Climate change will challenge our view about what's natural

Climate change is once again challenging the very foundations of the environmental movement.

It is raising the question about what is natural and forcing the environmental community to reconsider what it values and how to protect it. High Country News explores this fascinating subject in its latest issue.

Henry David Thoreau expressed a special value for wildness in the 1850s that became one of the foundations of the modern environmental movement. “From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind,” he wrote.

The debates over how to manage wild places have worldwide always raised issues about how much manipulation should be allowed. But in the United States, where Thoreau and John Muir, the naturalist, placed such a high value on leaving places untouched by humans, the strength of the stance for “naturalness” has been strongest. It resulted in the Wilderness Act of 1964 and National Park Service policies that required managers and scientists to reduce or eliminate where possible human effects, even if they would be “positive.”

In the Park Service, following what became known as the “Leopold Report,” in the 1960s, the agency required its managers to actively restore natural processes that had been eliminated by management over the past century. Fires were allowed to burn or started on purpose. Predators, including wolves were restored to national parks. Efforts to remove feral animals like pigs in Hawaii parks were made.

Each of these acts was done in the name of naturalness. Many challenges to the idea have arisen since then. Environmental historian William Cronon wrote that wilderness “is quite profoundly a human creation – indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at particular moments in history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can be, for a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it is the product of that civilization, and could hardly be contaminated by the very stuff of which it is made.”

Cronon had in the 1980s shown in his research that Indians had long reshaped large parts of the environment before Europeans arrived in America. Charles C. Mann teased out that reality in his brilliant book, “1491” in 2005.

Authors M. Martin Smith and Fiona Gow tell the story in High Country News of Russ Bradley, a bird biologist who has watched the disappearance of the Cassin’s auklet, a shore bird because of the changing ocean currents, caused by climate change. Bradley says that as a scientist, he cannot intervene. But the larger question the authors raise is can humans intervene at all and still have a “natural,” system.

The debate runs through so many of the issues I cover. Environmentalists say we need to protect more habitat for Yellowstone grizzlies for to preserve their genetic base. Yet it could easily be preserved by regularly augmenting the population with bears from elsewhere.

Fires caused by lightning were allowed to burn in national parks but fires started by people weren’t. We use hatcheries as a part of the salmon recovery program.

Climate change will transform ecosystems around the world far more than we know or even can know. We will have to make decisions about how to react to those changes.

Each decision, where to act or not, will affect each of those ecosystems and the millions of organisms that depend on them. It’s a new reality that Thoreau didn’t have to face.