone.
Whitebark pine’s ecological niche is the edge of existence. The trees are found on the highest, driest, coldest, rockiest, and windiest slopes. While lodgepole and ponderosa pine grow in vast stands of tall, healthy-looking trees, slow-growing whitebarks are tortured by extremes into individualized, flayed forms, swollen with massive boles from frost damage. Their suffering makes them beautiful.
But one can suffer too much. These pines are also simultaneously fighting two pest outbreaks. Jen Beck, Crater Lake’s botanist, points out the characteristic orange buttons of an introduced fungus called blister rust and the sticky sap balls and pitch trails where the trees have vainly tried to defend themselves against ravenous bark beetles. Both the fungus and the beetle are believed to be booming, in part, because of climate change. These pines, perhaps six hundred years old and exuding the unmistakable venerability of ancient, distinguished trees, are dying.
I watch as Beck stoops over and, with a bare hand, sweeps away a few inches of snow to reveal a tiny whitebark seedling, no taller than her boot. Next to it, driven into the ground, is an unobtrusive metal disk bearing a number: 82.
With the help of a crew of colleagues and volunteers, Beck planted seedling 82 and several hundred others here in 2012. The seedlings all descend from cones collected from trees that seemed particularly resistant to blister rust. Seeds from hundreds of such cones were grown for two years at the Dorena Genetic Resource Center near Cottage Grove, Oregon, then exposed to the fungus and monitored for five years to determine how resistant they truly were. Seeds from the best performing cones were grown into seedlings and trucked to Crater Lake for planting. The hope is that they will speed up the spread of rust-resistant genes across the park—and that seedling 82 and its nursery-mates will help replace the dying trees.
The team worked hard to minimize the visual impact of its operation as much as possible. “It’s not like they’re out there in a grid,” Beck tells me. “It isn’t a tree farm.” Each seedling was planted near a sheltering bit of rock or downed wood, both to shield it from wind and ice and to mimic the species’ typical distribution. The metal tags were tucked under pine needles and a layer of soil. And when seedlings die, as some inevitably do, the metal tags are carefully removed.
So far, Beck has planted her seedlings up to the very edge of the part of the park managed as wilderness. (Portions of Crater Lake have been proposed as specially protected wilderness areas since 1970, but the final designation hasn’t come through. In the meantime, they are managed as if they were wilderness.) But now Beck wants to cross that line, to plant her custom-made seedlings inside that sacred space—an action that has raised eyebrows within the conservation community, but which she finds absolutely compatible with her work as a steward of Crater Lake.
To many, seedling 82 is a sign of hope, a gesture of care, and an act of responsibility on the part of a humanity whose understanding of its effects on the world is deepening. To others, though, seedling 82 is an unwelcome intrusion into a wild place, a living symbol of the arrogance of humankind and the assumption that we can control or fix disrupted nature. This is the view taken by members of a group called Wilderness Watch, who successfully argued to stop similar plantings in a wilderness area in Washington State. For them, planting trees as a gardener would challenge the self-willed spirit of the wild world. Meanwhile, half the whitebark pine in the United States grows in wilderness areas or areas managed as wilderness.
THE DETERMINATION TO PRESERVE “self-willed” nature is at the heart of our country’s most famous branch of environmentalism, which found its roots in early preservationists like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir. With intellectual antecedents in Calvinism and Romanticism, traditional environmentalism’s focus on the pristine married the assumption of a fallen humanity with a high value placed on freedom and the spiritual insight supposedly made possible by time spent in wild nature. In 1903, a few years before Theodore Roosevelt declared Grand Canyon a national monument, he urged Americans to “leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Much of the subsequent history of conservation was deeply influenced by versions of that sentiment. And while the conservationists who adhered to this way of thinking were not naïve—they well knew the extent to which many of the lands they sought to protect were already altered by human beings—they still hoped to arrest and perhaps reverse the legacy of alteration. Their ideal was a wild space where humans were not in charge, where people could exercise their moral muscles and stand in humility before nature’s workings, knowing and feeling their place as one species among millions.
