ATTITUDES CAN BE PARADOXES
by Whit Gibbons
May 6, 2006
on the edge of the Grand Canyon recently, I was reminded of another natural
phenomenon I wrote about years ago.
hills, catching the gold of the morning sun, looked like a distant painting
rather than real life. Obvious wildlife was absent on the barren hillsides,
all devoid of vegetation save a scattering of small bushes and occasional
trees, probably numbering fewer than ten per acre. The region seemed a
case study for teaching agricultural courses about the many faces of erosion.
Yet the scene held a stark environmental beauty, especially when the exposed
soils with their sparse vegetation revealed their colors in a sunrise
panorama brought to mind a paradox about environmental attitudes. Suppose
the Badlands of South Dakota where I stood were a consequence of human
development and degradation of forest lands or prairie rather than the
result of millions of years of natural processes? Would we find beauty
in the same vista? Would we have made it a national park?
When I first
saw the Badlands several years ago, a similar-looking habitat came to
mind--Copper Hill, Tennessee. The Copper Hill habitat is viewed as an
environmental disaster. All native vegetation disappeared from hundreds
of acres over a several year period as a result of fumes from copper smelting
the environmental landscape provided by both the Badlands and Copper Hill
have many similarities, yet one is considered magnificent and the other
an environmental embarrassment. I contend that if the circumstances were
reversed, with naturally caused fumes, say from some unusual volcanic
activity, having created the view at Copper Hill and with an ill-planned
agricultural project having been responsible for the Badlands, our attitudes
about the two places would also be reversed. Copper Hill would be a national
monument; the Badlands would be an example of poor environmental planning.
ironic environmental situation is one that involves clearcutting, the
timber industry practice of removing all the trees and other vegetation
in an area before planting crop trees. I once was leading a tour group
from a national conservation society through a southeastern forest habitat,
a public land area managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The particular
group was rather outspoken on their opinion that clearcutting was a shameful
practice and should not be permitted.
As we drove
through one heavily forested section where private timber contracts are
permitted, we came onto a clear area of hundreds of acres denuded of all
trees. Several members of the group immediately began to take issue about
such a practice being allowed on public lands. Some wanted to stop and
take pictures that they would use to show the devastation that could be
caused by clearcutting, a clear indictment of Forest Service mismanagement.
I probably should have said something earlier. I admit that I let them
rant for a bit before pointing out a special fact about the treeless expanse:
the entire section of forest had been leveled by a tornado the previous
spring, a completely natural event.
Why is destruction
of a forest by a natural event, like a tornado or hurricane, acceptable,
yet if humans cause a similar situation some people protest? Why are two
different opinions held about eroded habitats like the Badlands and Copper
Hill, where virtually indistinguishable close-up photographs might be
taken under the right conditions? Why does a contrast in attitudes exist
about the hot waters of Yellowstone compared to those released as cooling
waters from reactors? One is a natural wonder; the other is viewed as
contrasts in attitudes clearly result from events that go beyond the superficial
appearance of a habitat or the wildlife experiences one might have in
it. We need to look into ourselves and ask why it matters to us what caused
a particular environmental situation.
to the irony must go beyond the simplistic one of our having an inborn
love of natural things. Do we also harbor an inherent resentment, apprehension,
and distrust when other humans control our natural resources? Do we accept
nature's rearrangement of the world's environments but become uneasy about
modifications that demonstrate someone else's ability to control our environmental
welfare? Perhaps these deeper, unexplored feelings are the underlying
cause of many of our environmental conflicts.
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