Conservation in a Culturally Constructed World

Note: This paper is a thought experiment and review of select classic environmental texts. The development proposal for Underhill State Park in Northeastern, VT, spoken about herein, is only a hypothetical case utilized to instigate conversation about land management. 

            At the North entrance of Yellowstone National Park stands Roosevelt Arch, a towering feature crafted from native stone and monumental ideas, which marks the gateway to the United State’s first national park. Resting above its apex lies the famously inscribed head stone stating the parks dedication as, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” Built in the early 1900s, the once dirt carriage road which cuts through the arches piers has long since been paved over for smoother and more luxurious travel. Passing through, one is quickly met by mule deer, various bird species and groups of bison that could be patted on the head from an arm’s reach out a passing car window. This close encounter with the indigenous animal species inspires the debate as to whom this land should really be for.

            In a way, the simple act of ones presence in such a place filled with recreational delight, defeats the preserving nature of the park system. It is within this conundrum that we are met with the difficulties of land management. The complexities entangled among proposals of land development are far reaching. Ranging from ecosystem ecology to historical and economic value systems, land development is an issue of extreme political and ethical importance. It is for this reason that dialog among opposing land ethic proponents is both a healthy necessity and a tiring confrontation. However, let us consider these competing claims further through analyzing the proposed development of Underhill State Park in northeastern Vermont. Of interest is the implementation of paved roads and trails to the summit of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s tallest peak, as well as the creation of camping pavilions, a small inn, a ski chair lift, a wind turbine and ATV and snowmobile trails.


Argument I: A case for Preservation

                        Underhill State Park is what is known as a core habitat, or a region of space that offers abundant resources for the foraging, rearing and denning of the animal species that reside there. When considering the biological importance of this diverse and rich habitat, one must contemplate the ethical concerns of development and the compounding effect on the overall ecosystem. The act of habitat fragmentation, for instance through the creation of a road to Mt. Mansfield’s ridgeline, will inevitably lead to a range of detrimental outcomes. Specifically, the creation of patches or small parcels of land will result in the loss of adequate food resources and security for wildlife. There are known edge effects, which through the creation of new forest edge habitat alter the dispersion and movement of particular animal species. This could potentially lead to decreasing the facilitation of genetic exchange and the overall fitness of many animal species. To endanger the forest community in such a way risks the expedient decrease in biological diversity. Aldo Leopold outlines this danger in his collection of essays entitled A Sand County Almanac stating, “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering” (146). The human animal is simply “a member of a community of interdependent parts” (Leopold, 383) and must therefore come to realize the vastly important nature of living within a biological system and preserving each part of that network. Humans as a species are relatively new additions to the long withstanding organic system on earth and should therefore foster a deep respect for every teleological center of life within that system. The tendency that humans have toward homogeneity as Jack Turner puts it in The Abstract Wild is “a hatred of the other,” and like Wendell Barry forcefully declared “a crisis of character” (Turner, 20). The compounding problem of idealizing human superiority will thusly lead to the loss of detrimental species that maintain the balance and success of the overall ecological system.

            This anthropomorphic mindset is a product of blurring our responsibilities to nature and disconnecting our presence in the natural realm. As Turner points out “Blurring takes the edge off loss and removes us from our responsibilities” (Turner, 33).  If as a culture we are willing to accept the loss of biodiversity then we have truly taken on a corrupt and misguided idea of an environmental ethic. To this extent we may agree with Edward Abbey who declares in Desert Solitaire that developments and improvements are actually “a sinister plan” (Abbey, 52) and furthermore that progress, in the land development sense, is “quite insane” (Abbey, 58). It is only because the majority of our culture has become, as Gary Snyder puts it in The Etiquette of Freedom, “nature illiterate” (Snyder, 11) that we misunderstand how natural systems work and how our presence in those systems, can sometimes be quite destructive. It is for this reason that we must preserve this habitat and limit our use and presence in this area.  While there may no longer be any sort of pristine wilderness, we must at least preserve these areas so as to protect its very essence of being an extremely rich and diverse natural biota.

            The notion of wilderness preserves and even wild behavior are mediated by cultural constructs and are truly “a semblance of the wild nature, a fake” (Turner, 29). This is a result of management plans that have been crafted to maximize a lands utility, often for the benefit of ecotourism, preserving only “the resource base for entertainment” (Turner, 27).  If we hope to avoid this nature illiteracy, and refuse the fake cultural construction of nature, than it is mandatory for us to experience the natural world however essential that we do not alter it.  This delicate balance should outline the necessity for careful and deliberate thought when considering the development of a parcel of land. To continue to accept a nature illiterate culture would be detrimental to environmentally conscious goals because “the intimacy with the fake will not save the real” (Turner, 35). Acknowledging our acceptance of a diminished wild and moving beyond our entertainment based conservation plans will not be easy. It will require that we preserve our mountain top ridgelines, not fragment our backcountry and prioritizing all wild environments and animals in our social and economic plans. While difficult, Leopold suggests that if we “make conservation easy, we have made it trivial” (387). It is for these reasons that we must vote to preserve our wild lands while altering our ecological consciousness to become more environmentally responsible individuals and conserve our natural resources.


