Big Bill Rose, my brother Tom's redheaded boyhood friend, works for Union Pacific and lives in a mountain canyon west of Denver. Tom and I were visiting him some years ago, and the talk came around to Two Forks Dam. This proposed behemoth, since canceled, would have flooded the nearby canyons and mountain villages. Bill wasn't sure he was for it because places and trout waters and people he knew would be affected. But he couldn't see why the Tellico Dam in Tennessee was temporarily derailed by a dumb little fish, the snail darter - or "snail sniffer," as he called it. "Hell, you can't even eat it," he snorted.
thought of Bill and his snail sniffer recently on a visit to a
sage-steppe remnant in eastern Washington known as Sagebrush Flat.
The 3,600-acre site is considered the largest and best piece of
habitat left in Washington for the pygmy rabbit. This regional
endemic and state endangered species formerly occupied a wide
region of sage lands, but agricultural changes have edited the
small lagomorph out of most of its former range. Our group, the
state-appointed Natural Heritage Advisory Council, was surveying
the area as a proposed state natural area preserve. We were
accompanied by resource agency officials familiar with local
cattlemen who would lose their grazing leases if a preserve were
I asked a man from the Department of
Natural Resources how the pygmy rabbit is regarded in local cafes
and bars. I wondered if it drew the same blend of bemused contempt
and outright derision that the northern spotted owl evokes in
timber towns. "How do you think?" he asked. "To most folks around
here, some damn little rabbit is a lot less important than a steer,
to put it mildly. Bunnies don't pay the bills."
I've heard similar attitudes toward endangered
Columbia white-tailed deer in Wahkiakum County, where good
bottomlands were taken out of farming for a national wildlife
refuge; toward endangered butterflies in the way of development on
the Clatsop Plains of Oregon or on San Bruno Mountain in
California; and many another creature caught in the crossfire of
human needs and desires. I will never forget a frustrated mall
developer stomping back and forth outside a hearing room in Albany,
N.Y., where the future of the endangered Karner blue butterfly was
Jamming his foot-long cigar in and
out of his mouth and pacing, he muttered, "I can't believe it - all
this trouble for a goddamn butterfly!'
I hate to
think how developers, business, and resource-dependent country
people would respond to an ecologist's concern for still "lesser"
forms of life than pygmy rabbits and Oregon silverspots. For
example, there lives in the old-growth forests of the Northwest a
remarkable creature called the wood roach (Cryptocersus spp.). An
evolutionary enigma, it is the object of great biological interest.
Wood roaches have not been found in Washington for more than half a
century and should by all rights receive at least as much attention
as the northern spotted owl. But I can just imagine the uproar if a
single timber sale were suspended on behalf of a creature that
shares the traits of both roaches and
Or how about the
Oregon giant earthworm? When I worked for the Nature Conservancy, I
learned about relict populations of these highly attenuated
annelids - up to 10 or 12 feet when relaxed - in remnant forest
soils of the Willamette Valley. We considered launching a
fund-raising campaign to purchase critical habitat for the species
and the system it represents. Our slogan was to be "Save the Oregon
giant earthworm: can you dig it?" But we never pursued the idea.
I've always cherished the imagined notion of an indignant
legislator rising in the Salem statehouse to denounce the insanity
of taking land off the tax rolls for the sole benefit of a bunch of
big worms - too big even to use for fishing!
to many people, such arcane animals - and similarly esoteric
endangered plants with unhelpful names like Furbish's lousewort -
really matter. To them the question is not one of putting critters
before people. It is an issue of respecting and caring for people
and the rest of nature together, of recognizing the innate sense of
poet Robinson Jeffers' line, "Not man apart." It is believing, and
acting as if, resource use can and must accommodate the maintenance
of diversity and that failure to protect diversity is fundamentally
We often try to explain away these
radically differing perceptions as the product of profound
ignorance on the part of one side or the other - ignorance of
biological functions, say, or of economic systems. Without a doubt,
we all have our blind spots. The millwright is likely unaware of
the essential role of mollusks in maintaining forest health, while
the urban environmentalist might be innocent of the facts of real
human life in a mill town.
But the yawning gulfs
between our understandings cannot all be explained by lack of
facts, or lack of empathy. We must finally recognize that we are
waging, on the battlefield of species' graveyards, a war of
ideologies. The lack of shared values, the dogmatic refusal to even
consider the sharing of common values, is such that a word like
ideology is none too strong.
like abortion, population control, sexual orientation, immigration,
affirmative action, and growth management - has become anathema for
certain people. The rabbits and roaches are of no real consequence
to them but serve as visible targets for their wrath. Indeed, that
seemingly useless animals and plants have no particular
consequence, except as unwelcome agents of unwanted change, is a
tenet of this creed. Its values extend well beyond species
conservation, running into mining and grazing on public lands,
all-terrain vehicles on the commons, even the very concept of a
commons as embodied in the public lands.
write on the shores of Lake Crescent, jet skiers shatter the
national park serenity, taking up the auditory space of a hundred
quiet walkers, swimmers, riders, or rowers. I am a nonviolent
person, but when jet skis appear in such a setting, I look about
wildly for the nearest bazooka.