But in 1995, in a widely read essay titled “The Trouble with Wilderness,” historian William Cronon questioned pristine nature as a useful ideal. Seemingly untouched places serve as “the unexamined foundation on which so many of the quasi-religious values of modern environmentalism rest,” he wrote. They form the “good” against which human civilization can be judged as bad. Deifying such places could be dangerous, Cronon argued: they could give us a false sense that we can walk away from our environmental problems and “escape history and the obligation to take responsibility for our own actions.”
Today, our increasing awareness of the long history, massive scope, and frequent irreversibility of human impacts on the rest of nature make the leave-it-alone ethic even more problematic than it was in 1995. Climate change, land-use change, global species movements, pollution: these global forces affect every place, even those protected as parks or wildernesses, and dealing with them requires increasingly intensive intervention. The ecologist J. Michael Scott has been making a list of what he terms “conservation reliant species”—species that need our active assistance not to slide into oblivion, and will continue to need our assistance indefinitely. For these species, the threats to their existence will not go away, and people will have to hold their hands (or wings, or branches) perhaps forever to keep them alive. For example, the endangered Hawaiian stilt requires an ongoing program of controlling cats and rats, which have so far proven impossible to eradicate from the islands. The California condor only exists in the wild because conservationists periodically release more captive-bred birds. The Karner blue butterfly, the red-cockaded woodpecker, and the Kirtland’s warbler now rely on us to set the periodic fires on which their habitats depend.
Thus a paradox has emerged: now and in the future, only natural areas with lots of human help will continue to look and function the way they did hundreds of years ago; land that is truly allowed to “go wild” will change in unpredictable ways. Suddenly the vacant lot in Detroit is wilder than Yellowstone, and a forest without whitebark pine might one day be wilder than one with it.
BY PLANTING RUST-RESISTANT PINES, Jen Beck and the rest of the staff at Crater Lake hope to keep the park on the ecological trajectory it would have been on had not introduced fungus, climate change, and other human influences crossed park boundaries. But the park is managed in large part for the benefit of human visitors (and humans have interacted with the space for millennia), so there’s a delicate balance to be managed. Beck cancelled a planting that turned out to overlap with a “spiritual use zone” identified by local tribes, and she lost some plantings near a road when a group of visitors had a snowball fight, knocking off the tops of a few seedlings. Meanwhile, she hopes to install a special paved trail so visitors in wheelchairs can see the whitebarks.
Still, many environmentalists seem wedded to the ideal of nonintervention once promoted by the likes of Thoreau, Muir, and Roosevelt. They do not support planting trees in wild areas, let alone more aggressive interventions, like moving species outside of their historical ranges to colder areas ahead of climate change. For them, the language of this new body of ideas about conservation, which frequently uses words like “engineer” and “manage,” lacks what environmentalism has always called for: human humility.
An entire book was recently released to counter the growing popularity of these ideas, the sum of which has been termed “new environmentalism.” The promotional material for Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth declares that, “with rhetorical fists swinging, the book’s contributors argue that these ‘new environmentalists’ embody the hubris of the managerial mindset and offer a conservation strategy that will fail to protect life in all its buzzing, blossoming diversity.”
The criticism of this kind of conservation—one that welcomes thoughtful intervention in natural processes—often hinges on the argument that without wild places as a guide, the work will lack a soul, an underlying ethic in service to life beyond our own species. It’s feared that conservation will become a morally empty game, a project dedicated to rearranging bits of the natural world like Legos to create landscapes in service of humans.
But from the work I’ve seen at Crater Lake, in Hawaii, in California, and in many other places around the world, I’ve come to believe that the human attempt to save species and manage landscapes demands just as much from us, morally, as an environmentalism in thrall to wildness. In fact, it asks more. It asks that we sometimes give up our beloved wilderness and wildness to save other species. If we truly are the humble beings we strive to be, if we truly feel we are not more valuable than other species, then we must be willing to sacrifice our human-made category of “wild” for the betterment of those beings.
An environmentalism built around the pristine ultimately asks us only to leave, to withdraw. But today we can’t withdraw without blood on our hands. The climate change we’ve fueled, the forests we’ve sliced into tiny fragments, the plastic we’ve heaved into oceans—so much of what we have done has the potential to drive species to extinction if we don’t actively intervene to help.
