Land Pieces

We are well into our second month here at the Four Rivers Field Office. The days aren’t routine, but they have become a bit more predictable. The week in Chicago was delightful. It was a pleasure to put so many names to faces. The experience infused a new sense of admiration for, and added value to the work we are all doing; the long days in the field under the sun aren’t just occurring in a vacuum. As well, the workshop and symposium spurred me to revisit my views on the value of conservation and restoration in the landscapes we work.

Much of the private land and BLM allotments in and around Boise once was, or is, prime Greater Sage-grouse habitat (A critically endangered and very controversial species at the moment). As the largest public lands manager, the BLM oversees those rangelands and habitat that dominate the majority of the West’s open space. The same low-lying rangelands are conveniently located and ideal lands for human purposes. Conversion, grazing, and extraction are not the exception on a significant portion of public lands: yes, indeed that is what the Taylor Grazing Act legislated “in order to promote the highest use of the public lands pending its final disposal” (43 U.S. Code § 315). Though the TGA did bring much needed regulation to a chaotic situation, the term “highest use” only relatively recently encompassed considerations for habitat and species protection. I am not against the use of these lands. In fact, I advocate for working landscapes; however, landscape-scale ecological integrity on public lands depends on us reconciling our role, needs, and behavior within natural systems. Certainly, we can see we have taken more than our fair share.

It is a week after the workshop.  Joe, Dan, and I are walking across Williams allotment outside of Midvale, ID to collect some vouchers and see how some post-fire sage brush plugs from a few years back are fairing. The heat is consuming and our sweat beads. We don’t see cows but there are signs of them everywhere. The fire occurred years ago but the evidence lingers. Medusa heads and stunted grasses crunch beneath our feet like snow, a sobering reminder of their fiery potential. I wonder, “who cares for this piece of Earth?” It is true, places like these do little to inspire conservation and restoration action. Though, it is not lost on me that we, humans have directly and indirectly played a central role in what this land looks like today.

I think back to an air-conditioned plane enroute to Chicago and reading a piece in Brain Pickings. The brief article is a review of Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World in which she explores “love, loss, and the boundaries of the soul.” The work is her response to the death of her beloved husband. An excerpted quote seemed a poignant way to frame any tragedy or loss:

“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”

Elizabeth Alexander

Our relationship with the land should in part be a reflection of this sentiment. If love helps us better grapple and understand the magnitude of loss and tragedy, then there is a dire need to inject love into our land use dialogues. How would our collective land use decisions look if they were more informed by love? Would our response to degradation be different? With the sixth mass extinction in our hands more than ever we need to experience the loss of ecological integrity and Earth’s diversity as a tragedy. The loss of ecological richness and functioning is akin to losing a loved one. Like a loved one, land and its functioning sustains us, and when it is lost it is often irreparable. And Alexander is right, the story does begin earlier; in this case, it begins with our ancestors’ relationship and history with the land. I have no personal connection to Williams allotment and I understand a fraction of its human and natural history. How do we come to know a place so that we may viscerally feel the value of what is lost?

Generally, as a society we are removed from our environmental infractions. We don’t often recognize the gravity of what is lost when we alter our more marginalized landscapes. In one way or another, we have all blinked and moved on. Restoration becomes too expensive. We grow our cities and developments and psychologically sever an area from the larger landscape, but that rationalization does not remove us from the consequences. As I write this, I recognize that I don’t have the answers. Regardless, I am inclined to believe love is, and continues to be, behind some of the greatest conservation battles, such as the Pebble Mine fight in Alaska and Hetch Hetchy Dam. But who wouldn’t be stirred to battle with just a photograph of those picturesque landscapes? While there is a need to prioritize conservation targets and places of greatest value, I hope we won’t forget that ultimately every land piece is vital to the connectivity and overall health of the greater landscape mosaic. Even those pieces deemed “worthless.”  We need to see our land use for what it is: a tragedy. And even in the face of a changing climate, I don’t believe the story has to end that way. Mr. Berry said it best, “we can only begin with what has happened.” So we must take account of our history, only then we can begin to payback the debt of our land use. After meeting so many of you in Chicago I do not despair for the work ahead, in fact I am confident. We may not have all the answers, but we are rich in the love of land and the spirit of change.

Emile Newman

Boise District Four Rivers Field Office

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