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Exploring the Biodiversity Crisis
By R. Edward Grumbine
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 1992 R. Edward Grumbine
All rights reserved.
BOUNDARY MARKING: AN INTRODUCTION
the path to heaven
doesn't lie down in flat miles
It's in the imagination
with which you perceive
and the gestures
with which you honor it.
MARY OLIVER, "The Swan"
The center of a summer snowstorm is an unusual place to find yourself teaching a college class called Introduction to Ecosystem Management. It is even more uncommon to have a diminutive bird reveal the life in an unpeopled borderland, an international boundary closed to legal passage. But the alp land of Armstrong Mountain is no common place, the Greater North Cascades is a landscape full of lessons, and a teacher must be ready to learn.
Since 1979 I have been teaching outdoor field courses through the Sierra Institute, a program of the University of California Extension, Santa Cruz. These academic excursions, up to eight weeks in length, allow a group of twelve students to encounter the source of "resources"—the mountains, rivers, and canyons of the West. For the last five summers I have focused my teaching on the Pacific Northwest, the region where I was born and whose ancient forests today bear stark witness to both the pain and the promise of the biodiversity crisis. For students, the lessons are powerful and clearly drawn. Here, in the North Cascades, the line between the land management of the past and that of the future is as sharp as a clearcut swath hard against a national park.
The northeastern corner of the North Cascades, before the mountains meet the lava uplands of the Columbia River Plateau, is a tumbled expanse of rolling highlands that reach north into Canada. To the east, forests of lodgepole pine crown ridges rising to timberline. Westward, the ice peaks and strato-volcanoes of the Cascade Crest stretch beyond sight. This is the edge of the mountain world and the beginning of the Pasayten Wilderness, a good place to bring students to backpack, establish a base camp classroom for a week, and learn about conservation biology and the politics of land management.
On the fourth day of one particular trip we decided to day hike above timberline to the border several miles away. The weather was unsettled, the sky alternately blue and gray, the kind that climbers eye with skepticism. But we were only out for the day, close to camp, and determined to find the posts marking the forty-ninth parallel that Canadian and U.S. Army surveyors erected years ago.
Armstrong Mountain curled away from our base camp in upper Horseshoe Basin like the shoulder of a sleeping giant, a broad hump of rock and tundra knit with grass, patches of snow, and lichens. We hiked up the swale of Snehumption Gap, the meadowy bowl that lies between Armstrong and its neighbor, Arnold Peak. The class was in high spirits. At the pass we found evidence of Pleistocene ice—the north face dropped sheer to a basin far below. Couloirs were stuffed with snow. A marmot waddled to an outcrop, stood up, sniffed the wind. We sat down on gravel-streaked ground amidst hundreds of blooming Dryas, the mountain avens, and faced what the maps said was Canada. There was no sign of another country; the mountains held no clue. If the students had been birds they would have soared. There was freedom in the altitude, lift to the steady wind, and a freshness infusing the sunlight sweeping across the pass. We settled in.
"What's a boundary all about?" I asked. "What does it mean to you?"
The students were quiet. The group was a good one—eager to learn, reflective, yet full of adventure—and diverse: Scott hailed from the Midwest and the University of Illinois; Lisa was a biology major from the University of California, San Diego; Kari was studying at Stanford after growing up in Texas; John, a native Californian, was completing a political science major at the University of California, Santa Cruz. All told, there were thirteen of us coming from five states and seven schools.
John broke the silence. "I think of my girlfriend. Where we meet it's like two worlds coming together. Most days it's great, but we argue too."
"Up here I can't think of anything separating things," said Kari. "I mean, look—there's no trail, no people, just mountains. Where's the border?"
"Yeah, how could they even make a border up here?" Lisa broke in. "There's nothing to mark, no trees, nobody around. Why bother? A border's got to be identified. It's like when you're inside a house and then you go outside. You put on a coat."
"So what boundaries are difficult to cross?" I asked the group. "What's been hard for you?" A big patch of blue opened in the sky to the north. The sun warmed our cheeks, the rocks, the cushion plants around us.
David, a first-year student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, looked up. "When my grandmother died I had a hard time accepting it. She brought me up and then she was gone. It bothered me a long time. I couldn't understand it."
"How old were you?" asked Lisa.
"This was just last spring, freshman year in school." David smiled. "But that seems so irrelevant here. I mean, look where we are!" A dark cloud covered the sun. The sky was the color of metal.
"Yeah, this is great," echoed Scott. "I can think of millions of boundaries but I don't see any right here. Besides, they help me get it together, like Lisa was saying about putting on a coat. This is a great place. What I don't understand is the difference between managing a wilderness here in the United States and not even having wilderness over there in British Columbia—like you were talking about yesterday, Ed."
