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A Good Defense…Is Not Enough

Why are we whispering?  Everybody I speak to privately about this administration’s environmental record is in various stages of shock, disbelief, and anger.  Publicly, the environmental community is prodding the President along as if he is a stubborn child not willing to eat his vegetables.  When he makes some half-hearted effort in favor of the environment, we gush applause and praise, even though we know the result is imperfect.  There is no doubt in my mind that we did not really have much of a choice during the last elections, but I am not sure that the election dynamics then must force us to accept environmental tragedy now.

Let’s take the President’s recent climate speech, which also coincides with an issue we (the environmental community) have been pushing as our top priority since this President was first elected in 2008.  It is summer 2013, and the President finally announced that the Environmental Protection Agency will propose rules on carbon emissions in the power sector.  Writing that sentence feels a bit harsh. I want to say “to be fair, the President also imposed efficiency standards in his first term.”  But that is the problem.  There is nothing to be “fair” about.  We are in a climate crisis, and the President took five years to announce a Climate Action plan, and it includes “clean coal” as part of the solution.  Here is a sentence from the plan:

“With abundant clean energy solutions available, and building on the leadership of states and local governments, we can make continued progress in reducing power plant pollution to improve public health and the environment while supplying the reliable, affordable power needed for economic growth.  By doing so, we will continue to drive American leadership in clean energy technologies, such as efficient natural gas, nuclear, renewables, and clean coal technology.”

What the heck? Natural gas, and clean coal?  Oh right, we need to keep electricity cheap and dirty so we can maintain “economic growth” – the policy of supporting more consumption for the sake of consumption.   We can’t be happy if we are not continuously taking a larger share of the world’s finite resources.

What was the response from the environmental community to this plan?  A round of applause, with some groups offering helpful tips on how to continue the policy of growth while minimizing impacts on our wildlands, even though accepting “economic growth” accepts a very dim future for conservation.

Within weeks of announcing this plan, the administration announced another step in a very familiar bureaucratic process – leasing public lands to coal companies in Wyoming.  After all, when the President announced his Climate Action Plan, he did not renounce his foolish “all of the above” energy strategy that has so far allowed offshore drilling in the Arctic, a rush of natural gas exploration in the Bakken, more coal mining in Wyoming and Montana, and expanded drilling in the Gulf. The Department of Interior implements the “all of the above” energy strategy by continuing to open up our public lands and waters to fossil fuel development.   “To be fair,” this administration has expanded renewable energy development, including support for BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar project, built on one of the most critical desert tortoise habitat connectivity corridors in the Mojave Desert.  Of all of the places where we can harvest the sun’s energy, including on rooftops and already-disturbed lands, the administration’s signature clean energy project (BrightSource received Federal loan guarantees, and a “fast track” environmental permitting process from the Bureau of Land Management) was built where it could do some of the most harm to a species struggling to recover from our other impacts – climate change, urban sprawl, and off-highway vehicle recreation.

Okay, so the President’s energy policies are not really effective at addressing one of our key priorities since gains in renewable energy are not always the most sustainable choices, and they are typically offset by even more fossil fuel production.  But to make matters worse, the administration has also lagged significantly in general protection of public lands and wildlife.  His recent designation of the Rio Grande Del Norte National Monument is promising, but he’ll have to do better than that. At 245,000 acres,the new monument is less than the 285,000 acres of solar energy zones he created on public lands where industrial-scale solar will be hastily permitted, or the 6.3 million acres leased to oil and gas companies.

On wildlife, this administration succumbed to political pressure, discarding science in an effort to delist the gray wolf that is now consuming budgets and person hours .  The White House is also considering a rule change that would issue 30-year permits to wind energy companies to kill bald and golden eagles – a time frame that is difficult for scientists to manage given uncertainty of population trends over three decades.

