Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Inviting Nature Back: The Big Vision Requires Big Wilderness

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 73-77.

<<<-Previous             Table of Contents            Next->>>

We are in an unprecedented ecological crisis and are suffering an astounding loss of biological diversity. We are losing not only massive numbers of individual species, but also entire ecosystems and the services they provide.

We are consuming energy far faster than it is being produced and polluting our air, our waters, and ourselves in the process.

We are reproducing at astronomical rates, facing another doubling of the U.S. population in just a few decades.

We humans are living far beyond our means. We are so far beyond sustainable as to be downright scary. We are robbing from our grandchildren to pay our bills and the bills of our grandparents.

But we all know that. The challenge is not what to do. That's easy. We must (a) live within our means, (b) reduce our population to sustainable levels, and (c) conserve and restore the web of life. The challenge is doing it.

We have to use less. We northern industrial junkies are consuming at an unsustainable rate. We'd have to increase the world's industrial base twenty times for the rest of the world to catch up. Another way to look at it is that we need another three Earths.

Cutting our consumption by 75 percent is a very reasonable and achievable goal. Energy philosopher Amory Lovins has painted us the picture of how we can get by, just as sumptuously, on 25 percent of the energy and material we now consume. We can live, quite nicely, off of solar income. In terms of material consumption, by simply using half as much, twice as long, we can get by—just as well—on 25 percent of the resources we now consume. We have the technologies on the shelf today to do it.

Today we have 6 billion people on Earth, and 3 million in Oregon. Scientists have calculated that if we want to sustain the northern industrial lifestyle worldwide, albeit using less resources more efficiently we can sustain 2 billion on earth (and 1 million in Oregon). Oregon had 1 million people just six decades ago. To achieve 2 billion on Earth (and 1 million in Oregon) in a hundred years, every family in the world (and in Oregon) must average 1.5 children. It is not that hard. That industrial giant Germany has already done it; Hong Kong, once again a part of China, is below the goal at 1.4, without any Chinese-style birth control. Finally, Italy, home of the Roman Catholic Church, is at 1.3. If every pregnancy were both wanted and planned, we'd be home free.

If we fail to limit population, we won't have any economic growth, no matter how much—or how little—we consume.

We can and will do these things because, (a) it is rational, (b) it is possible, and (c) the alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Let us turn to the matter of restoring the web of life, first in general, then in the Oregon Desert.

Scientists call it biodiversity, shorthand for the term biological diversity.

Biodiversity is the variety of life and its processes. It includes the variety of living organisms, the genetic difference among them, the communities and ecosystems in which they occur, and the ecological and evolutionary processes that keep them functioning, yet ever changing and adapting.[1]

Given that it is critical to stop the human-caused mass extinction of species now underway and accelerating, a new branch of science has formed to address how to do so. It is the science of conservation biology.

Conservation biology is developing guidelines that we must follow if we want to leave room for nature. Quite simply, habitat destruction must stop. And critical habitat that has been lost must be restored.

Integrating what scientists know about the habitat requirements of species, the dynamics of populations, the effects of pollutants, and so forth, conservation biologists have come to a not too surprising conclusion: the anchor of biodiversity is wilderness. Too much wilderness has been lost, and we must not only conserve every acre that remains but also restore much that has been lost— not just because we love wilderness emotionally and spiritually, but because it is ecologically imperative.

If the public wants the grizzly bear and the wolf to return, we need wilderness and lots of it. If we want salmon—not only as museum pieces, but in abundance—we need wilderness and lots of it (and fewer people).

Additionally, the spaces between wildernesses need to be managed better and as part of the greater ecological and economic system.

Dr. Reed Noss of Corvallis, a renowned ecologist and one of the founders of this new branch of science (he also loves the Oregon Desert), has set down four ecological goals that are necessary to conserve biodiversity:

1. Represent, in a system of protected areas, all native ecosystem types and seral [successional] stages across their natural range of variation.

2. Maintain viable populations of all native species in natural patterns of abundance and distribution.

3. Maintain ecological and evolutionary processes, such as disturbance regimes, hydrological processes, nutrient cycles, and biotic interactions, including predation.

4. Design and manage the system to be responsive to short-term and long-term environmental change and to maintain the evolutionary potential of lineages.[2]

Adequate representation includes all ecosystem types, from the common to the unique, from the lowest to the highest elevations, from the wettest to the driest climates, all soil and geologic types, and all vegetation types (including all age classes).

Because an ecosystem is more than a collection of species—it is an interconnection of species—we must be concerned about the health of each species. Many will get along without any special attention, but some will require our special attention. Wide-ranging carnivores, like wolves, hears, and wolverines, are excellent indicators of ecosystem health. Ensure for their continued existence, and you're taking care of many other species as well.

