Handle with Care

Photograph by Amanda Green Bottoms

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.”

Hear a conversation with Emma Marris about saving threatened species.


  1. Thank’s for this piece. Spot on as always. If we want to preserve nature, the Romanticism won’t do. It turns natural areas into open musea, were everything has to be its former self. Pure and pristine. Catogorized. Static. The world is changing, and so does the environment. Might as well help nature cope and give it future, instead of turning it into life on life support. Those Cali condors deserve to be saved, but when they can’t have a self-sustaining population, well… For one thing I am not sure if that can be called nature. But what is nature anyway? So let’s ignore that and think of the future. There isn’t much future for a species that can’t sustain itself. -I was actually going to make a killer argument here, but whatever.

    Since we are talking of Lego here. Conservationists can behave in a similar manner as Lord Bussiness. I don’t want to generalize, but for some there is a clear border between “worlds” that must not flow into each other. Like: “I don’t care if the hybrid wolf and hybrid dingo behave like a regular dingo or wolf, the wolf and dingo world and the dog world should stay seperated.” “Why are the galapagos tortoises eating non-native plants? This is not the way it is supposed to be.” Especially anthropogenic influences are not done. Meanwhile, there’s other nature that is of the kind of anthropogenic kind that for me is past culture dressed up like nature for nostalgic reasons. Opinions can differ on all of this, sure, but can’t we agree that nature tends to misbehave, changes and that it doesn’t seem like we can make nature behave in the way we want? Why not embrace nature for being like this? We need to think of different approaches, such as making that which we want to safe fit ecologically instead of historically.

    But oh well, what do I know I’m just an Ol’ Basterd feral dog. Just so you know, I’m not the only one eating trash. In fact, urban raccoons eat mostly trash. Romanian bears regulary visit the garbage dumpsters. There are stories of wolves in Italy eating waste from slaughterhouses. It is really unromantic I know. And who says I eat trash to begin with? Or have I been eating trash my whole life? That’s a philosophical question by the way; even feral dogs can be sophisticated.

  2. Thank you for an interesting piece. It’s a very interesting intervention into the realm of new environmentalism. But it is also symptomatic of so many efforts to find clarity in this confusing landscape of ideas.

    For example, you write: “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.”

    I see little humility in claiming to know, or work for, the ‘betterment’ of beings whom we barely understand. I see little humility in the assertion that “they just want to survive, to reproduce, to flourish.” In the sentence before that you say that that “dignity trip” is your baggage. So is this claim that these wonderful beings “want.”

    What’s clear is that you want. I want very similar things to you–don’t get me wrong.

    I am trying very hard to learn to accept how much of what I think “Nature” wants–or what species, or individual members of species, or ecosystems, etc. want–is actually my desire, my prejudice, my hope.

    “‘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.'” Why is the loss of a species greater than the loss of wildness? Sure, if you think wildness is an outdated, even harmful ideal that makes no sense in the anthropocene, such a statement seems almost obvious. But why is the definition of a species its genetic endowment, its gene pool, etc? Is a lion in a zoo a lion?

  3. While I appreciate the effort Marris has made here, I think this piece reflects (1) a false dichotomy that doesn’t stand up to careful scrutiny, and (2) the use of an example (whitebark pine) that largely fails to represent the conflict Marris suggests it does. Cronon’s oft-cited chapter is indeed a critical work for environmentalists to consider, and Marris does a good job of introducing the way in which the social construction of the concept (not the physical entity) of “wilderness” has changed over time. And I agree whole-heartedly with Cronon and Marris that a major failure in the movement is derived from our notion that the best nature must be devoid of people and their impacts. But what does not follow from Cronon’s argument is that because of this irony we should then decide, in all (most?) cases, to manage wilderness (or any other land designation). The leap from Cronon’s main point to the conclusion that more management is needed is, I think, not only illogical, it isn’t something Cronon espoused in his work. That is a fallacy of her argument; and it is the same mistaken point that people make when they suggest that Cronon’s work is dangerous because it “allows” more management and resource use. Indeed, I wonder if Marris is doing the environmental movement a disservice here.