So what will it take? I think we have to accept that we will not make progress with this administration on many environmental policies.  These eight years were supposed to represent a major shift in environmental policy, and instead we may be only marginally better off than where we were in 2000. What we should consider is how to take away the incentive for future administrations and policymakers to muddle forward in the same manner adopted by this administration. In order to do so, we should re-examine our own tactics, because I think we may be doing more harm than good.

For one, accepting Washington’s ground rules is not the way to go.  For example, in an effort to enhance their influence, some environmentalists argued that climate change is not an environmental issue, but an economic one.  Dirty coal plants are not an environmental issue, but a health issue. Protecting wildlands is not an environmental issue, it’s a tourism and outdoor recreation industry issue.  In a desperate effort to get Washington’s attention (which nobody expected would be this difficult under this administration), we have behaved as if we are ashamed of being environmentalists and sought to transform ourselves into the industrialists and corporations that do own Washington.  Damage to the environment is damage to economic growth.

Save the environment for the sake of growth.  These are compatible values if you accept that open spaces and biodiversity are only valuable in relation to the utility they serve for corporations. Extreme weather events cause insurances rates to go up. REI can sell more gear if we have National Parks for people to visit.  The solar industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in th economy.  Save these lands because they help filter and provide clean water.  All true, but all framed in such a way to appeal to a paradigm that, over time, will never favor sustainability and the other less quantifiable values of the places and wildlife we love.  Capitulating to the condition that any environmental protections must be justifiable according to a framework written and controlled by the expansion of wealth for a limited set of corporations and policymakers is a losing strategy.

If you want to remind them of these economic benefits, fine, but our campaigns should be built around the core principles that drive us to care about wildlands and wildlife.  These are beautiful places and beings, and we do not want to live on a planet without them.  Our consumption and growth impacts these values, and every little impact we have on a single species or acre of land has cumulative effects on the rest of our lands and wildlife. Our approach should be to outline the most sustainable paths forward.

Our efforts are sure to appear out of place in Washington, but that is the point. Instead of figuring out how we fit in an unsustainable model and learning to speak the language of growth, we have to form a movement that leads by example toward sustainability.  After all, what we are defending simply cannot be accurately appreciated by this economy.  How much money would any average individual in our society be willing to accept in return for the destruction of a beautiful landscape, or the extinction of an iconic species without regret?

One might counter that we have to be reasonable and accept compromises, but our current framework is not necessarily reasonable.  Destroying the Ivanpah Valley to generate solar energy, while simultaneously expanding coal and oil production?  Designating solar energy zones on intact desert habitat while blocking a financing tool that would expand solar on rooftops?  Removing endangered species protection from the gray wolf so that we can see it hunted to extinction? Accepting natural gas as a “bridge” to renewable energy, even though investing in that bridge means we will be stuck with yet another polluting and toxic industry for decades?  Compromising with an unreasonable system without working to shift perceptions and values of the places and beings we are trying to protect is unlikely to achieve progress in the long-term.

We may not always be popular, and Washington power brokers may not always agree with us, but our movement and our language should reflect what we stand for, not the greedy interests that we think will catch the attention of the handful of people and corporations who currently control Washington.

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Endangered Landscapes

Growing up in the desert I took it for granted that I could soak up the solitude of the desert by walking a short way westward from home into a crowd of tall creosote bushes and Joshua trees.  Even though I might run into lonely two-lane roads,  the horizon appeared limitless and interrupted only by the San Gabriel Mountains.

Night time was no different. I remember a drive with my Dad out past Barstow on Interstate 15 through the vast reaches of the desert.  It was late at night and a friend of my Dad’s had called from a call box to ask for help – I think he had some sort of engine trouble, or maybe it was a flat tire. I can’t remember. I just remember that I was always up for a road trip.  My Dad’s Chevy Nova chugged along and I stared out the window, trying to avoid the glare of the southbound traffic headlights on the opposite side.  The stars were the main attraction.  When the sun is up, the horizon distracts my mind.  When the sun is down, the desert offers an encore performance in the sky above.