Noss has further generalized six guidelines for designating and protecting habitat for species:

1. Species well distributed across their native range are less susceptible to extinction than species confined to small portions of their range.

2.Large blocks of habitat, containing large populations of a target species, are superior to small blocks of habitat containing small populations.

3Blocks of habitat closer together are better than blocks far apart.

4.Habitat in contiguous blocks is better than fragmented habitat.

5. Interconnected blocks of habitat are better than isolated blocks; corridors

or linkages function better when habitat within them resembles that preferred by target species.

6. Blocks of habitat that are roadless or otherwise inaccessible to humans are better than waded and accessible habitat blocks.[3]

 Humans must leave enough of nature alone to allow ecological and evolutionary processes to function and change. Things change and nature adapts, but we must give it room.

Honing these and other principles of conservation biology and landscape ecology to apply them on the ground requires three essential kinds of land management: cores, corridors, and carnivores.

Cores are the heart of the conservation management system—the larger and more numerous, the better. They are the highest-quality habitat. This is best achieved by the designation of large wilderness areas and similar protective classifications.

To ensure the flow of individuals, populations, and species between the core areas, the system must also be connected by corridors, ideally by areas of high-quality habitat. This is best achieved by the designation of smaller wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and other similar protective classifications to interconnect larger wildlands or serve as stepping-stone habitats.

These cores and connectors must also be buffered with the most restrictions on human activities closest to the cores and corridors, with fewer restraints farther away.

The third essential is keystone species such as carnivores. As top predators, carnivores often regulate ecosystems and are essential components of ecosystem health. The large ones have generally been extirpated from most ecosystems.

[M]any people are uncomfortable in proposing the reintroduction of large and politically troublesome carnivores. But this is no excuse. Timidity in conservation planning and implementation is a betrayal to the land. Even in relatively populated regions like most of the eastern United States, the land cannot fully recover from past and present insults and mismanagement unless its bears, cougars, and wolves return. The greatest impediment to rewilding is an unwillingness to imagine it.[4]

The cornerstone of any landscape conservation strategy is conserving what is still wild. Conservationists have inventoried the remaining Oregon Desert wildlands and are recommending them for wilderness designation.

Since free-flowing streams and adjacent lands are excellent connector habitat, conservationists are inventorying them and will be making recommendations for additions to the national wild and scenic river system.

No comprehensive and detailed ecological assessment has been done at the fine scale for the Oregon Desert. Such assessments done for other bioregions suggest that—if we want large predators and all other ecosystem functions to be working properly—at least one-half of the Oregon Desert needs to be either kept wild or rewilded.

Ecological realities versus political realities. Both are equally real, but since the former cannot be changed, the latter must be.

A cynic might describe rewilding as an atavistic obsession with the resurrection of Eden. A more sympathetic critic might label it romantic. W e contend, however, that rewilding is simply scientific realism, assuming that our goal is to ensure the long-term integrity of the land community. [5]

Oregonians and all Earthlings are engaged in the greatest evolutionary test of all time. Humans, with our large brains and opposable thumbs, have conquered the world. Humans will determine whether any species or ecosystem will live or die. Humans (currently) have no serious predators, save ourselves. To date, as a species, we have successfully outmaneuvered all the major environmental checks and balances that keep all other species within their limits. Our population continues to grow in spite of diseases like AIDS. Because of environmental stresses (a.k.a. pollution), human sperm counts are down 50 percent in the last thirty years. What do we do about it? We don't address the underlying causes but simply learn to make babies in test tubes.

Humans are orders of magnitude more successful than any other species. We have—for the short term at least—transcended any limits. However, nature bats last. In the end, we humans must learn to live within our means on Earth or we won't be on Earth.

The evolutionary challenge is whether we, as a species, will evolve to have the wisdom to do something no other species has ever done or had to do— practice willful self-restraint. We must learn to live within our means, both economic and environmental.

Will we as a species learn that our long-term survival, as well as our short-term real comfort, depends upon a healthy, clean, and diverse planet?

We can. Establishing a model program in the Oregon Desert is a tangible step.


1. The Keystone Center. "Final Consensus Report of the Keystone Policy Dialogue on Biological Diversity on Federal Lands." Keystone, Colo.: The Keystone Center, 1991, quoted in R. F. Noss and A. Cooperrider, Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity, Washington, D.C.: Defenders of Wildlife and Island Press, 1994, 5.

2. Noss, R.F. . "The Wildlands Project: Land Conservation Strategy" Wild Earth (Special Issue, 1992): 11.

3. Ibid., 12.

4. M. Soule and R. F Noss. "Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation." Wild Earth 8, no.3 (1998): 25. 5. Ibid., 26.

5. Ibid., 26.