I hope no one yanks my green card for this admission, but I'm beginning to hate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
It's not that I'm for drilling. There's
no reason to drill in a place set aside for wildlife when more
efficient vehicles could eliminate demand for the oil.
as a Westerner newly relocated to the East Coast, I resent that the
Arctic Refuge is almost the only Western public-lands based issue
that makesthe national news. Here's my tally from the New York
Times in a two-month period this spring: Arctic Refuge -- seven
stories; all Western land topics put together -- five
Is the Arctic Refuge really that important? To
take only one example among scores, what about the oil and gas boom
in the interior West? As new gas wells and service roads dissect
the landscape, millions of acres of habitat on both private and
public lands will be transformed. Countless drinking-water wells
continue to be contaminated by leaking methane wells, and the
drilling and road building are upending operations at hundreds of
ranches and farms.
To take a second example: Congress
isconsidering a bill to encourage private landowners to donate or
sell development rights and conservation easements on their land. A
decision by Congress on this bill -- the Charities Aid, Recovery
and Empowerment Act -- could mean the difference between
development and open space across important habitat in the
When put up against coalbed methane drilling, clean
air and water, and overall protection of 500,000 square miles of
federal land in the lower Western United States, even the vast and
beautiful Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looks small.
why do the Times and other media cover the refuge almost
exclusively, and ignore so many other stories? The fault, I think,
lies with the environmental movement. We continue to let the
wilderness ethic guide our efforts in the West. That ethic holds
that a landscape has the highest conservation value when we
consider it to be pristine, virginal and untrammeled by humans.
This ethic squeezes people onto the scene only
grudgingly, as brief visitors in a landscape that sets our heads
spinning with awe. If wilderness is the quality we value most, it's
not hard to guess why the Arctic Refuge, more remote and foreign to
most of the nation than the Great Smokey Mountains, Yosemite or
Glacier national parks, becomes the most important landscape to
protect. This wilderness ethic makes us care most about the land
farthest from us, the land we're least likely to ever see.
The catch with wilderness worship is that no landscape is
pristine. By setting conservation priorities based on how
"untrammeled" a landscape is, we let more complex and potentially
significant environmental issues languish. We undermine the
importance of, for example, private ranch and timber lands for
biodiversity conservation and open space.
We leave people
in cities believing that nature is not part of their everyday
lives. We neglect the wonderful complexity of human-environment
interaction. We lose in the long run because we let our political
representatives believe they are fostering a lasting environmental
ethic by protecting one wilderness area.
When I first came
east from Colorado, I was amazed to learn about the recovery and
protection of the great Northern Forest in northern New York and
New England. In the face of changing timber and real estate
markets, environmental groups and private landowners are coming
together to safeguard and restore this vast, but far from pristine,
landscape. This is being done in the name of a different kind of
conservation ethic, one in which logging may help sustain
ecosystems, rural economies and people's connection with the land.
In this unfolding story, environmental advocates and
timber companies have forged a still shaky alliance, but one that
has nevertheless protected millions of acres of forestland from
both development and poor logging practices. In what had been a
deepening economic pit, there is now hope for ecological and
There is no question that
protecting fragile and sensitive areas in Alaska and across the
West is wise. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is an important
symbol of America and its dedication to the natural world.
But allowing the refuge to define the national agenda for Western
conservation pushes fascinating, here-and-now stories about private
land conservation, ecological restoration and urban planning out of
our sight and consciousness. It leads us to ignore what's under our
feet and in our lungs. It turns the natural world into something
inaccessible, that we can only care about and experience via
television and national politics.
That's a terrible
mistake, and it's a mistake that's only environmentalists and
environmental groups can fix.