Out on the east coast I have to admit I am still looking for that soulful connection to nature that is so easy when you’re in the middle of the desert.  I appreciate everything the non-human world offers here in the leafy east, whether that is a pair of chimney swifts chasing each other above the city, or wildflowers in bloom in Shenandoah. But the human impact on the landscape is dominant almost everywhere you look in the Washington D.C. area. You would really have to immerse yourself in a hike through mountain valleys in Shenandoah, or go deeper into West Virginia or Pennsylvania.

As much as I disagree with the strict legislated definition of “Wilderness,” looking at a map of Wilderness areas in the United States is fairly indicative of the regions where we, as humans, have converted large swaths of land to serve our purposes, and where we have not.  Out east, and even in the midwest, our often destructive touch is evident in any satellite imagery.  Sprawling slabs of concrete and asphalt, farm lands, gas and oil drilling, mining, transmission corridors, and large wind and solar are creeping into the unprotected lands out west.

For almost every significant project on remaining intact ecosystems out west where much of the open space is considered public land, the Federal government will produce an environmental impact statement analyzing specific impacts on wildlife, water, and air resources.  There is usually a visual resources section, as well, but these analyses often seem woefully inadequate, and I have never heard of these concerns stopping the march of “progress” and the deletion of “remoteness”.  The usually include some photos of the project site, and some simulations of what the area will look like after a project is built.  And they’ll usually go to great lengths to explain why the project will not be considered a “dominant feature” on the landscape, even if it becomes the only feature on the landscape.

How do you describe what we are losing when you build a project in a remote valley that will be visible from dozens, or even 100+ miles away?  How can anybody measure the value of a scenic vista? How can you “mitigate” damage to that? Once you build a large tower, remove a mountain top, or carve wide roads into a mostly intact landscape,  you have scrawled human graffiti on Mother Nature’s work of art.

There are really not many of these works of art left. The pace of human food, energy and material needs continues to convert not just tropical forests in South America or Southeast Asia, it is also taking its toll on the southwestern United States. These endangered places here at home include the Pahrump and Sandy Valley area of Nevada, and the Silurian Valley of California. Desert landscapes that could be scraped by bulldozers and lit up at night with industrial-scale energy facilities.

We’ll be living in a nightmare, driving for hours and unable to escape our own disastrous handiwork in search of a primal escape. The peace I found by riding my bike out into the desert across the street from my house is endangered, but I have never read an environmental impact statement that seemed to notice.  If our appreciation for conservation continues to take a back seat to our worship of industry, one day we may only be able to find this solitude in a few good National Parks, like Death Valley.  Yosemite? Yeah you’ll need reservations two years in advance for a day trip to see the valley. And when you do find a good spot to rest your mind, it will be overrun by people snapping photos from their cellphones like they would an adorable polar bear at the zoo.  Something we can all agree we love, but we cannot find a way to save.

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Chimney Swifts

The tension builds in my shoulders all day. Hunched over a keyboard. Sitting in the icy draft of an air-conditioner – an inconsiderate machine that separates the haves from the have-nots, and siphons its energy from carbon stores that were supposed to rest in peace.  I come home from work long enough to know my wife. She is the person who separates me from insanity, and reminds me to care for those around me. It is this time at home that I cherish – watching her surf the television channels as the setting sun turns a blue sky to grey. And the brief moment in the morning when I appreciate her lying beside me as I wake up, and before I feel compelled to leave bed and put on a costume to make more Money.  It is not what she does, but who she is that reminds me of my own true nature.

Money always wins, but its influence is fear.  Why else would I leave this Peace for another day at a desk?  What forces me to survive this way?  Before I leave I will lie there as she sleeps. I will lie and listen to the chatter of the chimney swifts. The birds awoke before I did, and began chasing each other above my apartment.  I can hear them through the open window, and they are a more welcome interruption in my life than the shouts of the drunken crowds I heard pouring out of a bar across the street last night.

