CVEPA Views : Dale Will

Early in my career, I clerked at the Environmental Defense Fund trying to help negotiate changes in California’s massive irrigation system, trying to stave off the extinction of the Sacramento River winter run of Chinook salmon. The irrigation system, known as the Central Valley Project, irrigates a good share of the fruits and nuts produced in our country. The pumps and dams were hell on salmon, and the winter run Chinook had fallen to a mere 42 individuals. 

As our negotiations failed, my task was to petition the federal government to list these fish as “endangered,” thereby forcing changes. With a species on the brink of extinction, and a billion-dollar farm economy pumping the river, that was a humdinger of a wildlife fight. In the high mountains of Colorado we are perhaps blessed that we have few species facing extinction. Yet biodiversity protection remains no less important. 

I don’t believe I have ever met another human who doesn’t care about wildlife. We humans are thrilled to share the planet with so many interesting and different creatures. Perhaps for this reason, wildlife protection is a common foil for those wanting to stop various groups of humans from doing various things. 

No one wants to be accused of indifference to wild things. Having spent a career working with these issues, I am increasingly concerned with what I might call “wildlife McCarthyism.” That is, accusing someone or something of being particularly harmful to wildlife as a mechanism to stigmatize that thing for selfish reasons. 

Some years ago, in my work with Open Space and Trails we held a retreat to focus on biodiversity protection. We spent a day with Rick Knight, then dean of conservation biology research at Colorado State University. Professor Knight is widely regarded as an expert on things like recreational impacts on wildlife. He organized his presentation into some basic phenomenon he wanted us to understand. 

First, he noted that the ecosystem is complex and armchair generalizations are often wrong; some species are more tolerant of humans than others, their tolerance is more or less at different times of year, and site-specific studies of specific activities and habitat types are necessary to understand these relationships. Second, he observed that almost universally people tend to overestimate the wildlife impacts of others’ activities while underestimating their own. 

Thinking of our valley in light of Knight’s observation, the ironies are endless. We have residences smack in the middle of habitats whose owners claim visitors threaten those same places. We have agrarians who want public grazing lands shielded from recreationists while opposing the restoration of keystone native species. We have leading environmentalists priding themselves on their personal access to wild spaces while condemning activities that might create access for the less privileged. To the general public it must be rather bewildering. 

When listening to wildlife rhetoric I always ask myself two questions. 1. Has the complaint been backed up by a qualified study of the specific species and habitat? 2. Are all human activities equally considered? If the answer to either question is no, one may assume the rhetoric has something to do with “turf,” i.e. the desire of one group to control a piece of the landscape. And that is just a disservice to the larger cause at hand. 

None of us live without impacts. Every time we buy an airplane ticket, start our car, or turn up our thermostats (carbon neutral homes excepted), we’re likely harming arctic animals. All of us need a dose of humility about these issues. If I were a science fiction writer, I might pen a sequel to “Ecotopia” wherein we live in a world where the biosphere’s tolerance for human impacts is both known and carefully allocated by some egalitarian formula. 

Much as fuel was rationed during WWII, we’d all be given an equal amount of “impact credits.” One person might use their credit on a flight to Hawaii, while the next would use theirs on a season pass to a favorite hiking trail. The impacts would be objectively allocated on an equal basis. Fights over turf masquerading as wildlife activism would be over. 

Of course my sci-fi fantasy will never happen; our knowledge of the biosphere and our systems for equitable resource allocation are both too imperfect. In the absence of such knowledge and systems, I suggest that when approaching habitat conservation, we promote the best available science, we question all assumptions, and we check our egos at the door. 

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