    The idea that whitebark pine is a great case example of Marris’ point is also a bit of a stretch. Functionally, that is not how management of our resources work – people who work on whitebark pine (and that includes me) are not faced on a day to day basis with the decision to mar or not mar the wilderness to save a species. The work is probably not so glamorous. Helping whitebark pine is not dependent on managing wilderness, or putting rust-resistant seedlings into the wilderness. It’s almost as if the example Marris picked really doesn’t fit the model she was trying to develop.

    The back-and-forth literature on this topic is healthy, and I’m glad Orion printed the article. Yet, I’m hoping that the field will mature more rapidly, and we won’t be stuck with picking sides where both sides are ripe with painting dichotomies that don’t exist. You can buy-in to Cronon’s argument without thinking we need to pick the heavy-handed management options.

  4. This is an excellent article and I appreciate the author’s careful delving about “intervention” vs. a hands-off approach to conservation. Both are valid! However, two things always come to mind for me when conversing about the myriad approaches to the preservation of our hurting planet and the wild places we love so dearly: 1) We should be limiting human population growth at ALL costs (even one more baby is too many, especially a baby born into the western world); 2) We should all be eating plants instead of animals. Animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to climate change and deforestation across the planet. Every bite of animal flesh may as well be a direct bite out of the planet. So for those of us not lucky enough to “give back” by trekking to and planting trees in wild places, we can still do our part! And in fact, the impact of not breeding and adopting a plant-based diet is equivalent to saving entire forests single-handedly.

  5. I suggest a new subtitle for the article: Ends Justify Means. Even without that orientation, however, I hope by the concluding quote most readers will be able to read between the lines: “This is humans trying [again] to do the right thing” by once again asserting human rationality as superior to relational intelligence (but this time, trust us, we know what we are doing). Those with an abiding faith in large system, relational ecology do not aspire to be “mere passengers” on the planet; we do not imagine or advocate withdrawal from nature. But to call the wild a “human-made category” is the same line of reasoning that would call a Twinkie organic. Yes, I am in nature, but it is not mine to garden, and a claim to see an end and the steps to achieve it that are better than natural is the signpost for a path we have been down before.

  6. We should definitely manage wilderness in the way Marris proposes. We do not have the luxury of argument. The time is now to plant the whitebark where it will take root and keep planting more and more in a greedy way. Maybe this will replace our current greed.

    Earth has been managed for thousands of years; we have only been unwilling to acknowledge our stewards of the land, oceans, and tundra and give credit for impacting the landscape (good or bad) where credit is due. What we now need to do is manage/address this crisis as the emergency it is and plant whitebarks like crazy. With an explicit greed for more whitebark pines, bears, for keeping Crater Lake icy cold, and for all life–the Clark’s nutcracker, squirrels, chipmunks, pika, and humans can to help.

  7. This article is stimulatig and…disturbing. Marris seems to be redifining terms while not noticing that she is doing that. She urges US HUMANS to decide which species survive and where and how, of course on our terms, and for our purposes. How could “management” be otherwise? Are we going to save the ugly and the small, too? Likely only the ones we happen to prefer for whatever reasons will be aggressively managed, while others will be extirpated. What is that if not hubris? No way do we know enough to manage the entirely planet and make the decision that wildness or wilderness is not as important as any single species. She is not thinking of anything small and ugly, but rather “iconic”, meaning important to humans.
    As someone said above, we dont need to choose between wildness and “tending” (might be a better term than managing )
    There are gardens and there are gardens. Not all of them are “managed”. Some are tended in cooperation with what wants to grow there on its own. My garden, as one small example, is partially for vegetables, partially a sanctuary for whoever comes, partially “volunteers” and partially what I’ve brought in. Cooperation means there are at least two parties involved: humans and non-humans are the true partners. Management implies humans are in charge and know best what nature needs, and time to move on from wilderness… I am not speaking against some intervention, but isn’t it obvious enough by now that we are not living up to our name: homo sapiens sapiens: the wiser than wise ones.
    We have made a terrible mess of our planet, we have overrun the earth with too many of ourselves and our machines and pleasure palaces, not just humble abodes, and now that we are destroying whole ecosystems through our misguided motivations, we are going to decide on a course of even more hubristic proportions? The author herself may be utterly reasonable, and yet, in others’ eyes, be making disastrous mistakes. Whose view is correct?? How do we tell. I know she might respond: we cannot afford to argue the point, we must just take the reins. No time to contemplate and ask questions, just dig in and get used to “no more wilderness”. And then think of it as something that human’s are giving up? That really confuses me. It’s like breaking into someone else’s house and deciding what those people need and what they don’t need, then disposing of the “unnecessary” for them, and feeling sad, but righteously noble about what we, the rearrangers, have sacrificed.
    We don’t have to choose between two extremes: don’t touch or manage the planet. We can find ways to include some of each, and work out together how to make things happen and how to leave things alone. Both are essential !