An environmentalism built around nonintervention also perpetuates a false premise that humans don’t belong in nature. And this mindset, this human exceptionalism, is itself arrogant. If humans are not exceptional, not morally superior to other species, not outside of nature, then privileging nonintervention over other environmental goals is deeply wrong—a version of fiddling while Rome burns, of backpacking while whitebarks die.
I would much rather see us do what works than what appears beautiful or feels good. We have to do whatever it takes to keep ecosystems robust and species from extinction in the face of things like climate change. And if that means that some ecosystems aren’t going to be as pretty to our eyes, or as wild, or won’t hew to some historical baseline that seems important to us, then so be it. We should put the continued existence of other species before our ideas of where or how they should live. Do Aldabra giant tortoises mind if, rather than dispersing seeds in the Seychelles where they are native, they do the same on Ile aux Aigrettes off Mauritius, where they are playing the role of an extinct tortoise species? Are pikas fretting about raising their babies north of their native range, where they can avoid climate-change-induced heat? Maybe, and maybe not. But don’t we owe it to them to give them the opportunity to survive? Many endangered plants are thriving in cities. This doesn’t mean we should abandon efforts to protect their native habitat. But also—why not?—plant them in TJ Maxx parking lots.
As we do our damnedest to save species, we can still cordon off some areas to learn how other plants and animals cope with changing conditions. These unmanaged areas will likely be transformed beyond recognition in our lifetimes, as new species move in, prairies become forests, fire regimes change, and so on. But we can’t rely on them to protect all species, nor can we truly think of them as places beyond human intervention. These days, relinquishing our will to manage simply means throwing open the window and letting all the big, uncontrollable interventions—like climate change—come flying in.
Intervening certainly has risks. We don’t know as much as we would like about how ecosystems work. We can’t always predict when our meddling will save species or when it will backfire. But I believe we had better try. We’ve pulled a few species back from the brink—the California condor, the whooping crane—by insinuating ourselves in their lives as puppet mothers and migration guides, so intimately that even I lament their lost dignity and wildness. But then I remind myself: that dignity trip is my baggage, not theirs. They just want to survive, to reproduce, to flourish.
DESPITE JEN BECK’S WORK at Crater Lake and similar efforts throughout the range of the whitebark pine, this twisted symbol of survival may not survive. Among other challenges, the warmer, wetter conditions we’ve created favor mountain hemlock and other densely clustered trees, which are now crowding out the whitebarks. Beck and her staff have gone out and girdled some of these interlopers in her planting sites, killing them with the same mechanism by which the bark beetle lays low its victims. “What is the point of having these resistant trees if the mountain hemlock are just going to smother them?” she asks.
Perhaps, through trying, through intervening, through planting rust-resistant seedlings (and in a few other places, not planting them), we’ll learn more and become more effective at “managing” Earth. And that increased ability to consciously control, rather than just blunderingly influence, may well be distasteful to many. They would rather be mere passengers on Earth, taking our place among the other animals, living as part of an ecosystem but not as its master. Well, me too. That sounds less stressful, more pleasant. But that would mean abdicating our responsibility to the many species and ecosystems we’ve harmed with our lack of mastery. We owe it to them to improve our scientific understanding, our gardening prowess, so that we can ensure their continued persistence into the future.
Call it stewardship, call it gardening, call it what you will. It is our job—one I hope we can do together, democratically, with joy. And it is more important than being alone on the mountaintop or seeing the condor soar above us or even preserving the autonomy of wild places. All of that represents our relationship with the rest of nature. To be truly humble is to put other species first, and our relationship with them second.
Beck and I both have small children, and as we stand in the icy wind of the ridge, looking at the old trees that are dying and the baby seedling tops barely poking out of the snow, we are keenly aware that even if her work succeeds, the only thing our children will see here as adults will be a stand of small pines in callow youth, not yet carved by time and adversity into their beautiful maturity. But it’s also possible that climate change and disease could sweep the whole park—the whole continent—clean of whitebarks old and young, and with them the bird that disperses their seeds, and maybe the small mammals and grizzly bears that eat those seeds. “The loss of a whole species is much greater than whatever wildness is lost from this action,” Beck says. “This is humans trying to do the right thing.”
Emma Marris is a former reporter for the journal Nature. In 2011, she published her first book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.
Hear a conversation with Emma Marris about saving threatened species.