by Whit Gibbons

February 19, 2012

Talking 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.

The bare 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.

The striking 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?

When I 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.

Ironically, 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?

Another 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.

As we 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.

Why are 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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