  8. As always, Marris’s writing makes me think, hard. And so does Erik Jules’s response. I agree with Erik that Marris has portrayed the dichotomy – of wilderness and intervention – more starkly than is commonly faced by ecologists. I, like most other conservationists (perhaps including Marris), believe we can pursue both – purposeful intervention to safeguard species in some places, and preserving the construct of wilderness in others. Nonetheless, Marris’s article raises a real dilemma because there ARE cases where the two collide. Whether whitebark pine is a good example of this, I don’t know; I’ll defer to an expert plant ecologist (like Jules) to be the judge of that. As an ornithologist, I think of the gut-wrenching decisions in 1987 to capture the last wild California condors, and to cease captive breeding interventions for the dusky seaside sparrow. Those choices signified the relative privilege of species versus wildness. Three decades later, the condor’s growing population, including its imminent return to the North Coast of California onto ancestral territory of the Yurok for whom it holds vital cultural significance, is a triumph not just for the species, but also for the human constructs of wildness and belonging, some of them thousands of years old. That triumph is beyond reach for sparrow, and I regret that. With human-caused changes to the environment reaching ever further, including places formerly considered insulated, Marris urges us to grapple with our priorities now.

  9. I think we have been beyond the point for some time now. Unfortunately the wilderness as we know it, like (so-called) civilization is doomed; doomed by the coming ice age. Now it is about survival, and, as always we are arguing about the wrong things, like polishing the brass on the Titanic. Nature will dsto what it has always done: start over with what is left after the mega-disaster. Our current ecosystem is far different from the ecosystems of epochs before it, and future ecosystems will be far different from the one we have now. The parasite of the human race will, hopefully, be replaced with a species less able to meddle with its ecosystem. Personally I think homo sapiens is a flawed, failed species which has not passed the evolutionary test because we are too intelligent and able, and have fouled our own nest too much to be able to continue existing. THIS is Nature when looked at from a more encompassing vantage point.

  10. The first sentence of my previous comment should have read: “I think we have been beyond the tipping point of reversing climatic change for some time now.”

  11. “We owe it to them to improve our scientific understanding, our gardening prowess, so that we can ensure their continued persistence into the future.” Emma Marris

    Here I agree. Humans have interfered so destructively in the natural efforts of Earth to self-regulate that we have no choice but to “manage”, even though we lack the wisdom to do so.

    “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,” Emma Marris

    Promotional material often emphasises controversial ideas and is obviously biased towards raising eyebrows in order to increase the probability of a sale. The following “New Environmentalism” claims are examples of the extremism that the authors of the book (an anthology) object to.
    A sample of some of the Claims of the “new Environmentalism” copied from Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth.

    “To succeed, conservation must serve human aspirations, primarily regarding economic growth and development; Maintaining ‘ecosystem services,’ not preventing human-caused extinction, should be conservation’s primary goal; Conservationists should not critique capitalism but rather should partner with corporations to achieve better results; The Anthropocene has arrived and humans are now de facto planetary managers.”

  12. The author gets some important things right… not least of which is that we all share responsibility for a damaged planet. Commenter Erik Jules has covered the deep flaws in Ms. Marris’s analysis and conclusions well, so I won’t repeat them. I will point out that of the almost 700 million acres of federally protected land in the US approximately 15% is Wilderness, and more than half of that is in Alaska. Put another way, only 2.7% of the contiguous US is Wilderness. So.. why the outrage? My opinion is that our outrage is better aimed at our collective hubris and failure to exercise restraint. The planet is not suffering from too little human intervention, but too much.

