A war of ideologies, with endangered species as weapons


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.

I 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 established.

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 under debate.

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 termites.

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!

Yet, 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 irrational.

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.

Environmentalism - 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.

As I 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 differently.

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."

Yet 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 actively destroyed.

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.

Signs are 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.

The one 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, Seattle.

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