BADLANDS OFFER ENVIRONMENTAL PARADOX
February 19, 2012
with friends recently who had been to Badlands National Park in South
Dakota, I was reminded of a column I wrote years ago that seems pertinent
in today's highly charged political environment.
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,
which were devoid of vegetation save a scattering of small bushes and
occasional trees, probably fewer than 10 per acre. The region seemed
perfect for a case study about the many faces of erosion. Yet the scene
was starkly beautiful, especially when the exposed soils revealed their
colors at sunrise and sunset.
panorama brought to mind a paradox about environmental attitudes, because
I could have been viewing either of two habitats, one natural and one
manmade. Suppose the Badlands 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 scene? Would we have made it a national park?
first saw the Badlands years ago, a similar-looking habitat came to
mind-- Copper Hill, Tenn. Fumes from copper smelting plants had destroyed
all vegetation from hundreds of acres, creating an actual textbook example
of environmental disaster.
the environmental landscape of both the Badlands and Copper Hill have
many similarities, yet one is considered magnificent; the other, an
environmental embarrassment. Suppose the circumstances were reversed,
with naturally caused fumes, perhaps from some volcanic activity, having
created the view at Copper Hill and an ill-planned agricultural project
having been responsible for the Badlands. Would attitudes about the
two places also be reversed? Would Copper Hill be a national monument;
the Badlands, an indictment of poor environmental planning?
ironic environmental situation 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.
drove through one heavily forested section, we came to an area where
hundreds of acres had been denuded of all trees. Several members of
the group began to complain about such a practice being allowed on public
lands. Some wanted to take pictures to document the devastation that
could be caused by clearcutting, a clear example of forestry mismanagement.
I let them rant for a bit before revealing the truth about the treeless
expanse: the entire section of forest had been leveled by a tornado
the previous spring. Once the group realized that a natural event, not
human interference, had caused the devastation, the area became environmentally
acceptable. Something to marvel at, not condemn.
such different opinions held about the Badlands and Copper Hill when
virtually indistinguishable close-up photographs of the two sites could
be taken under the right conditions? Why do people have different attitudes
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
pollution. Contrasts in environmental attitudes clearly result from
events that go beyond the visual appearance of a habitat or the wildlife
experiences one might have in it. We should ask ourselves why it matters
to us what caused a particular environmental situation.
The answer to the irony must go beyond the simplistic one of our having
an inborn love of natural things. Do we 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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