Heeding history’s lessons

  • Paul Larmer, executive director


The rollercoaster plight of the northern gray wolf — the subject of this issue's cover story — is a good metaphor for American ambivalence toward the natural world. For more than a century, wolves were simply enemies that threatened cows, sheep, dogs and children. Determined government agencies channeled this fear into a campaign of poisoning, trapping and shooting that pretty much obliterated the canine menace throughout the Interior West by the 1940s.

But in the decades that followed, we had second thoughts. A new consciousness took root, planted in the soil of urban angst, social upheaval and the new science of ecology. Predators, we slowly came to see, are essential components of the natural world, filling a niche in a way that human hunters can never fully occupy. Out of this sensibility came the Endangered Species Act, and out of the act came the listing of the wolf and the determination to return the species to its former habitat.

In 1995, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt released 29 Canadian wolves into Yellowstone National Park and the wilds of central Idaho. We now regard the subsequent — and startling — proliferation of these animals as one of the major conservation achievements of modern times. Yet, as writer Dan Glick notes, the wolf recovery effort remains haunted by its history. Some ranchers and hunters are still angry, firmly convinced that the wolves are a destructive force that should never have been allowed back into the West. And some conservationists are equally determined not to compromise, sure that any lessening of federal protection will lead to the wolves' annihilation all over again.

Are we always doomed to repeat our past mistakes? This question applies equally well to our second feature story, in which April Reese examines the work being done to reclaim public lands now being carved up by the gas industry. This is not the first time industry has dominated portions of the West's public lands. For over a century, mining and timber companies have indelibly transformed the landscape, polluting streams and obliterating habitat for a host of native species. Government agencies have more often than not failed to hold companies accountable, and the wounds to the land and water continue to bleed long after the booms have faded.

Of course, we know better nowadays. But that doesn't necessarily mean that we will do better. Though the Bureau of Land Management recently formed several new reclamation teams to oversee the hundreds of companies operating on the West's public lands, the agency's overall commitment to reclamation remains stuck in a 1950s-era mentality. Without mandatory regulations, beefed-up bonding requirements and greater enforcement, this boom is doomed to play out like all the others, leaving behind a ravaged landscape long after the companies are gone.

The blame doesn't just lie with the federal government or corporations. The conservation community, which has played such a decisive role in protecting public lands and wildlife in the West, needs to take an equally serious interest in reclamation, as unglamorous as the issue may seem.

There is still time to hold the gas industry accountable for cleaning up after itself, just as there is time to develop state wolf-management plans that both ranchers and wolf lovers can live with. But to do so, we will need to take a hard look at history, and make a conscious decision to do better this time.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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