"What I meant," I said, "was that B.C. doesn't have a wilderness act. That mountain you see in Canada may be undeveloped now, but it is not protected for the future. Where we're sitting is legal, capital W Wilderness, but a quarter mile away anything goes. If the two countries want to work together, right away they have a problem."
Scott stared north. "So what's the big deal? From here it still all looks the same to me. Let's go up to the top and check it out."
We packed up and hiked out of the pass. Low gray clouds were scudding in, but we were ready with sweaters and raingear.
You could almost climb Armstrong with your eyes closed. The basalt mountain is deepset in turf and glaciers have smoothed its edges to gentle humps. After a twenty-minute climb we crested onto a sea of boulders, rock polygons, and patches of tundra.
"Look, is that it?" cried Lisa. She pointed at an upright object a quarter mile away.
We walked toward the border and it began to snow. The wind gusted sleet across the flat-topped summit. When we reached Monument 104 the sun was out again, melting the squall away. The border marker was a four-foot obelisk cast of heavy aluminum. It was pitted by life above the treeline and imprinted on each side with the names of the two nations at whose common border it stood sentinel.
I looked further on and saw the gash. East of Armstrong and Arnold, where the border ran down into forest, a sixty-foot swath cleared of all vegetation demarcated the boundary. It looked as if the skin of the earth had shrunk, severing the forest. The gash climbed the ridge and plunged down the far side out of sight, reappearing straight as geometry on the next slope before it was lost in the swirling clouds of an oncoming storm. The students said nothing. Their eyes followed the truncated margin out into the mist.
It began to snow hard. We scurried west across the tundra, keeping watch for another marker on the far side of the mountain. Anger welled within me. I thought of the herbicides used, all the misplaced energy spent carving an international boundary into one of the wildest places in the Greater North Cascades. Would a grizzly cross this void? A wolf? Bears and wolves might not be stopped by the gash, but they would certainly recognize this: In the heart of the back country, straight as a superhighway, humans had imposed a border domestic as any lawn.
The storm raged around us as we pressed forward. It was a kaleidoscope of gusting wind, snow squalls, and shafts of sunlight. Hail pelted down, tiny flowers frosted white. The orange lichens coating the rocks glowed like the eyes of a cat. As we reached the far side of the mountain, the front of the group was bathed in sunlight while the stragglers were lost in clouds.
Monument 103 crowned the international boundary on the western edge of Armstrong. Boulders were heaped around its base. A hole in the clouds revealed the gash, slicing west, dark as any wound, rising and falling over ridge after ridge. The students were giddy and sober at the same time. We were caught between the world as it was and as it was coming to be, and everything demanded attention: miles of jumbled mountains, whirling snow, slippery footing, freezing fingers, colorful lichens, and the gash.
"I want to save all of this," Kari spoke quietly.
No one moved. The wind ripped the clouds and shut them tight again.
Then it was time to go. We left the border post, lost sight of the gash, and turned south toward camp. Suddenly the world was full of wing beats. A white-tailed ptarmigan blossomed from rocks and flying snow and settled out of sight, one bird in a land of wind and weather. We too were startled. We had been trying to escape, seeking salvation from the dark border and the freezing wind, when the ptarmigan appeared and drew us together like a magnet.
"How can it live up here?"
"Where does it go?"
"This is July. What about winter?"
Our conversation took a new course as I tried to explain what I knew about how the bird lived successfully at high altitude. We had not seen the ptarmigan at first because of its summer camouflage, what ornithologists call cryptic plumage, where a bird's feathers match the colors of its habitat. Once flushed, the ptarmigan had disappeared, feigning injury. We had scared it off a nest, and assuming we were predators, it had attempted to lead us from its young. There were other details to explain—diet, altitudinal migration, the borders of life and death for alpine birds. But by then it was too cold to lecture.
Recovered, I realized that, like the ptarmigan, paying full attention is the appropriate response to life in an uncertain world of snowstorms, fragile homes, and predators. The answer to the dilemma of humans, birds, and boundaries is not "saving" but rather healing, making whole. When people see what ptarmigans have to teach about attention, they will learn this. They may come to understand that listening is a gesture full of grace.
The wind pushed us down the mountain. I could tell from the students' demeanor that they had more questions than answers. As they picked their way down slopes strewn with boulders left by glaciers from some distant time, they stepped with care. We scared up no more ptarmigans. And, looking back, we saw nothing to preserve, only opaque clouds filming the world with mist. Ahead there was camp, the hike tomorrow, weeks of teaching, other borders to experience, questions to explore. The ptarmigan, the boundary post, the border scar receded even as the conversation they sparked among us carried on.
This is what we learned.