The chimney swifts sound jubilant for the sun’s rise.  Their paths dart in odd angles at amazing speed. They exhibit a burst of energy that seems foreign to my human metabolism at this hour. The swifts spent all of yesterday soaring above the city’s parks and along the river. They nested along brick and mortar for the evening, and woke up to chase a new day.  I do not know what compels them from their slumber, but they sound more chipper than I do at six-thirty in the morning.

I take comfort in knowing that I will hear them again in the evening after I unwind from a long day at work. As the sun sets they are fluttering again above my apartment. They are returning to their own homes. And they chase each other as gleefully as they did in the morning.

The chimney swifts occupy my habitat. This is man’s terrain. Steel and glass, miles of asphalt and concrete. And yet the swifts behave as if I am standing along rock cliffs in the middle of a deciduous forest. They take me away from my place and bring me with them, soaring along the river and chasing each other across the rooftops.  In the world of the swifts, I am a have-not.  I am bound by gravity, and by Money.  My survival is relatively easy, but I am supposed to want more than that.   No matter how difficult survival may be for the swifts, they will continue to taunt and delight me during the spring and summer. They are Mother Nature’s agents in the city.  Encouraging defection among Money’s masses.

 

 

 

 

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Silence

I am losing a fight that I cannot quit.  I am at the bedside of a dying being while a yelling match rages in the background and tears apart our inheritance of a beautiful Earth.  There is no Peace for this venerable being in its final hours, and no respect from its sons and daughters.   Money reigns supreme over everything as humans grow more consumed with how to consume.  The shouting match drowns out words of compassion.

Starry skies meet a desert mountain’s sharp silhouette, and passing clouds cast brief moments of relief over the dunes.  The fight destroys a mountain, and rips up a valley. I cannot shout louder than they do, though.  My words were robbed of meaning.  My mind was robbed of a voice. There is no more wild life. No wild land.  It is “take” or “mitigation.”  For megawatts and millionaires. Landscapes are managed for production. Serenity is lost to Money.

Even the saints speak for industry –  clean against dirty energy.  A climate hawk called me a treehugger as if I were a naive child so in love with nature that I couldn’t understand Money problems.  A conservationist called me an agent of the fossil fuel industry, as if I were the wrong kind of Money.  It doesn’t matter who I am unless I am Money, and what I fight for is inherently destitute and poor, according to man’s enforced paradigm.  Lizards and rocks.  They are resources of little or no Money value to man in their natural state.

I do not know how to turn these feelings into the words I need to make people see the beauty we are about to lose.  So I watch the sun set, and rise, and set again.  Each time more beautiful than the last. Numb to the yelling that rages.  A violent house that I cannot escape.  It is my Earth, but I have no choice to share it with the ones who do not care.  I have no choice but to keep trying.

I want to take you to the Earth’s concert — a bird cheerily saying farewell to the setting sun from its perch on a creosote bush.  A riot of color emerging from a sandy plain in the spring.  I want to explain these things, but the words I find are meaningless to the raging shouting match behind me. I will keep trying, though. I promise.

 

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Damn Birds

Get out of the way wildlife, we need to save the planet for humans!  But instead, people in Minnesota are complaining that a new wind facility could kill 8 to 14 bald eagles each year. And others are worried about a new Wyoming wind facility that would kill a couple hundred raptors, and over 6,000 bats each year. And a solar energy facility will burn, batter and blind birds along the Colorado river. And others are whining about a wind facility in Nevada expected to displace or kill desert tortoises, and industrialize a remote swath of peaceful desert.

What is wrong with people? We have to hurry and fix our last industrial disaster, which we caused when we became so enamored with mass production and consumption that we fed, nurtured and sheltered an industry (fossil fuels) that cared more about profits than humans or our cohabitants on this Earth.  Wow! What a mistake that was. Toxic pollution, destroyed habitat and  extreme weather events.

