May 31, 1999
Biodiversity Legal Foundation
P.O. Box 18327
Boulder, CO 80308-8327
Re: "A Citizen's Guide to Ecosystem Management", by Reed Noss
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your report.
I have enormous respect for Reed. To me, he represents the highest ethical, bio-ethical, and scientific standards. I agree with almost everything he says. In addition, I owe him an enormous personal debt of gratitude. His paper, "The Ecological Effects of Roads", woke up my lackadaisical interest in wildlife. I have been much happier, since I stopped reading about road construction, and started reading about wildlife!
Still, sometimes I wish he would tell the whole truth. I think that Reed is practical -- he believes in asking for what is politically possible. I think that we should ask for what we want, and what is right, and make it politically possible. That is what the opposition is doing. I want to be visionary, not practical. I want to raise the bar.
Reed makes the case for temporary management of ecosystems, to correct certain conditions (e.g. lack of fire, or the need to remove human artifacts), but he doesn't make clear for how long, and to what extent, such management is necessary. Although he says "I hope this management turns out to be a temporary necessity" (p.11), he doesn't rule out a need to manage in perpetuity. And he doesn't admit that maybe we don't know how to manage nature. (Maybe "tweak" would be a better description for what we do.) Perhaps environmentalists would be more inclined to accept some ecosystem management, if we knew that it was finite. Although he recommends "cautious" and "experimental" management, and says "I believe that ecosystem conservation in some cases is best achieved by hands-off preservation" (p.11), I would like to see an admission that management, especially since it usually entails the presence of people, can also be harmful, and that the eventual goal (for financial, as well as biological reasons) is non-management (i.e., leaving nature alone).
On page 13 he says we should "tread lightly". But he doesn't carry this to its ultimate conclusion -- a goal of zero human impacts: habitat that is actually off-limits to humans. He skirts the idea of human-free habitat ("if we accept that sustaining all native components of the ecosystem is a worthy goal, then we must accept the responsibility of modifying our behavior and letting other beings be"), but never spells out what this "letting be" consists of. He recommends "minimizing our impacts on nature", and the "need for human restraint" (p.27), but leaves his language vague, fuzzy, and ambiguous, whenever he approaches the subject of minimally impacted wildlife habitat.
The first thing that children learn about wildlife is that they run away, when we get near. In other words, they donít want us around! With very few exceptions (e.g. Wildlife and Recreationists), scientists seem to have ignored that fact. Sure, itís a touchy subject. We all love being alone, or with a few friends, in natural areas. And many biologists make their living there. We even seem to have a strong instinct to explore. As soon as someone says we canít go somewhere, that is exactly where we want to go! But if our goal is to preserve wildlife (or, more precisely, since we canít really control nature, but only our own behavior, not to cause extinctions), then donít we need to consider the wishes of the wildlife we are trying to protect, and act accordingly? Doesnít avoiding this subject, as if we donít want to shock or upset people by telling them the truth, just postpone the inevitable "day of reckoning"?
Reed comes close to saying this, by recognizing wildlife as "the real stakeholders" , and suggesting "arguing in their behalf". But then he describes these as "disagreeable points" (p.27). I donít think that they are "disagreeable" -- they are just fact! How can truth be disagreeable? It just is.
The usual argument given for not separating wildlife from people is that humans are "part of the ecosystem", which Reed avers on page 18. Of course we are part of the ecosystem! But we are the most destructive part! Not only our behavior, but even just our presence is destructive (see, for example, Wildlife and Recreationists!). Maybe this is another one of those "disagreeable points", but if it is true, it needs to be faced and dealt with. It would be nice if we could learn to live "harmoniously" (whatever that means) with other species, but it is not a good bet, since we have never been able to do so (see, e.g. The End of Evolution). We are just too "successful" (in evolutionary terms), like bacteria in a jar using up all the available resources and then dying. If we want to commit suicide like that, we should indeed "do it in a jar", and not endanger the rest of the ecosystem.
Are humans natural? What does "natural" mean? Clearly, machinery (e.g. a chain saw or a mountain bike) is not a natural part of wild nature. It seems to relate to how new they are, in relation to the species that encounter them. Let me suggest that "natural" refers to things and conditions that have been around long enough (on the order of millions of years) for the organisms that live in an ecosystem to evolve to adapt to them (i.e., make major genetic changes). Since successful mutations take on the order of millions of years to accumulate, a newcomer to an ecosystem would take on the order of millions of years to become natural, or "native". Until then, they would be "exotic".
Reed defines "exotic" as "introduced to an area by humans" (p.28). By that definition, humans are a part of the ecosystem, but an exotic species! If we have been around anywhere long enough to be considered "native", or "natural", it would be in Africa only. And even there, considering how fast we change our behavior, it is questionable whether any other species (except bacteria and viruses, of course) could change quickly enough to keep up with us. Reedís definition of "native" ("indigenous to an area" (p.28)) is incomplete. Obviously, every species was once a newcomer to all of its habitats. How long does it take to be considered "native"? I would like to suggest that it takes millions of years, and that, thus, humans are interlopers in every region of the Earth except possibly Africa. This would suggest that they are in most places not (a natural) "part of the ecosystem", and donít have the right to take over those areas. If we are natural here, why do we need to wear clothes?
Reed also uses the word "sustainable", as do most people, too easily. He doesnít even define it, as if its meaning is obvious. I would like to suggest that it means "indefinitely repeatable, without harm". The key is "without harm". We facilely apply it to native peoples, as though they, at least, lived a sustainable lifestyle. But there is a great amount of evidence that they did not (e.g. see The End of Evolution). Only if we compare them with our profligate modern society, and if we only look at them over a short time period, do they appear to be living sustainably. Actually, wherever humans have moved, they have decimated the local species. This cannot be called anything but "harm", and thus is not sustainable. If such behavior were repeated indefinitely, eventually all local species would be extinct (after all, they are finite).
To be honest, there is really no such thing as a sustainable lifestyle. As Margulis and Sagan point out in What Is Life?, every species of organism produces wastes that are incompatible with its own existence. Trees drop leaves. If the leaves accumulated, and werenít broken down by other members of the ecosystem, the trees would eventually bury themselves, be unable to reproduce, and die. The lifestyle of the tree can only approach sustainability by being part of an ecosystem that processes its wastes. Trees also produce oxygen. To many organisms, free oxygen is a deadly poison.
Humans, however lightly they live on the Earth, need to kill to eat. Every time you kill an organism, you risk destroying unique biodiversity. That is harm. (This may not be obvious. But where does biodiversity come from? From mutations. We would not be here, without them. And where do mutations most likely happen? In a single individual! So the individual you kill may be the one with a new gene that would allow its species to survive global warming. I know it is not probable, but it is possible. You could kill the last organism that contains a unique gene.) Thus "sustainability" (like "environmental friendliness") is not a realistic endpoint, although it is relative, and we can and should try to approach it as closely as possible.
To paraphrase Schopenhauer, the first time a new (but correct) idea is presented, people think it is crazy; the second time, they begin to think about it; and the third time, it has become common sense. This is the third time, Reed!
Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.
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