Miles from the nearest road, the boundary post was unexpected, out of place. It was stuck in the ground by the side of the trail in a thicket of avalanche brush: National Forest. On the far side of the post were the words National Park. I stopped in the path, searching for other signs. The salmonberries were finished for the year. Mountain-ash and elder shrubs, scattered upslope in the rubble, hung with red fruit. It was good bear habitat, although there were no tracks and no purple-tinged scat. A marmot stood by its burrow, whistling down the scree.
The boundary marker was a lone outpost in this headwater basin high in the North Cascades. Standing amidst the work of snowstorms, cloud torrents, marmots, and willows, it clearly stamped people and politics onto the wild fabric of the mountains. The line it marked ran straight across the basin with no regard to watershed. I wondered what political deals were cut in 1968 when this boundary was bargained into existence with the creation of North Cascades National Park.
A glance at a map elevates such questions to more intractable levels. First, you notice the international border, straight as an arrow, that segregates Canada from the United States along the forty-ninth parallel. The park is surrounded by a confusing mix of two national recreation areas, five wildernesses, three national forests, and a provincial recreational area, along with state and private lands. Nowhere do these boundaries reflect what happens ecologically. Neither the grizzly bear, the northern spotted owl, nor the rest of the nonhuman world recognize them.
Just as we circumscribe the backcountry, so we define and delimit our lives with borders. Private ownership implies that what is yours and what is mine can be easily distinguished one from the other. Our society stretches across a diverse continent only to order nature into a simple taxonomy: "federal," "state," and "private" lands. At deeper levels, we have come to believe in the perennial opposition between mind and body, self and other, culture and nature. Yet our uncritical acceptance of borders limits our ability to reconnect forests with parks and people with nature.
My point is not that boundaries are unnecessary. In fact, we cannot live without them. They represent visions of the world, serve as a litmus for comparing what people think nature does with what nature really is like. Problems like species extinction and habitat destruction result when human images of nature distort the patterns and processes of natural ecosystems.
This is a story of how humans can move away from an adversarial relationship with nature by understanding biological diversity and learning to live within ecological limits. Many of the details are drawn from the place that I know best: the Greater North Cascades ecosystem in Washington State (see figure 1). There is no way to learn about genes, grizzlies, and greater ecosystems without knowing a specific region, yet people intimately familiar with other places will recognize much of this story as part of their own.
Because most of the Greater North Cascades are administered by the U.S. government, I have chosen public land management as an entry to the larger cultural matter of how humans relate to nature. Much of the country's remaining wild habitat is on federal land; it seems obvious that if we cannot protect biodiversity there, on national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges, we will not be able to protect it on state and private lands. At the same time, as we shall see, public lands are insufficient to protect nature over the long term. Ecosystems under other ownerships will have to do their share.
The dilemma posed by the relationship between public and private lands is the beginning of the story of how boundaries drawn in the past are no longer suitable today. Misplaced borders may be ecological, legal, or managerial, but they all result from the dominant Western world view that draws a hard line between people and nature. Anthropocentricity (literally, "man centered") places people above grizzlies, greater ecosystems, and the rest of the natural world and reduces nonhumans to the status of resources for Homo sapiens. Such "resourcism" has a simple credo: The world gains value only as humans transform it into goods and services to meet their demands. We employ economics to measure such transformations and call the results progress. Three assumptions bolster resourcism: Human demands need only be met in the short term, Earth's abundance is inexhaustible, and technological savvy will continue to push back limits to growth. These attitudes color our personal interactions with nature and underlie the public particulars of federal land management.
But in the Greater North Cascades and elsewhere, resourcism is being challenged by the biodiversity crisis, the developing science of conservation biology, and a new image of working with nature called ecosystem management. The biodiversity crisis can be measured by such outward threats as the rate and scale of species extinction, loss of wild habitat to human population growth and resource consumption, increase in atmospheric carbon, and ozone depletion. Meanwhile, these threats are creating a psychological atmosphere of tension in humans that may eventually help people to reevaluate how they relate to nature. The biodiversity crisis may spur a revolution in human attitudes toward the natural world.
With extinctions increasing and habitats being destroyed, biologists have begun to explore the implications of the loss of biodiversity through conservation biology. Conservation biologists seek to understand the dynamics of extinction, the specific factors that place organisms from bears to salamanders at risk. And, because all populations require some habitat to survive, biologists are attempting to portray what a long-term, fully functioning system of nature reserves would look like. They are reevaluating the concept of the balance of nature from the cellular to the biospheric level and assessing the implications of managing nature from the perspective of resourcism. The new science reveals how radically different management must become if we expect to continue to inhabit a functioning planet. These issues provide a scientific argument against resourcism and for a better working relationship with the Earth.
Excerpted from Ghost Bears by R. Edward Grumbine. Copyright © 1992 R. Edward Grumbine. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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