That is why it is time for us to try a novel and hasty approach. We need to bring in big industry and give them wide access to our still-intact natural landscapes so they can counter fossil fuels.  Giant wind turbines standing over 400 feet tall, and new solar facilities — no not the kind in our cities and on rooftops, but the kind that destroy beautiful desert valleys in California, Arizona and Nevada. Don’t worry, we wont repeat history this time.  We’ll just give them generous subsidies, roll back any well-meaning environmental regulations instituted since the 1970s, issue voluntary siting guidelines, and then turn a blind eye. Actually, the first three steps are being taken care of, thanks to the extensive lobbying by the energy industry at both the Federal and local levels.

After all, if we don’t act now, climate change will swamp all of these other ecological issues.  So it is imperative that we shield the wind and solar industry from any criticism that they aggravate or worsen impacts on wildlife and wildlands.  After we cut emissions and sacrifice thousands of square miles of remaining wildlands to turbines and panels, we will have more time to address habitat destruction and biodiversity.

What’s that? There are empty rooftops and already-disturbed lands where we could generate clean energy? Sorry, that sounds complicated. We’re too busy trying to figure out a policy mechanism that will allow industries to kill some of our most iconic species. That pesky Endangered Species Act, the ridiculous Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act are standing in the way of rapid deployment of clean energy.  What were those legislators thinking?!  It is as if they did not want to entrust industry with our public lands and natural resources.

Well the renewable energy industry is different from those old industries.  They receive their financing from small community banks, like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, and friendly companies like Google.  And they have a much different business model.  They have revolutionary political approaches, like helping to elect anti-green Republican candidates that want to do away with environmental laws, or helping Chevron frack for fossil fuels in California. Instead of destroying the Earth to mine and burn fossil fuels, they destroy the Earth to tap wind and the sun’s rays. Instead of tall ugly smokestacks, they have tall and elegant fiber glass and steel towers, anchored into the land with tons of cement and more steel.  And instead of using large transmission lines to bring us energy from far away places, they use large transmission lines to bring us energy from far away places.

So you sentimentalist, treehugging, landscape defending NIMBYs should be ashamed of yourselves for criticizing the impacts of the renewable energy industry. And stop trying to slow us down with unrealistic ideas, like energy efficiency, rooftop solar or solar on already-disturbed lands. We’re in a hurry to defeat a destructive industry, and we need the quickest solution possible, regardless of the costs.

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Just the Right Height

It was not the most ideal place to stop.   That is what I thought to myself as I pulled the car to the dirt shoulder of Route 66 between Newberry Springs and Ludlow — two lonely desert outposts in California.  I didn’t know what I was looking for, but my brother had to get back to Victorville in time to get ready for work in the evening.  We had been driving for two hours, and we wanted to walk around open desert like we used to when we were in elementary school.  No trails, no plans, no goals — just walk around and explore. We hit the road in search of a good place to explore.

I think back to this trip a lot because I tested a bias I have.  I wanted a natural escape that lived up to my image of ideal wild life in the desert.   I think I wanted creosote bushes about five feet tall. Robust Joshua Trees with raven’s nests high in the branches, like the one that stood tall over the desert lot near my childhood home.  But where my brother and I stopped for our trek was a patch of desert that did not live up to my image of a perfectly wild place.  I was happy that my shallow expectations were shattered that day.

The creosote bushes — the very common desert shrub that can be found throughout the Mojave Desert — were no taller than my knee or, at most, my waist.  There were no trees, and very few other shrubs.  It was a dry winter, so no wildflowers to be seen.  As usual, though, the desert was full of surprises.  The rocks littering the desert soil were eye-catching — I am not a geologist, but I couldn’t help but admire the colors and patterns in so many rocks.  I imagined centuries of erosion that put the rocks in their place, probably traveling slowly over time from the nearby Cady Mountains.

Reptile and small mammal tracks were evident everywhere we looked .  And eventually we spotted a couple of whiptail lizards that looked back at us nervously once they reached the shelter of one of those relatively puny creosote bushes.  We started following a dry wash and came across a desert tortoise burrow.  The half-moon shape of the entrance was an exciting find, but when we looked inside it was empty.  At our feet, though, were the tracks of the occupant.  We followed the tracks for what felt like miles, but probably was no more than 300 meters.  Losing them, then picking them back up again, following an animal that was travelling west.  Wherever that tortoise was, it knew where it was going.

