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John Muir
Tap an environmentalist on the shoulder and they'll tell you that economic development is the death-knell of wilderness.  But the history of the relationship between wilderness and progress in our country isn't that simple.  Read below the fold.

The first argument about preserving versus developing wilderness was the fight over the Hetchy-Hetchy Reservoir in California’s Yosemite Park which erupted in 1908. Opposition to the development of a new water system for San Francisco was led by the Sierra Club, which had been founded by John Muir in 1892.

Muir was originally an easterner who was closely associated with Roosevelt and other early conservationists, but he was not a hunter and his motivation to preserve natural spaces did not grow out of a desire to conserve animal habitat so much as to preserve wilderness areas. But as the country continued to grow and the space between the Missouri River and the West Coast was filled in, the issue of wilderness versus development could not remain a back-room debate for the simple reason that there was too much at stake.  Once railroad lines stretched not only from coast to coast but throughout the interior itself, the resources of the frontier zones – crops, animals, timber – were simply too abundant and could be moved to market too cheaply to resist exploitation by commercial interests on both coasts.

The early conservationists, including Roosevelt, acknowledged the inherent conflict between maintaining natural space on the one hand and retarding economic growth on the other.  But as the conservation movement morphed into environmentalism, a wedge was driven between the two movements that claimed management responsibility for as-yet undeveloped space, a wedge based on one question: what should be the role of government in managing the natural patrimony?

For hunters/conservationists, government’s role was to be limited to enforcing rules that regulated the relationship of hunters to wild game: giving hunters access to hunting areas, restricting the hunt to periods that would allow the natural migration and reproduction of species.  Environmentalists, on the other hand, wanted government regulation to cover the entire natural patrimony; not to control the behavior of hunters who otherwise might threaten wildlife, but to control the behavior of developers who otherwise might threaten the entire environment.

What we have ended up with is the notion that wilderness preservation versus economic development are inextricably opposed; that you either wind up with one or the other.  Every development initiative is a threat to nature, every preservation plan is an effort to derail economic development.  The fight over the Keystone pipeline is the argument in its current form.

The origins of the fight go back to 1890 when the Census declared the wilderness to be closed.  But the United States was the only country in the entire world that industrialized and closed its frontier at the same time.  In Europe, the wilderness disappeared a thousand years before the Industrial Revolution began.  In America we were laying railroad track and slaughtering buffalo at the same time.

The truth is that our extraordinary economic development took place not as a conflict with nature, but because we were able to tap the abundantresources of nature for the first time.  Urban centers that appeared in Europe during the 19th century competed for building materials that had to be expensively extracted and shipped from distances far and wide; Chicago was built from wood that floated down from Wisconsin.

Ten years after we closed our frontier the output of our national economy surpassed the combined production of all the other industrialized economies.  The resources that fueled American economic development were so cheap that re-investment and further growth could occur at three or four times the rate experienced in other industrializing zones.  The greatest irony is that the self-same conservationists, like Roosevelt and Grinnell, who mourned the disappearance of wilderness came from the elite class whose economic fortunes derived from the resources extracted from the wilderness itself.

This is the 3rd and final summary of our fourthcoming book on hunting and conservation to be published by the end of the year.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Is there really a conflict between "progress" and (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ban nock, Kevskos, Eyesbright

    Wilderness?  Is that a trick question? No? Well then.

    Hell yes there's a conflict but I don't think it'll do any good to try to explain it to you,because if you don't see it then that's probably because you don't want to. But I will point out that the "wedge" that you speak of is because industry was (and still is) quite comfortable with total rape and destruction of natural areas in order to fatten their wallets. Without a strong environmental movement things would be even worse than they are.

    Just give me some truth. John Lennon

    by burnt out on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 05:51:46 AM PDT

    •  It's not possible for industry to develop (0+ / 0-)

      wilderness anymore as it's off limits to development via established law.

      “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

      by ban nock on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 06:31:23 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  If you are (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ban nock

        talking the few acres in official 'Wilderness' or National Parks you are correct, if you are talking the enormous areas under control of the BLM,  Forest Service or individual states it is open for business as it always has been.

        "In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism" Marine Corp Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler

        by Kevskos on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 07:14:49 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  recently MB posted a photo of a drill pad in WY (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Kevskos, Meteor Blades

          accompanying one of his posts. The pad was vastly different from what I was used to in WY 30 years ago. Instead of a flat space bull dozed with drainage ditches and a settling pond, the entire rig site itself was enclosed in berms as if it too were in a giant settling pond. Settling ponds themselves are no longer pumped out and covered over. They are pumped out then the clay lining is also removed and the plastic containment layer, refilled with soil, then top soil, then regraded to original, reseeded, and progress of regrowth checked regularly.

