Foreman finds hope amid ecological rubble

  • Bringing good news and bad: Dave Foreman

    Ray Wheeler

Pat Robertson and Jesse Jackson should thank their stars that Dave Foreman chose to become a conservation preacher rather than a religious preacher. Otherwise, they would be out of jobs.

Foreman, who said his family had expected him to become a Bible-thumper, traces his unique ministry back to the doomsday preaching of Cassandra, and he opens his talks by warning audiences against the depression and drunkenness that many college students fall prey to after he tells them their world is an ecological shadow of what it had once been.

Of course, he told the 100 people jammed into the Paonia, Colo., town hall on a warm Sunday evening in July, you're not college students. "So maybe you won't get drunk after the talk and fall off the curb and break an ankle."

As he warned, Foreman's talk was depressing. But he managed to mix in good news - that Mexican wolves would be reintroduced to the Southwest in time for his 50th birthday. And he ended with his signature performance - an exuberant wolf howl many in the audience joined.

"If we don't have joy, we become a bunch of bitter, depressed, burned-out people, which it is really easy to do."

But the body of his talk was about loss. He began by evoking the towering forests his ancestor Tyler encountered on landing in Virginia, followed by descriptions of the passing or near passing of the passenger pigeons, the American parrot, the eastern panther and the bison that his other descendants - Missouri farmers, a Confederate Army private, sugarbeet farmers in Colorado - had seen.

His branch of the Foreman line had come to eastern New Mexico to grow beans, and they had seen the end of wolves and blackfooted ferrets. He recited from memory Aldo Leopold's famous description of shooting a mother wolf while cruising timber for the U.S. Forest Service, and then watching that fierce green fire die in the wolf's eyes.

The times, Foreman said, are grim, and not just for wildlife and its habitat. He believes that the large mammals our species evolved with are necessary to our psychological health, and that we are therefore also suffering as a result of this sixth great spasm of species extinction.

Having set the stage - in a resonant voice that easily overcame the loud air conditioner and with delicate gestures that at times were at odds with his fierce Fu Manchu visage - he prescribed the cure he finds in the relatively new study of conservation biology, and in its conclusion that wildlife needs large chunks of intact or connected habitat. If we can find the will and wisdom to maintain wild, connected places, and to reintroduce species such as wolves and grizzlies, he said, the world will begin to pull out of its ecological freefall.

Foreman did not pretend that science was driving us toward such a path. Quoting conservation biologist Michael Soulé, he said that science can tell us how to conserve nature, but not why to conserve nature. The latter, Foreman said, is a matter of ethics. "Do we have the largeness of spirit to live side by side with the wolverine, who has been in Colorado for millennia?"

Foreman's talk was reasoned, it didn't overreach, and it recognized that reversing present trends depends more on our hearts than on our heads. And in response to the first question put to him - about the perfidy of corporations - he made a plea for respect of private property, for not depending too much on government regulations, and for rewarding rather than punishing people who own land with endangered species. He also pointed to examples of ranchers, including media owner Ted Turner and the Malpais Borderlands Group in southern Arizona, who are practicing conservation.

It was a wonderful evening, until questions started coming from those who had sat on their hands, looking hostile, during the group howl and applause. One said he wouldn't waste time asking "silly questions' - he just wanted to say he disagreed with Foreman on every count.

But the third questioner, while clearly unhappy to be face-to-face with Foreman, was more reasonable. Was there any help, he asked, for people like himself who lose stock to predators? Foreman talked about a restitution program in the Yellowstone area for those whose cows or sheep are killed by wolves.

But was there anything here, in western Colorado, the man asked again, for otherwise "I will shoot any coyotes, wolverines and anything else to come on my land."

Foreman's reply: "I feel sorry for you."

Another man - no one offered names - then asked if Foreman had brought maps showing planned preserves and corridors on the nearby Grand Mesa National Forest. He had seen such maps, he said, on a TV documentary.

Foreman said that the only maps he knew of were forgeries being handed around by a John Birch Society representative. The man then asked Foreman if he branded everyone who asked questions as "Birch Society nutcakes."

After the meeting, Foreman said of his manner with the hostile questioners: "The trouble is, I'm as much of a redneck asshole as they are."

But that wasn't the problem. The questioners had undoubtedly come to unmask Foreman rather than to hear him. They had come knowing that he would be trying to impose a land-use agenda on them that they didn't want or couldn't afford. His talk - rich in science and in a positive attitude toward private property and toward ranching - should have reassured them.

But in the face of the questioning, he couldn't or wouldn't say how the utopian Wildlands Project is to be implemented. And he never mentioned who was doing the mapping - who was carving up the local areas - which is the heart of the process. The questioners were to take it on faith that those doing the mapping would look out for their interests.

As a result, the common ground he built during the talk disappeared once the questions - however clumsily and angrily stated - started probing the details of the cure. The Wildlands Project, as presented by Foreman, has a firm grip on ethics, on aesthetics, and on the biological sciences, but the political and economic sciences were nowhere in sight. It's a situation that has cursed the West's environmental movement for at least the last decade.

Interestingly, partial answers were in the room. Foreman's talk was hosted by the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council - a local group that over its 20 years has gone from confrontation to cooperation on grazing, on river protection, on energy use, on coal mining. WSERC still fights when it needs to - against a hydroelectric project and against turning this area into a prison county - but before going to war it tries to work with local resource users. Others in the audience with parts of the answer were members of a local land conservancy that just received $400,000 to buy easements, of a river protection outfit that has enlisted most riverfront owners, and of a federal lands partnership attempting to keep still-rural Delta and Montrose counties from becoming suburbs of Aspen and Telluride.

The evening would have worked better if Foreman had presented his vivid, harrowing picture of what we have done and are doing to the earth, and then admitted that he has only the largest, most general idea of how to turn things around on the ground. Almost everyone in the room knew that Foreman's description of the earth is correct. But everyone also knew that the interpretation and implementation of a cure will have to be done piece by piece, place by place, over decades.

In some places, as with wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone and the creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, politics allowed the imposition of the national will on local situations and local people. We then get to pay for these victories in the form of a political backlash, which has sent a solid phalanx of anti-environmental radicals to Congress from the West.

But in most places the success of species reintroduction and the adoption of land-use plans like the Wildlands Project will depend on painstaking conservation work done in local places by local people.

It's not the fastest way. It may not be the best way. But it is the only way.

Ed Marston is the publisher of High Country News.

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