We abandoned the search for the tortoise when we reached our time limit — we needed to hit the road so my brother could get ready for work.  We still had a roughly two-hour drive back to Victorville.  But on our way back to the car something caught my eye.  A juvenile desert horned lizard darted away to avoid our footsteps.  We carefully surrounded the little guy.  The lizard’s tactic had changed from running to staying perfectly still.

We got some great pictures of the horned lizard, and I wondered how many ant hills the lizard visited looking for a snack.  Where were its companions that had left so many other tracks in the sand?  Were there any predators for it to worry about?   If we had the time to stalk the plentiful burrows at night, perhaps we would see the snakes or scorpions that might be looking for the lizard later on.

This patch of the desert would not look impressive to travelers zooming by on the highway at 70 miles per hour, based on the criteria of towering trees and roaming megafauna. But I was reminded of my experiences as a child in the desert, when everything was interesting — living or not — and my expectations were not distorted.  These are my fellow beings, after all. The whiptails, rocks, and the creosote bushes. If you can appreciate their experience and powerful endurance, life is much more amazing.

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Urban Jungle?

The majesty and inspiration of wildlife amidst wildlands cannot be replicated.   As much as humans will begin to redefine success in conservation by rationalizing more industrial and commercial uses of intact wildlands, I don’t stumble upon as many of natures surprises and curiosities in the city.  That’s not to say I don’t appreciate them when I do.

As a city-dweller I like to pay close attention to the natural rhythms around me.  Although my alarm clock goes off at the same time every morning, the sparrows and robins on the block pay more attention to when the sun decides it’s time to wake up. Every year there might be a three-week stretch when our schedules overlap perfectly.  I recognize this time of year when my walk to the subway in the morning passes trees full of songbirds cheerily greeting each other as morning air fills with the promise of a sunny day. Robins take advantage of the relative absence of competing traffic noise and belt out a happy melody.  On my way home, those same robins are dutifully browsing the lawns and landscaping of apartment and office buildings looking for a late meal. An hour later, the air space two feet above the ground will be abuzz with fireflies flashing flourescent green.

The winter, however, can be duller.  The trees have lost their leaves, the days are shorter, it’s darker during my walk to the subway. The urban wildlife list is mostly reduced to the pigeons, squirrels and rats that can brave the cold. But there is still the chance for a surprise.  Earlier this week I was walking to the subway and noticed the pigeons flying aerial acrobatic patterns that seemed uncharacteristic for the early morning hour.  Not far behind the flying formation was a raptor — perhaps a Cooper’s hawk or a sharp-shinned hawk.  I’m not sure and didn’t get a close enough look.

This is not the bird I saw in the city, but I don’t carry around my camera when I’m  in the city, so this picture taken in the Mojave is the only one I can give you of a bird of prey.

The presence of a top predator in the city is not a common sight.  Usually the pigeons and squirrels grow fat and complacent.  Not much worry for what could be circling above.   But when a predator does hang out for a while, the change in behavior is noticeable.  The pigeons are nervous, and scatter more frequently, and the squirrels are on edge, not venturing far from a tree or bush.

It’s the same way I feel when I’m in the middle of the Mojave.  Suddenly I cannot afford to be complacent. If I get lost, there are no strangers to ask for directions. If I run out of water or get a flat tire, I’m on my own. If I am not well-prepared, my human superpowers over nature are gone.

I can see and appreciate the wild side of the city.  But that does not mean I want to forsake the truly wild places where nature’s rule often prevails over my own.

