Wednesday, September 24, 2014

On Bats and Birds, Ebola and the Lungs of the Earth


                                                                                                                                                                                          Watercolor by Daniel LaCroix


I’ve been on the ash-handled end of ecological restoration work for decades. I’ve planted hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of trees and owned and operated a native plants nursery when family obligations kept me closer to home. I kept my hand in the game, saved more than a couple postage-stamp areas of habitat with reclamation techniques that were, in my opinion, the most enlightened for their day. So I feel qualified to share a few thoughts about the 1964 Wilderness Law, Senator Jon Tester’s “Forest Jobs and Recreation Act”, which releases millions of acres of Montana wild lands for exploitation, and trees.


The most recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa is already ten times greater in magnitude than any previous outbreak and shows no sign of getting better before it gets a lot worse. Past outbreaks measured human deaths in the teens and hundreds. Large numbers of chimpanzees and gorillas also perished, but they’re hard for us humans to count. So strictly on our terms, which ecological events never are, this outbreak’s count is already in the thousands and climbing daily. One ecological factor strongly linked to Ebola outbreaks is forest disturbance and the resultant fragmentation of its canopy. Deforestation. The unsustainable killing of trees. Sound familiar?

Lyme Disease has a similar ecological amplifier of interest to the only Great Ape on the North American continent—us. As forest habitat is fragmented, like the Tester bill would do, and is otherwise destroyed through gentrification and suburbanization such as we’ve seen occur in the Adirondacks and countless other places, its species diversity declines. Usually that means the predators go first. Mountain lions and wolves, of course, but also the owls and hawks and various other forest creatures who keep the main actor in the burgeoning Lyme Disease drama, the White-footed Mouse, in check. You can have a verdant suburb with as many bushes and trees in your yard as suits your idea of “the country”, green belts nearby with cute little bears carved out of leftover tree stumps. You can be just down the street from a “conserved” patch of forest, two patches, three or even four, and your forest will still be fragmented, compromised, unable to support the rich array of species that it needs to keep such diseases as Lyme in check.

Combine this with another little tidbit of news, just in from the National Audubon Society. It reports that more than half of the 650 species of birds studied in the United States and Canada are at risk from global warming. Again, you can have your bird feeders, with plenty of bushes and non-native trees growing in your yard and in pretty patterns all over the countryside, patterns dictated not by Nature and her requirements but by property owners and theirs. You can have cowbirds and starlings, in other words, or no birds at all. How silly.

Can you imagine a world without birds? Rachel Carson could sixty years ago, when she kick started the era that birthed such political poetry as the Wilderness Law. And yet we continued on our merry way, didn’t we? We should have known better, and yet we have consistently acted as though we didn’t. And now look. So it goes.

Senator Tester’s so-called “Forest and Jobs Recreation Act” is another tragic example of saving a few pieces of wilderness and grinding up the rest for the sake of politics and money, which always fragments the whole and renders any “saved” parts effectively meaningless. Release language within the law opens vast tracts of wild lands to frackers, for instance, who look at trees on top of “their resource” as just the first, relatively minor sacrifice in their quarterly-statement game. That’s enough trees for you, the corporate operatives and their politicians say, and they say it over and over and over again. That’s pretty enough for you. We’ll take the rest.

Senator Tester’s a nice guy in the wrong game, because when energy executives talk about trees, they’re talking about killing them, whole hog, whole forests, no matter what fragments they say they’ll “leave us”, because what’s left are always, always by any ecological definition, fragments and not functional in terms of healthy systems capable of sequestering hardy viruses that will spill over into human populations and become, within an evolutionary blink of an eye, deadly to us and to the balanced ecosystems our lives depend on. 

Here’s a hard-won restoration secret of mine. Politics, by necessity, is the only true restoration project left to us, because trying to save postage-stamp pieces of land one at a time won’t do, and it’s a tremendous amount of work to try at all. My secret to all the siloed-up progressive organizations who, true to our species can’t quite see the forest for the trees, is that the politics that’ll save us has to be the poetic kind, the deep kind, like Howard Zahniser’s Wilderness Law, not the “forest and jobs” kind, which makes a mockery of the beautiful depths Zahniser pioneered for us. Don't be afraid, I think he'd say if he were around today, of holding your breath for a little while.

Here’s another restoration secret. You don’t have to be an infectious disease scientist to understand the connection between trees and our specie’s well-being. We should know better. As we diminish our forests, so we diminish ourselves. So please, do think twice before allowing politicians or energy moguls to convince you that we simply must cut down a few more of our remaining, irreplaceable, intact forests for the sake of jobs or whatever other excuse they’ll wave in front of you like a matador’s cape to make you a more-fearful and compliant actor in their staged eco-tragedies.

We still have large, relatively intact ecosystems in Montana that are not protected, and they are now at risk more than ever, with Tester’s bill, with fracking, with Global Warming and with whatever other human impudence you care to name. We as a species are demonstrably not capable of fully comprehending how much of our remaining intact ecosystems are enough for our children’s children to survive on this planet. We are simply capable of humility, of saying, and meaning, “stop destroying what’s left”.

A tiny bit of Universe in the perfect form of round blue water spins around a giant of fire, over and over again for billions of years while simultaneously supporting life. Notwithstanding the randomness of Nature that our scientists observe and accurately report on, how is a mere human supposed to make sense such things without a little poetry?

So here’s a little poetry, the political kind if you will: Balance is what the Land seeks and Balance is what She will achieve. For the sake of our kids and theirs, let’s strive much harder than we currently are to be a humble and thankful part of a balance that doesn’t necessarily have to include us.

Think Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Think Ebola and Lyme Disease. Think relatively-intact ecosystems and the watershed laws that have successfully, though tenuously, protected them and us up until now.

How about it? Let's evolve.

(Thanks extended to David Quammen and his excellent book, “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic”, W.W. Norton and Co., 2012)

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