This year, the Wilderness Act turns 50. As is the custom, please join me in celebrating by watching some dewy timelapses set to heart-swelling ambient tunes (above). Let us now bow our heads to Gaia and call on our spirit animal (mine’s a tuatara).
At Grist, we tend to check redwoods and capital-C Conservation at the door and focus on climate action and culture with a modern, urban spin. But over on The New York Times opinion pages, writer Chris Solomon put pixels and ink behind something I (and plenty of others) have been thinking about for a long time: Carbon emissions don’t really respect ideological fences, and our wild places are poised to go just as Lovecraftian as our urban spaces. Should we monkey with them and help them adapt the same way we’ll have to do in our cities? (Full disclosure: I have been buzzed in Solomon’s presence and thus consider him a friend.)
We now know that, thanks to climate change, we’ve left no place unmolested and inadvertently put our fingerprints on even the most unpeopled corners of the planet. This reality has pushed respected scientists to advocate what many wilderness partisans past and present would consider blasphemy: We need to rethink the Wilderness Act. We need to toss out the “hands-off” philosophy that has guided our stewardship for 50 years. We must replace it with a more nuanced, flexible approach — including a willingness to put our hands on America’s wildest places more, not less, if we’re going to help them to adapt and thrive in the diminished future we’ve thrust upon them.
How do we do that? Solomon notes that scientists have test-driven a few options already: We’ve chopped down trees in Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico and mulched the branches to bring back the native grasses that stanch erosion (it worked). Warming temps are enabling Lodgepole pines to invade Tuolomne Meadows; we might have to go Paul Bunyan on them to keep this best-in-class subalpine meadow intact. In extreme cases, Solomon notes, we could consider airlifting species with nowhere else to go — like oh-so-adorable pikas — to favorable habitats where they’ll (maybe) have a chance.
Of course, this whole get-our-hands-dirty approach to ecosystem management draws the same (very valid) criticisms as geoengineering. Solomon paraphrases ecologist Peter Landres: “Isn’t it a fool’s errand to try to manage what we don’t fully understand, at a time when the context is changing and the precise future is uncertain?”
So why should we care about trying to get high-altitude rats to the chopper, when it’s always possible we’ll just end up fattening some enterprising coyotes? Because I believe nature and wild places remain powerful intoxicants to anyone who gives a shit about the environment in the first place, however urban they may be — and because the lessons we learn could end up informing how we adapt in cities (mangroves, meet Florida; Florida, mangroves). I’m not saying everyone should run out and fill their pockets with pikas (SIGN ME UP), but I’ll second Solomon in saying we need to start considering it.