The Escalante River. (Photo courtesty of Flickr user Bureau of Land Management. Licensed under Creative Commons.)
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
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 forty 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.
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.