  13. Emma states that “This is humans trying to do the right thing.” I agree…

    Biodiversity is the Living Foundation for Sustainable Development – http://www.triplepundit.com/2010/10/biodiversity-living-foundation-sustainable-development/

    “The retention and management of plant diversity is urgently needed in order to build “designer ecosystems” that will replicate the natural systems that have evolved over 4 billion years on this planet and that create the very conditions for life to exist. Given that biodiversity also includes genetic differences within each species, it is critically important that genetics from endangered and superior specimen old growth trees be preserved now, while these unique organisms are still alive.”

    A New Conservation Ethic for the 21st Century – http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/03/new-conservation-ethic-21st-century/

    “Protecting nature that is dynamic and resilient, that is in our midst rather than far away, and that sustains human communities — these are the ways forward now. Otherwise, conservation will fail, clinging to its old myths.”

    The Man Who Planted Trees: Lost Groves, Champion Trees, and an Urgent Plan to Save the Planet – http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/07/man-planted-trees-lost-groves-champion-trees-urgent-plan-save-planet/

    “… the group’s goal was to clone the champion of each of the 826 species of trees in the United States, make hundreds or thousands of copies, and plant the offspring in “living archival libraries” around the country to preserve the trees’ DNA.”

    The mission of Archangel Ancient Tree Archive – https://www.ancienttreearchive.org/

    – Propagate the world’s most important old growth trees before they are gone;
    – Archive the genetics of ancient trees in living libraries around the world for the future;
    – Reforest the Earth with the offspring of these trees to provide the myriad of beneficial ecosystem services essential for all life forms to thrive including releasing oxygen, sequestering carbon dioxide, providing beneficial aerosols and medicines.

  14. So to appreciate the argument fully, I’ve reduced it as follows: We can’t manage nor regulate our own behavior so we should manage and regulate that of other species impacted by our own destructive behavior.

    Who can argue with that?

  15. If I had been unaware of the so called “new environmentalism,” Emma Marris’s piece would have struck me as a small bore disagreement between good hearted restoration ecologists and equally good hearted defenders of wilderness, with a dash of Bill Cronon’s wilderness troubles thrown in. Unfortunately, having followed the controversy for some time, it is hard to read her essay without an uneasy feeling she is soft pedaling what is really going on, and creating straw man arguments to bolster her position.

    In the case of Crater Lake, the author conflates wildness as a process, with Wilderness, which in the United States is a statutory land-use designation with prescribed purposes and restrictions (whether designated or proposed). Red herrings like “pristine” have been beaten to death for years, and no one involved in wildlands conservation is unfamiliar with the need to manage these lands in some cases, or to secure and restore previously abused lands as components of broader conservation networks.

    A greater concern is what the author does not mention. Touchstones of the “new environmentalists” are not only their views of wilderness protection as an outdated anachronism, but also their unabashed championing of economic growth and corporate partnerships. One of their favorite taglines comes from the once-great Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Nature is viewed as highly resilient rather than fragile, not to be valued for its magnificent abundance and diversity, but for the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides humans. Habitats compromised by non-native species are no longer viewed as disturbed or degraded, but rather as “novel ecosystems.” The “Anthropocene” is seen as evidence of our “planetary importance,” not as a condemnation of our hubris.

    I’m afraid the so-called “new’ is really just a redux of the old, albeit with more politically correct language, and perhaps some Patagonia fleece in place of Brooks Brothers suits. With the eyes of an old school conservationist, it still seems to come down to the same basic problem, too many of us with too many things.

