Islands of Doom

How our outdated conservation strategies are killing off wildlife


| May-June 1996



Field biologists, with their stubbornly insistent focus on the minutiae of the living world, are unlikely people to be scaring the bejesus out of us.

But they were the first to see, beginning back in the 1970s, that populations of myriad species were declining and ecosystems were collapsing around the world. Tropical rainforests were falling to saw and torch. Ocean fish stocks were crashing. Coral reefs were dying. Elephants, rhinos, gorillas, tigers, and other “charismatic megafauna” were being slaughtered. Frogs everywhere were vanishing. The losses were occurring in oceans and on the highest peaks, in deserts and in rivers, in tropical rainforests and arctic tundra.

Responsibility for this biological meltdown sits squarely on the shoulders of 5.7 billion eating, manufacturing, warring, breeding, and real-estate-developing humans. According to a National Biological Service study released early in 1995, ecosystems covering half the area of the 48 contiguous states are endangered or threatened. The longleaf-pine ecosystem, which once covered more than 60 million acres from Virginia to Texas, remains only in tiny remnants, and of the 261 types of ecosystems in the United States, 58 have declined by 85 percent or more and 38 by 70 to 84 percent.

If the United States had completely ignored its public lands, it might simply be getting what it deserved. But that’s not the case. National parks and designated wilderness areas in this country make up the world’s finest nature-reserve system. When President Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act into law in 1994, the acreage of federally designated wilderness carved out of our public lands soared to more than 100 million acres, nearly half of them outside Alaska. The acreage of the national park system jumped to almost 90 million, more than one-third in the Lower 48. That is much more than I thought we would ever protect when I enlisted in the wilderness wars a quarter century ago.

So how is it that we have lost so many species while we have protected so much?

The answer lies in the goals, arguments, and processes used to establish wilderness areas and national parks over the past century. The most successful were those based on what environmental historian Alfred Runte terms “monumentalism” (the inspirational scenic grandeur of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley), on the idea of “worthless lands” (unsuitable for agriculture, mining, grazing, logging, and other productive uses: the glaciers of Mt. Rainier, the sheer cliffs of the Grand Canyon), on utilitarian considerations (the Adirondack Preserve in New York, set aside to protect the watershed for booming New York City), and, most common of all, on recreational values. The result is that wilderness areas tend to be spectacularly scenic, rugged enough to thwart resource exploitation (or simply lacking valuable timber and minerals altogether), and popular for nonmotorized recreation.