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Trek West for the Big Picture

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Posted on Jun 25, 2013
Ken Lund (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Chip Ward, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

My home sits at the gateway to a national park in Utah, a source of envy among tourists who gather along Capitol Reef’s “scenic drive.” But after 40 years of living in one desert or another,  I know firsthand that America’s iconic desert landscapes, places like Monument Valley and Arches National Park, are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that we dig up, dump on, dam, bomb, drill,  over-graze, and otherwise abuse our deserts, most of them public lands owned by you, the taxpaying citizen. Generally, our management of the nation’s public lands is a disgrace and deserts are exhibit A. 

But let’s skip the grim survey of how humans are overloading the carrying capacity of our original earthly Eden that usually opens a report like this. The intent of such a recitation of folly is to compel the reader’s attention by underlining the dire importance of the topic at hand. But I assume you understand by now that you woke up this morning on an overheated planet of slums threatened by ecological collapse. 

So instead, let’s get right to the point: what do we do about it? How do we begin to heal the wounds?

The crises we face and that our children and grandchildren will endure long after we leave them invite a visionary response.  On the other hand, the world is already awash in well-intentioned tinkerers.  Yet dysfunction and destruction still reign.  Maybe it’s time to leap to a new paradigm.


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Enter John Davis and Trek West.  At this very moment, Davis is walking, biking, paddling, and horseback riding 6,000 miles through a chain of mountain ranges that stretches like a spine across North America from the Sierra Madres of Mexico through the Rockies of the American West up into Canada.  He started this winter in the Sonoran desert we share with our southern neighbor and has been heading northward for months.  He will cross many of our most treasured national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, the ones that tourists love, but his trek is no sightseeing adventure. 

Davis and his Trek West partners along the route are advocating for what they call “landscape connectivity” on a continental scale.  Two years ago, Davis trekked from Key West to Quebec, 8,000 human-powered miles.  Same theme: conserve and connect.

A Conservation Revolution

Gone are the days when conservation was all about bullets, hooks, and cameras.  Fishermen and hunters are still an important constituency in the conservation community, but birdwatchers now outnumber them. Ecological criteria increasingly frame any debate about how to heal degraded habitat.  What the nineteenth century naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir knew intuitively—that everything in the universe is “hitched to everything else”—has been confirmed beyond doubt by hard science.   

Davis is one of the founders of a new school of thought called conservation biology.  Its proponents argue that it is not faintly enough to preserve scenic rock and ice parks and isolated islands of wildlife.  Wild creatures need room to roam so they can find the necessary water, food, and mates.  In the long run, many of America’s wild creatures from salamanders to bears will survive only in Disney movies if we box out genetic diversity, block migration routes, destroy nesting grounds, and save only carefully preserved, isolated populations of a species.  Connectivity is the keel of an emerging conservation ethic for helping to heal this country.

John Davis envisions an unbroken chain of wild lands spanning North America from Mexico to Canada.  When completed, a necklace of “core” areas, including national parks, wildlife reserves, and protected wilderness areas will be linked together and buffered by national forests and private lands.  Creatures now boxed into wild islands surrounded by a sea of development will have room to roam

A connected landscape will be more resilient as climate change puts further stress on creatures and their habitats.  Already species from birds to mammals are responding to warming temperatures by moving northward if they can, or to higher ground if they can’t migrate horizontally.  The famed scientist and conservationist E.O. Wilson called the project to link together America’s wild lands the most important conservation initiative in the world today.

After trekking through the habitat of the last remaining jaguars on the continent, Davis ran into the new wall designed to keep illegal Mexican migrants out of the United States. It is, he pointed out, a far more effective barrier against wildlife migration than the human version of the same and so is lobotomizing the border ecosystem we share with Mexico.  As for Davis, he easily climbed it in less than five minutes and was on his way.    

Backpacks Meet Cowboy Hats 

Although pushing 50, Davis has the trim, muscular build of a professional athlete—and he’ll need every toned muscle he has to complete his quest.  The day before I met him in Escalante, Utah, he had been surprised by a lingering bout of spring weather and found himself pushing his bike through 10 miles of deep snow on top of Utah’s Aquarius Plateau.  The next week, he planned to paddle through Desolation Canyon, one of the most spectacular river passages on the planet.  But when I encountered him, he was taking a break and making a pitch for connectivity before a gathering of federal land managers, concerned local citizens, and ranchers who share the watershed of the Escalante River. 

The Escalante River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) is the unwieldy name for a grassroots coalition whose aim is to restore the river’s degraded ecosystem.  The rugged network of high desert canyons that drain into the remote Escalante River have been eroding for years thanks to overgrazing by cattle.  They are also choked with tamarisk and Russian olive trees. 

Tamarisks are an invasive species that suck up precious ground water, while filling in springs and seeps that are the only water sources for many bird and animal species.  The tall, feathery plumes of the tamarisk have taken over hundreds of miles of riverbank in the West.  “Tammies” also salt the surrounding soil when they shed their leaves, killing native plants that might otherwise compete.  A beetle was imported from Eurasia to eat the tammies and was unbelievably successful.  As a result, those thick hedges that still block riverbanks are now dead-dry and ready to ignite.  If not cut back, they will burn or regrow.  Russian olive trees also crowd stream banks and add needle-like thorns to the unpleasant mix.

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