My Turn — The environment: Now is the time
April 15, 2008
The Earth Day message should be the same as last year and the year before ” the situation is critical and the hour is late.
If it sounds desperate, even living in the Tahoe utopia, that’s because the message has been encountering so much resistance. Most Tahoe-Truckee residents are not indoor people. Most local citizens never spend an 8-hour day in an office that they didn’t regret. It’s because the real and relevant world, as many see it, is vanishing even faster than the physical ability to experience it firsthand.
We shouldn’t want to miss it. Just read Aldo Leopold’s account of his 1922-canoe trip through the Colorado Delta ” a unique spectacular wilderness that no longer exists ” and one feels physical pain and personal loss.
“Relegating grizzlies to Alaska is about like relegating happiness to heaven,” Leopold wrote. “One may ever get there.”
I don’t deny that more intrepid travelers have influenced me. I once met author Peter Mathiessen in Squaw Valley and the late outdoor photographer Galen Rowell before that in Tahoe City. Each time I experienced traces of that thing they call envy. Not for anything those two had, though many have envied their prose and photos, but for where they’ve been, for the places they have seen that I will never see. I’ve read their books, but books are just a taste, a tease almost.
Mathiessen and Rowell have traveled to inaccessible places on earth – the high Himalayas, the Amazon Rain Forest, the game savannas of Africa and wild corners of the Americas ” and taken a kind of inventory, with a naturalist’s eye and a poet’s sensibility.
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Leopold never got a chance to revisit the Colorado Delta, but Mathiessen and Rowell returned many times to the scenes of earlier adventures, invariably to record and mourn the vanishing herds, the clear-cut forests, rivers dammed and polluted, receding glaciers and the reckless waste of resources.
Mathiessen’s book, African Silences, chronicles the decline of the forest elephant in the Congo Basin and the disappearance of many animals in West Africa. His most pessimistic book, Indian Country, sounded an ignored alarm over a decade ago, of the insane destruction and contamination of American wilderness by timber and energy corporations, with the full cooperation of the federal government.
Sometimes the alarm comes even before you visit the place. A recent issue of National Geographic included a feature that examined the effects of a phosphate mining operation, a paper country’s sludge dump, and developer’s defective septic fields on the delicate ecology of the Okefenokee.
The beat goes on: In Idaho last year there was a red alert over radioactive contamination from a nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at the National Engineering Laboratory. It was only a few years ago that our U.S. Supreme Court gave the green light for logging in 16 areas of once Clinton administration protected old growth habitats.
The White House Council on Competitiveness apparently exists to help businessmen evade environmental restrictions, proven this decade when the Senate voted to release a million acres of Montana’s virgin pine forests to the timber industry’s chainsaws.
Corporate lawyers and bizarre public demagogues, like radio’s Rush Limbaugh, stir up right wing rabble with tirades that make political scientists like Stephen Meyer of MIT to ridicule their rhetoric as “a political gimmick of special interests.”
It breaks the heart. The lament reflects that in 50 years, just as Tahoe residents today read The Saga of Lake Tahoe, others will read Mathiessen as Mathiessen read Leopold, and as Leopold read John Muir, and Muir read James Audubon, as witness to lost wilderness so pristine and wonderful that it sounds like science fiction.
Finally, on Earth Day, Tahoe development corporations should read the powerful story of author Wallace Stegner’s father. As his son tells it, the elder Stegner was a quintessential American developer, a rambling, gambling man who believed that the world was his own dysteleology. In a dozen crazy speculations in oil, timber, minerals and real estate, he despoiled beautiful places, finally dying “friendless in a fleabag hotel, having done more human and environmental damage than he could have repaired in a second lifetime.”