  16. As co-editor of Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth (Island Press 2014), the collection from which Marris cites the dust jacket, I feel compelled to offer a brief comment. I sometimes get a strange feeling of déjà vu in the ongoing debate between the new environmentalists and wilderness defenders. Here it goes again—this weird idea that those who defend wilderness embrace an unrealistic and alienated notion of nature as “pristine.” How many times, and in how many publications, must it be said that the wilderness camp does not hold a view of wilderness as pristine? Can we kill that straw man, please? Wilderness means big, connected, and relatively undisturbed, where creatures and processes can flourish relatively safe from bullet, chainsaw, and the rest of it. Second point: Whoever said that pro-wilderness writers, activists, and conservationists are against management? What are, after all, the proposals for rewilding and for Nature Needs Half—offered by some of the most committed wilderness advocates of our time—but large-scale, visionary restoration (that is “hands on”) projects? But Marris seems disinclined to discern a difference between the need for some management to save species and ecologies, and the net of a managerial regime that our anthropocentric, technocratic civilization would gladly cast over the face of the Earth. Lastly, is the related and biggest point of all, which Marris elides. Namely, that wilderness advocates oppose the expansionism of the modern human enterprise. (This does not mean—and it needs to be said, before the other straw specter of “Going Back to the Caves” gets raised—that we are against all things modern.) This is the main difference between the pro-wilderness platform and the new environmentalism. The mandate of opposing civilization’s expansionism stems from the fact that we cannot deeply think about conservation or about ecological restoration or about the fate of Earth’s biodiversity without engaging with, and confronting, the big issues: global population size, how we grow our food, where we draw the line to infrastructural sprawl, where we draw the line to over-production and the global frenzy of trading junk and mutual-nature destruction, or what is justice for the more-than-human world in terms of Free Nature (we say At Least Half). Standing up against a civilization that is premised on milking the biosphere for every drop it can get is what pro-wilderness people are all about. The rewilding movement is the revolution coming, it is bringing a vision for a dignified human presence co-thriving with all life (domestic life included, by the way). As for the idea that wilderness advocacy has intellectual roots in Calvinism, I’m sorry Emma, but let me be funny back. John Muir walked 1,000 miles to get away from it. Henry liked reading the Bhagavad Gita as an antidote. As for Ed Abbey—let’s not even go there.

  17. It is said those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. In Emma Marris’s case, it has doomed her to imagining she invented it. Thus over the past few years she’s positioned herself as the tedious scolder-in-chief of the conservation movement, telling it to do things it’s been doing she before she was born.

    Conservationists, she tells us for the umpteenth time, are lost in a romantic dream of pristine nature. But she’s shaking them awake to new knowledge, to a new reality in which we must intervene in nature. Forget the stodgy ways of the past, she warns, Kirtland’s warbler “now” relies to burn the forest with prescribed fires. This might have been an interesting rant in 1940, but conservationists have been burning forests to improve warbler habitat on state land since 1957 and federal land since 1962.

    The Karner blue butterfly’s dependence on natural fire regimes would have been news to Vladimir Nabakov when he named the species in 1944, having fled Berlin for the United States in the 1930s. But it’s hardly news to subsequent conservationists who have been restoring its habitat with prescribed fire since the 1970s.

    Condors, Marris says, as if it’s a profound revelation, are dependent upon humans releasing captive fledged birds each year. Yeah, we’ve been doing that since 1992.

    Marris finds a revolutionary new reality in the planting of whitebark pine in Crater Lake National Park. This shocking intervention is supposed to scandalize the passive mainstream environmental movement. Except that Crater Lake National Park has been reintroducing and moving species around for a hundred years. In 1917, Roosevelt elk were introduced. Kokanee were introduced in the 1930s. Fishers were introduced in the 1970s. Peregrine falcon eggs were introduced in 1982. Reintroduced Northern Rockies wolves even set up shop in the park this year. Natural process such as fire have also been reintroduced. And on the flip side, harmful non-native species have been and continue to be removed.

    Crater Lake is not unusual. Hundreds of native species have been introduced to National Parks and wilderness areas, and these conservation programs have been ongoing for over a hundred years. Gila trout have been introduced to the Gila Wilderness, wolves to Yellowstone National Park, bighorn sheep to the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, showy Indian clover to Point Reyes National Seashore, harperella to Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park, golden paintbrush to San Juan Island National Historical Park, dusky darter to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, bonytail chub to Dinosaur National Monument, and just a few months ago my own group filed a legal petition to reintroduce grizzly bears to the Selway-Bitterroot and the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Areas. Even Marris’s hapless California condor has been reintroduced to multiple wilderness areas though she doesn’t mention it.

    History shows the truth to be the exact opposite of what Marris asserts: conservationists have been restoring biological diversity for a hundred years through reintroductions to National Parks and Wilderness Areas.

    She might want to also consider the history of the vacant Detroit lot she claims is “wilder” than Yellowstone National Park because it is “unmanaged”. She is apparently unaware that the blading of all the native vegetation from that lot was “management”. As was the many times it was sprayed with herbicides. And the many times non-native species were introduced to it. I’ll make a $100 bet with you Emma: let’s put a webcam up on that lot and another on a randomly selected of Yellowstone’s 2.2 million acres. Which to you think will show more “management” actions over the next year?

