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Working Wilderness and Other Code Words

My former wife, Mollie, had many positive influences upon me. Among other things she also taught me the importance of words. Early in our relationship, I was telling her about some the “girls” in one my graduate school classes. She corrected me and told me that the “girls” were in their twenties and/or older and as such they were not girls, but women. “Yeah, of course,” I replied off handedly and somewhat annoyed by what I perceived as her politically correct position.

She could tell that I was annoyed and didn’t really “get it.” So she went on to elaborate why calling adult females “girls” I was in a sense helping to maintain the illusion that they were not peers in the adult world with men. Girls, instead of women, were code for implying power structures in society. You get the gist of the conversation.

Now whenever I hear someone referring to a woman as a girl, it is jarring to my ears. It sounds offensive. Though at first I merely changed my language to appease her, in the end I changed my entire perspective on words.

The use of words to foster a political and philosophical sub text is, of course, not new. George Lakoff has discussed this at length in his book Don’t Think like an Elephant. Lakoff uses the example of the right wing’s injection of the word “tax burden” in our common dialogue to create the notion that any taxes are a liability upon citizens instead of a responsibility of citizenship. Of course, using tax burden as a club is also part of a larger attack on government in general.

A similar adoption of code words has worked its way into conservation lexicon.

Words such as “conservation easements”, “working forests”, “working landscapes” and “traditional uses” promote a positive image of destructive practices and nature exploitation. George Lakoff warns when you are arguing against the worldview of the other side, do not adopt their language, yet even environmentalists now regularly celebrate the “working landscape” and actively support “traditional uses” and so forth.

Let me illustrate how subtle these changes are by giving some examples. Recently I visited the San Bernardino Valley near the Mexican border in Arizona where it joins New Mexico. The area is better known today as the Malpai Borderlands. Ranching apologists sometimes call the landscape exploited by the Malpai group and other similar ranching efforts a “working wilderness.” Never mind that livestock are exotic domestic animals, and that livestock grazing in such arid places, even if well managed, has many unavoidable negative ecological impacts that destroys wild nature.

“Working wilderness” is a term that was coined by ranching proponents to modify our view of the world. Most people view “wilderness” as well as “work” as positive phrases. By using two words that have positive responses from most people, the livestock industry seeks to evoke a positive response to ranching. In our mind’s eye we envision a benevolent cowboy herding his docile cattle over the land to enhance and benefit nature. But a “working wilderness” is anything but a wilderness. It is a place where ranchers control (at least attempt to control) the landscape to benefit people and exotic animals. It is a domesticated land. And the fences that are strung across the land are more than mere artifacts used to contain cattle movements, but are emblematic of human ownership and control. Such lands are anything but “self willed” lands as true wilderness is. It might be well managed from the perspective of a ranching operation—but it is not wild as someplace where natural forces call the shots.

For some the term working wilderness not only puts a positive spin on old fashion human manipulation and exploitation, but it by default also implies a negative view of wildlands. Such “self willed” lands that are not grazed by cows are somehow vast tracts of shiftless, lazy and presumably unemployed lands that do nothing worthwhile at all.

It’s not just ranching operations are “working”, but all resource exploitation. So we have “working forests” that are logged and managed to produce wood products. They are forests that will never acquire old growth characteristics, are  laced with roads, and often subject to herbicides to reduce brush and other manipulations that can hardly be called benign. Yet, through the subversive use of the term “working forest” logging the forest has come to be equated with “protecting” the land even though throughout most of the “working forest” region, the biggest threat to forests comes from being worked over—i.e. logged.

Many of these “working landscapes” are “protected” by what are called “conservation easements”.  Most of these easements should be more properly termed “open space” easements because in many cases on-going destructive commercial resource exploitation practices—logging, ranching, and/or farming–are permitted, and indeed, sometimes even encouraged. And the only thing that is prohibited is usually subdivisions. Natural ecological processes, wildlife, soil, water, and a host of other values often are degraded and may be not be conserved at all. Open space is valuable, but open space isn’t necessarily the same as good wildlife habitat, nor does it always protect biodiversity and landscape scale ecological processes.

People need to beware of the subtle but unspoken meaning behind word choices. Words do matter. Many of the terms coined to describe resource extraction activities like “working wilderness” and “working forest” are designed to change public perception of resource extraction. These terms are used to hide or disguise the real environmental degradation that often accompanies resource extraction, and to create a more favorable public perception of these practices.

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George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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