Argument II: A response for Progress and Development

            In response to the previous speaker’s assessment of the notion of wild and nature, while they acknowledge that these terms are culturally constructed ideas, formulated through utilitarianism, they do not consider the full extent of their impact. At this point we must accept that nature is not natural and in fact “nature is a naïve reality” a phrase coined by William Cronon in Uncommon Ground (34). We must accept this because our ideas of nature may not exist outside the confines of our cultural heritage. In fact all actions and ideas channeled through humans exist “in a context that is historically, geographically and culturally particular, and cannot be understood apart from that context” (35). Because of this very fact, we may assume that the intrinsic value that is often attached to the natural realm is actually non-existent. That is that value systems are created, implemented and enforced by cultural constructs and therefore natural wilderness possesses no intrinsic value. With this understanding, one may assert that the cultural lens, through which we observe the world, will prevent us from ever being able to “know at first hand the world ‘out there’ the ‘nature’ we seek to understand and protect” (25). If in fact the moral authorities to which environmentalists hold are actually collections of culturally contrived values, instead of natural intrinsic significance, we may alter our political and developmental minds to accept the ethical repercussions of land development.

            It is with this new understanding of nature that we may revise out notion of environmentalism to be more acutely tuned to the 21st century. Most importantly we must begin to prioritize the creation of easy access ways into remote and wild terrain. This type of alteration will in fact make many suitable classrooms and provide a useful tool for developing and providing environmental education. As Aldo Leopold so clearly put it, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relation can exist without love, respect and admiration for land” (395). However this type of caring relationship can’t be created without gross contact to those supposedly wild regions. Without having provided an opportunity for future generations to develop an honest admiration for the environment, it impossible to develop a respect for it. To this extent it is of high moral regard that development of this land comes to pass.

            The economic value of developing this land should be an attractive reason for issuing progress as well. The implementation of infrastructure, which may generate more energy and recruit more tourists, should be welcomed because “Industrial tourism is a big business. It means money” (Abbey, 61). For those ecofascists, like that of the previous speaker, whom value the whole ecosystem over the individuals and would rather forget about poverty levels than increase stress load on ecosystem resources, this will be an atrocity. However their idea of protecting the authentic, and glorifying the value of nature has already been discredited due to the ambiguity of their moral structure and the continual presence of cultural constructs. Besides, these fiscal benefits will not be outweighed by the long-term environmental alterations.

            Cronon discuses the natural rehabilitation of the land at Rocky Mountain Arsenal, a major Department of Defense facility in Colorado which was exposed to many toxic substances stating that the site has “emerged as one of the West’s most remarkable wildlife refuges” (28). The paradigm that land development is intrinsically destructive has been shown in the Rockies to actually be false. Our actions in what has proven to be “an uncertain world” (Cronon, 28) must therefore be reconsidered.  While the environmentalist attributes a blurred vision to a most certain ecological loss, Cronon points out that we are actually blurring “the boundaries between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’” (Cronon, 28) and this should provoke us to question the prevailing assumptions of how we choose to relate to these so called natural realms. For these reasons, we should acknowledge contradictory ideas of a natural or wild place and favor an individualistic relation to these places over the preservation of the community. Development should therefore be welcomed as an inevitable process of humanity and a prevailing ecosystem.


Concluding Thoughts

            After having contemplated the validity of each argument, I find myself aligning my political and ethical views with that of the first argument. Whether our perception of the wild and of natural places has been distorted by cultural constructs or not, it is impossible to overlook the necessity for the preservation of each individual within an ecosystem for the overall success of the whole network. When attempting to align our ethics around an economic outlook, it is as Leopold says, the “One basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives is that most members of the land community have no economic value” (388). The complete disregard for economically unattractive species fails to realize the necessity for each life form in the continuation of a biotic community. It is therefore necessary for us to maintain the fabric of our habitats and ecosystems for the preservation of all. This is not to say that human presence in what are referred to as wild places, is intrinsically bad, however it should be noted that the costs of development often outweigh the triumphs. Minimizing human based alteration is to step outside of the culturally accepted anthropomorphic mindset and to think instead “like a mountain” (Leopold, 382). As we re-align ourselves with the natural processes of the complex and wild world, we will escape our nature illiteracy and foster a more intelligent self-identification within a greater system.

Taylor Luneau