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Wolf Hunts Take a Heavy Toll

Wolf populations throughout the northern Rockies are in peril as wolf hunts begin to take their toll on the predator.  The sentence you just read could have described the species status at some point in the middle of the last century, yet here we are again. Dozens have been killed already this year, including several that were the focus of a research project in Yellowstone National Park, but shot when they strayed outside of park boundaries. Wyoming this summer became final state in the Rockies to have its wolf population removed from the endangered species list.  Wyoming opened unlimited hunting of the animal, according to Defenders of Wildlife, which estimates that as many as 54 have been killed in the state.

Department of Interior has been under fire from conservation groups on one hand, and ranchers and hunters on the other hand, but delisted the species with seemingly inadequate protections or assurances that the states would be proper stewards of the wolf populations.

Consider that the wolf population in Wyoming was estimated below 250 animals in 2011, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Losing 54 in a single year is a significant setback for wolves across North America, let alone Wyoming.  The wolf, which used to roam nearly every state from California to Maine before it was essentially exterminated from the US by the 1960s, was only just beginning to make a comeback.  Now is not the time to give up on this species.

At least two separate legal challenges have been filed against the wolf’s delisting, involving the following organizations: Earthjustice, Defenders of Wildlife, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, Conservation Congress, Friends of Animals, Friends of the Clearwater, National Wolfwatcher Coalition, and Western Watersheds Project.

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Welcome to the ‘Not Essential’ List

The weekends and summer break were times to play.  Sometimes video games.  Sometimes in the back yard.  But my favorite playground was the desert across the street.  That desert seemed to stretch across the horizon, unobstructed between our front yard and the San Gabriel Mountains. But, slowly, it began to disappear.  More families moved into the Victor Valley to escape the smog-filled LA Basin, bringing new schools, churches, parks, and stores.  Creosote bushes and Joshua trees gave way to stucco-clad homes and pavement.

I don’t think I minded it so much at first.  There was still a patch-work of desert to explore with my older brother — the nearest patch being about 50 acres.  It doesn’t sound like much now, especially when I think about corporations bulldozing over 3,000 acres of desert for a single power plant, but it was plenty back then.  Plenty of whiptail lizards to catch (and release) and jackrabbits to chase (you’ve got to admire the ambition).

As I got older, and as I saw more desert disappear from the Victor Valley, I came to know sprawl.  As much as my own family contributed to the suburbanization of the desert, I didn’t like to see the pre-construction stakes, with neon-colored ribbons appear in the desert.  Followed by the bulldozers and clouds of dust.  It meant that the nearest patch of desert was a little further away.  A little bit further to ride my bike to catch a break from a crowded or boisterous house. I loved being in the desert — the smell of the creosote, the wildflowers in spring, and countless other surprises the desert always had to offer. Ants busy at work, burrowing owls warily watching your approach, the home of a cactus wren nestled deep inside a thorny cholla, night lizards under fallen Joshua tree limbs.  You just had to pay attention.

I left for college and it took me 9 years to grasp what nature meant to me.  I am a bit late when compared to the more environmentally astute.  According to A Passion for Nature, naturalist John Muir was asking the following question before he was even twenty years old: “What creature of all that the Lord has taken the pains to make is not essential to the completeness of that unit–the cosmos?” Mammals, insects, reptiles, plants were all different kinds of “people” to Muir.

What living creature is “not essential”?  I like that question because all too often we view our responsibility to non-human living beings as secondary. Muir asked it in the rhetorical sense — the answer was obvious to him.  But the questions we ask today are much colder, and not surprisingly the responses are more elusive –  How much of species X do we need for the population to remain viable?  What is the survival rate of species Y when it is relocated from its home territory? How many acres of foraging habitat does species Z need? How many degrees of warming climate can species Z survive in its current habitat range?

Sometimes we cannot avoid these questions as humans make decisions about our natural neighbors.  But instead of thinking of the answers as mundane calculations, we should think of them as responses coerced under duress.  We are creating a list of the creatures and landscapes that are ‘not essential’.

Don’t worry — this blog wont be a long list of doom and destruction.  I’ll write about things that concern me, but also the experiences I enjoy outdoors.  But it’s always worth keeping Muir’s question in the back of your mind.