    A little biblical history wouldn’t hurt either. Marris claims that conservationist desires to protect the wilderness is a holdover from Christian notion of humans falling from purity into sin and needed to be saved. Turns out though, that the Fall was not from wilderness into civilization. It was exactly opposite: Adam and Even fell from the Garden into the Wilderness. Thus since the Middle Ages, church father have been telling their flock that to return to purity and righteousness’, humans must make a garden of the wilderness. You know, plant trees and stuff.

    With a truly remarkable lack of self-awareness Marris used this same Biblical error to frame her book The Rambunctious Garden. The wilderness we’re told is myth, a historical construct. We must escape the myth, she says, and make the Earth into a garden. ‘Cause you know, there’s nothing mythical about the Garden. It’s not as if the central story of Christianity involved losing a garden and needing to get back to it or anything. No says the ever scolding finger, I discovered that, it’s all new and untainted history.

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

  18. Several commentators have pointed out that planting whitebark pine is a poor example of a conflict between saving species and preserving wilderness because planting is a minor part of whitebark pine conservation. Setting prescribed fires was another bad example because conservationists have been setting these fires since the 1950s and 1970s. This begs the question: Why did Marris pick such bad examples? I think because good examples are hard to come due to her thesis being fundamentally wrong. Species protection rarely if ever requires abandoning wilderness ethics and values. Quite the opposite, it most often requires protecting and restoring the wilderness’s natural processes and species.

    In Arizona, the Center for Biological Diversity and The Wilderness Society are reintroducing bighorn sheep to the Pusch Ridge Wilderness. There are helicopters and nets and trucks and guns and gps collars and dying sheep. It’s all kinds of messy, but that’s what reintroduction programs look like the first few years. It is not for the faint of heart. But this in no way compromises the wilderness. It makes the wilderness wilder by returning its sentinel sheep. They lived on Pusch Ridge for thousands of years and for thousands of years Push Ridge was them. In his dying year, Chuck Bowden–who was both writer and activist, thus grounded in work, not words–wrote very eloquently about the wilderness needing its sheep back. And he knew the wilderness better than any of us.

    Wilderness and reintroduction are opposites to Marris because she’s blinded by an almost missionary zeal to get back to the (Rambunctious) Garden. The Garden in Christian myth is the irreconcilable other of Wilderness. One had to choose between them, and Eve chose wrong for all of humanity. Thus we were all cast from the human-centered Garden into the howling, animal Wilderness. There is no going back, St. Augustine convinced the West many centuries ago, so we must build the New Garden ourselves. The conversion of wilderness to garden is index of human righteousness. Stuck in this ancient and very present dichotomy, Marris sees only gardens if there is the barest of fingerprints showing.

    Much wilderness needs only to be left alone. It will change with the climate and become whatever it becomes. Other wilderness needs us to restore lost species, fire and flooding. Either way, none need be less wild for these decisions to act or not act. What is essential is that we be careful, humble, respectful, that we remember as we have wisely (if imperfectly) enshrined in laws like The Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act that the purpose is do what the land and plants and animals need. It’s not a garden after all. Gardens we love as well and truly, but differently. They are less self-willed, less ethically demanding, more essentially tied to human wants and needs.

    What is needed most perhaps, is to stay with the trouble, as Donna Harraway likes to say. It takes great fortitude to remain intellectually close to the beautiful, messy, concept blurring, ever changing world. How much easier to carve the world in reified concepts and clear choices between them. Yes, the Detroit weed lot and Yellowstone National Park are both “managed.” And no, the weed lot is not wilder than Yellowstone, not even vaguely close. Ask the mammals that live there. But more importantly, ask the mammals that no longer live there.