          Where I live in CO the Roan Plateau had strict restrictions as to # of sites, placement of roads, times of operation (for sensitive wildlife migration), and all manner of care. Not perfect, not the same as no drilling, but much different than it has always been. Of course we had a very pro conservation Attorney General that was famous for prosecuting infractions by extractors, his name was Salazar.

          I'll check this thread which I find interesting, after work.

          “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

          by ban nock on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 07:40:42 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  CO does a really (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Meteor Blades

            good job.  Down here in AZ it is much more haphazard.  We have not had much natural gas so I cannot compare but we let miners off really easy, tallings can still be dumped pretty haphazardly.  Along the Colorado River things are a bit better because south of Reservoir Mohave we have California on the other side.

            I need to get to my ob of looking for a job.  Check back this evening as well.

            "In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism" Marine Corp Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler

            by Kevskos on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 08:14:56 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  I remember that time 30 and more years... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            ...ago in Wyoming and Colorado when such sites (and uranium mill sites, etc.) had no linings on settling ponds, etc. They've cleaned up considerably — because of government requirements — since then.

            Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

            by Meteor Blades on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 12:02:14 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  Most of the (0+ / 0-)

              tough requirements come from the individual states Departments of Environmental Quality, there is no tough national standard.  That is why you see mountaintop removal in some states, like West Virginia, and much less in other states like Virginia.

              "In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism" Marine Corp Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler

              by Kevskos on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 06:32:48 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

    •  reply to burnt out (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ban nock, Kevskos

      I didn't say there isn't.  I simply am pointing out that we should understand that our concern about nature follows from the degree to which our living standard developed because we let industry use the resources in the wilderness, not despite it.    

  •  I think we are now far beyond the stage of (0+ / 0-)

    serious degradation of natural areas for development. All the permanent development pretty much comes on private land. Indeed private land is often not only the most vulnerable but also the most valuable as it contains the greatest diversity and abundance of wildlife. And private land is where environmentalists live so to be close to the urban/wildland interface. Their 5 acre parcels with private drives and fire departments to secure them from damage.

    Mining, even tar sands, is relegated to a small geographic area. Oil after development is difficult to even know it's there. Forestry we are coming to learn actually serves a purpose now that we have ended the frequent burns that our forest knew a few hundred centuries ago.

    Muir despite his altruism was advocating for the preservation of a landscape in transition that was itself the recent product of dramatic changes.

    “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

    by ban nock on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 06:40:22 AM PDT

    •  reply to ban nock (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Federal Govrnment owns more than 30% of all land in nthe continental US, and more than 60% of all land in the 10 western states.  Much of this land is managed in partnership with private, extractive industries.  Private land ownership in the US is mostly found in midwestern farm states.

    •  The question (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      ban nock, burnt out

      really is not if mineral extraction should occur or not, we live in a technological society that would not exist without mineral extraction of some sort.  The question is how much regulation do we put and enforce on he extractors.

      IMHO we put few and then do not vigorously enforce the few laws we have to make extraction environmentally safe.

      Extraction might be on a few acres relatively speaking but mine tallings wash down through 100,000 of thousands of square miles in the watershed, and that is just one type of extraction pollution.

      We have the ability to do extraction much better then we do but if we continue to let industry argue like big companies have free speech and rights they will continue to pollute the commons.

      "In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism" Marine Corp Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler

      by Kevskos on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 07:11:45 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Look at mountain-top removal as an example (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ban nock, Eyesbright, burnt out, Kevskos

        It has become an unacceptable and unsustainable way to extract coal. Even though Peabody (the only company name with which I'm familiar thanks to John Prine and the Navajo/Hopi tribes) says they'll put the mountains back when they're done, this hasn't really happened yet and is a prime example of what Kevskos says here. We already have regulation; it's the enforcement part that is successfully watered down by the large corporations making the money off our "public" lands.

        Courtesy is owed. Respect is earned. Love is given. (Unknown author, found in Guide to Texas Etiquette by Kinky Friedman)

        by marykmusic on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 07:38:54 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Yes. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Meteor Blades

          Read any land use management plan written by the BLM, they basically give the shop away without the extractors having to justify the need and how the will protect the environment. There are environmental requirements already written that then get watered down by industry lobbying. I have not read one written by the Forest Service but I expect they are the same.

          It would be interesting to see how many Federal Land Managers revolve to the extracting industries after spending their junior years working for the Feds.

          "In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism" Marine Corp Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler

          by Kevskos on Tue Oct 08, 2013 at 06:30:07 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

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