At Sagebrush Flat
we saw no rabbits but plenty of sign, these being the only North
American leporids to dig their own burrows. The scent of flowering
sagebrush cut the dust and twanged in the nose. Old sage shrubs,
the kind favored by the rabbits, had been battered by cattle, the
grass they use in spring depleted. I asked the man from the state
natural resources department about the powerful rancher who leases
most of the acreage from you, me, and the pygmy rabbits. I wanted
to know if he distinguished between public land and private land.
"Heck, no," the man said. "It might as well be his."
The schism in values does not
neatly fall, as some assume, along lines of left and right,
Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, rich and poor. Although
the stereotypical antienvironmentalist is seen as a right-winger
(and not without cause), many a Marxist couldn't give a hoot about
owls or the species dialectic. It is true that some of the sharpest
critics of "federal set-asides' in the Congress are Western
Republicans and that most environmental legislation of consequence
has been sponsored by Democrats. But many a Democrat does little
for his home habitat, and Nixon did more for the land than Clinton
and Gore have managed together so far, despite their good
intentions. When Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt went forth
to seek substantive reforms in grazing and mining practices on the
public lands, he ran into a wall of rural resistance. He thought he
had his ducks lined up, but the ducks saw things
It's not that country folk are
anti-nature. What sense would that make? They do see city people as
romanticizing the out-of-doors, sometimes shutting down traditional
livelihoods in the process.
So where are we to go
with this unhappy knowledge of a plenitude of deeply unshared
values? It is certain that no number of "scoping" sessions, town
hall meetings, talk shows, or public hearings will begin to
ameliorate the problem. Mediation, arbitration, referenda,
initiatives and legislation only serve to force closure that will
rend again at the earliest opportunity. The courts may provide a
stronger suture, but the opposing tissues, rejecting one another,
will pull back until the next litigation. Compliance is one thing,
true cooperation quite another, and compromise usually means just
that: Someone, or something, of value is compromised. Real and
lasting reform is too often like tomorrow according to Janis
Joplin: "Tomorrow never comes, man."
something in my biologist's heart makes me unwilling to accept the
possibility that our raging differences in matters of life and
death are insoluble. It simply isn't adaptive that a species laden
with values should be so riven in their expression.
Intriguingly, many of the harshest critics of
saving this or that "silly" species consider themselves religious.
For example, the Christian Coalition backs candidates whose voting
records on environmental issues are rated near the bottom by the
League of Conservation Voters, and one of the coalition's highest
priorities in the 104th Congress is gutting the Endangered Species
Act. Yet it seems to me that people who believe in direct, divine
creation of each living thing should consider every life-form to be
blessed, not damned, devoutly to be protected, or at least not
When I hear professed
Christians denigrate owls and murrelets, as I often do, I want to
ask them this: If you believe in a God who is supposed to have
created these creatures, shouldn't He be the only one to decide the
time of their demise? This matters, because the casual damning of
nuisance rarities can spawn attitudes and actions that lead to the
ultimate equivalent of biological damnation for species -
extinction before their time.
On the other side,
many conservationists belong to liberal denominations or none;
others adopt some sort of muddy, pantheist-animist noncreed. They
rightly conclude that maintenance of biological diversity carries
the seeds of our own survival. But sometimes they miss the part
that human communities play in nature. They need to accept our own
species in the natural equation.
appearing that at least some people are working toward a shared new
sense of purpose. Much of the conservation community has invested
itself in sustainable agriculture and other means of finding a fit
for humans in the scheme of things. Meanwhile, a "green
spirituality movement" has arisen to spark spiritual respect for
the physical world. The broad range of outlooks, from the liberal
Episcopalians' Creation Ministry to the conservative Evangelicals'
Green Cross - all dedicated to conserving the rich gift of the
world - demonstrates that what they jointly call creation can
indeed be an ideological bridge. The nonreligious, too, have an
equal stake in declaring interdependence.
glimmer that I see radiates from the slim chance of a common
commitment to this thing, this everything, called "the creation."
Whether we see the world as made or arisen, its sacredness can no
longer be in question. We must stop damning the sacrosanct, whether
with casual curses or with giant dams.
Robert Michael Pyle's latest
book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide, will be
published in 1995 by Houghton Mifflin. This essay is adapted from
Illahee, Journal for the Northwest Environment, which is based at
the University of Washington,