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity

  19. Lots of very interesting discussion here…
    I have lived in France (Western Europe) for more than 30 years now. France is a country that has a few national parks, (dating from when ? created on a U.S. model or not ?) and no wilderness areas. There is no single word for “wilderness” in French, and it is not embraced as a positive value.). “Wildness” is perceived much more as lawless acts of human beings against civilization, perceived as a positive force. It is an attribute that excites much ambivalence : coveted as inaccessible ideal (synonym of freedom) at the same time as feared, to the extent that it endangers social order. (The word “bête” which can be translated as “beast” or “animal” also means “stupid” when applied to human beings.)
    France is a country where man has transformed the landscape, for his own purpose, and in his own interest, with little thought (self consciousness) about his right to do so, or not, for over a thousand years now. With no wilderness areas, wilderness as an idea, or value is not incarnated in any.. PHYSICAL place.
    This is not the case in the United States, whose government and institutions are still based on the transplantation of European, Enlightenment ideals in the.. NEW world. The United States government has set aside areas, called wilderness areas, and the very existence of these areas helps keep the idea of wilderness incarnated in physical place, in the U.S., and alive.. as a not Utopia (“Utopia” means NO PLACE…), in France, at least, where flocks of French tourists make constant pilgrimages to the Western U.S. parks to see… the animals… while U.S. tourists run in the other direction to see… the monuments.

    Reading this article, and the many insightful comments above, I am struck by the effects of our intense ambivalence about our collective selves, and our collective, Western melancholy.
    Underlying our collective assumptions about our natural world, and ourselves in it, at this time, is the postulate that EVERY animal (human or not..) acts, and should act at all times to preserve its physical survival, perceived as being its… ULTIMATE “interest”. But men (and animals…) kill themselves/let themselves die. Not only when they act towards a goal perceived to be positive, (sacrifice) but also when they no longer have the desire to live. (Many inmates interned in the German death/concentration camps during WW2 let themselves die, and they died… because they no longer had the will to live…not necessarily because they did not have enough food, or they were victims of ill treatment. The situation of being brutally displaced, disoriented, was in itself enough to trigger their desire to let themselves die.
    This (positivist…)assumption about survival thus does not stand the test of observation, and it is our collective blindness to this observation which makes our lives in society, and in nature, so difficult for us at this time.
    Modern (positivist..) science attempts to rationalize and systematize our world in order to protect us from (the risk of) uncertainty, or not being able to control our world by predicting it. And modern positivist science is waging war on death itself.
    The classical Greek playrights already understood the terrible disadvantages that come from too much SELF consciousness, and the drive to control/manage that this form of intelligence provokes.
    Will we be able to rationalize what we perceive to be OUR CHOICES (…!!!) in this Cornelian dilemma where nobody, ultimately lives, but where a man can lose his soul (and worse, his soul’s desire…) by playing it against a rationalized necessity in order to survive ?
    And… will we still have the energy, the desire, the vitality to want to live in this (new) world ?
    Hard to tell.
    Maybe we have misplaced our faith ?

  20. What we do about fossil fuel dependance and our overpopulation of the planet will be the final arbiter of truth about whether deep ecology or management schemes prevail.Millions of years of adaptation by numberless species who have come and gone are inately more skilled at management than you or I could ever hope to be regardless of how powerful our technologies become.We need to get our own species act together and not make excuses for our fall from grace.Planting seedlings in the wild is arrogant monocultural tinkering and it will take decades to even find out if we screwed up or not.Bad bet.Even worse science.The Wilderness doesnt care about us.This is as it should be.Rewilding makes sense as restoring vast contiguous swaths of land for species migratory patterns does as well.Now if we could just stop slaughtering reintroduced species such as wolves that I and many others helped reintroduce in the River Of No Return Wilderness we could stop our one step forward two steps back mindlessness.

  21. Last night I had a nightmare about the article.As I was entering a national park the signage said:THIS IS A GMO MODIFIED WILDERNESS AND SHOULD NOT BE CONFUSED FOR THE REAL THING.ENJOY YOUR STAY.

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  23. “I would much rather see us do what works than what appears beautiful or feels good.”
    And, sometimes, what works and what appears beautiful are the same. As residents of the Sierra National Forest, we have watched the ridge facing our log home go from verdant green to 70% dead in less than a year. Crowded, “untouched” forests made it possible for manmade causes, then drought, then the Western pine bark beetles to bring this utter devastation. Now, when our mountain neighbors and we look at what’s left of our beloved forest, we grieve – for us, the Solastalgia (grief due to environmental change) is crushing.

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