'It's like the Manhattan Project...'

  • Michael SoulÄ

    Greg Hanscom

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Michael Soulé: "We live in an extraordinarily bleak period for nature. Things are going to get worse before they get better. We'll lose, I would guess, half of the world's species in the next 50 years. It's quite tragic - and preventable. The degree to which we have to manage nature now precludes speciation from occurring - no other species of bears or dogs will be able to evolve. It's not possible under the current hegemony of humans on the planet.

"It's our responsibility if we're biologists to dedicate a certain portion of our professional lives to protecting nature. It's like the Manhattan Project during World War II. Physicists were called together to address a threat to world civilization. So it is now with biologists and ecologists. The problem is slower - it's not as acute as Hitler and fascism. But if you love nature, it's just as dire.

"I think a lot of scientists come to conservation biology because they're compelled to. They can't stand aside and be an objective observer of the death of nature. I think many scientists in my generation have had a sad epiphany when they saw a place where they had grown up, or a field site they had gotten attached to, trashed by development. Conservation biology is very popular for many bright young people. It's the idealism factor. Young people want to make a difference.

"Most people don't make the distinction between conservation biologists and conservationists. Whenever you step over the line (between science and activism) you get criticized on both sides. You have to be a better scientist in a way. You learn that that's the cost of being a popularizer, a translator, a hybrid.

"We'd like to restore as much true wilderness to North America as we possibly can. It's out there - relatively undeveloped land. But it's being multiple-used to death. Our job is to minimize the damage, to hold onto as much nature as possible so that future people and organisms can persist on the planet. It's kind of like passing the fire.

"Enemies of conservation say we're "locking away" wildlands. They'd like to have people believe that their rights are being taken away. A better metaphor would be that we're making a deposit in the bank for the future.

"The conservation movement in the past has been looking for special places, places with beauty, aesthetic and political values. Other (environmental) groups focus on jewels in the crown. We really focus on connectivity.

"It's not yet clear whether it is possible to implement conservation on the scale we're talking about. In some places it will be possible, in other areas it won't even be conceivable - like in Denver and Chicago. (Up until recently,) we hadn't understood the complexity of the problems, the difficulty of the problems and the obstacles. There will be resistance.

"The myth of the working landscape we find repugnant. The idea of a working landscape as a (wilderness) core just won't work.

"The economy of the West is rapidly changing. Natural resource extraction and cattle are diminishing rapidly in importance. The future of the West's economy is going to be much more diverse, with a great emphasis on tourism and recreation. If people are really concerned about western Colorado, they should support setting aside as much of it as possible as wilderness. That's going to be the major source of wealth in the next century. Our congresspeople haven't figured out that the real economy is not what they think it is. They're 20 years behind."

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