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Return to Leopold: Dare We Speak Up for Yellowstone?

Yellowstone Grizzly. Photo: National Park Service.

The watchword defending what’s come to be called the “collaboration and compromise” model of conservation is “practical.” When confronted with its abandonment of the land ethic and conservation aesthetic that Aldo Leopold bequeathed us in the 1940’s, the mainstream and best-funded conservation community defends its approach by pointing out the obvious, that the world has changed since Leopold’s time. Its adherents say that Leopold’s ideas don’t fit in our world, and that we have to be practical.

This now commonplace argument overlooks an equally obvious consideration, that Leopold’s philosophical contributions to conservation were no more practical or practicable then than they are now. That is, the great ecologist’s writings were not chronicling the ethics of his time; rather, they were generating those ethics. It wasn’t because society was already practicing it that he pointed out the need for ecological considerations not to be compromised by economic and political forces. He wrote his lyrical essays precisely because it was not. He practiced activism in order to change the world, not to work within its confines; he wrote in order to transform those confines.

His fabled A Sand County Almanac cannot be easily co-opted. Leopold said that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Having seen the destruction of vast and untold forests at the wielding of the chainsaw, he was well aware of society’s tendency to unfold according to political and monetary concerns. That is why he cautioned that land use decisions must be examined “In terms of what is ethically and esthetically right as well as what is economically expedient.” He knew firsthand that a consumptive consumerism was devouring our world, and us along with it. That is why he was compelled to emphasize that “All ethics so far evolved upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.”

Leopold meant that we must look out for the good of the all, all humanity, and all elements of the earth. He knew that we must accept limits, and he labored to convey that need to a society that did not understand it. He wanted to help us see the painful truth of what we were doing.

If in Leopold’s day, the major threat to conservation in the middle and Western United States was logging, in our time, the predominant one is what journalist Todd Wilkinson has recently called “industrial-strength outdoor recreation,” “the outdoor recreation industrial complex,” and its consumptive consumerism (https://mountainjournal.org/conservation-groups-in-greater-yellowstone-are-missing-in-action-on-growth-issues).

It is hard to grasp the threat of this industry and its adherents, and their severe problem with an inability to accept the limits of wildlands and wildlife for their co-existence with us. Or, better said, seeing the dire effects of this industry is defended against by what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas[1],[2] has called “negative hallucination” by a large and politically influential segment of society. We want to be able to ride our mountain bikes and motorbikes and snowmobiles without taking account of the fact that their speed and noise repel and displace wildlife, sending them fleeing sooner and farther than the quiet hiker or horseback rider does. And we don’t want to see that our machines’ increasing power over time, and the harrowingly increasing numbers of humans on the land are progressively un-wilding the very wildness of the places being inundated by the outdoor recreation industrial complex.

Wilkinson ends his essay with: “Recreationists who reject wildlife conservation – and the environmental organizations now enabling that attitude – need to acknowledge their own role in creating a huge New West problem. The first major step necessary for getting at a possible solution, if there can be one, is consciously acknowledging that the problem exists.”

In “How did wildlife groups start collaborating in the destruction of nature?” George Monbiot in his essay in The Guardian on June 24, 2020 – and republished in Montana’s own Mountain Journal just two weeks later, goes right to the heart of the matter. “The bigger and more established an organization becomes, the more timid and conformist it seems to get, until it’s almost indistinguishable from the interests it should be confronting. In this age of environmental crisis and collapse, of government lies and corporate power, we need our nature defenders to rise like lions after slumber. Instead, they queue at the abattoir gate like sedated lambs.”

Arundhati Roy[3] speaks eloquently of NGOization, the seduction of once radical and revolutionary groups intent upon fighting for their projects with an eye to how the societal fabric of the larger world exploited them; she evokes the picture of their transformation into entities that now fit themselves neatly and conciliatorily within that world. The notion of collaborating and compromising in itself is of course not a bad thing. The problem that goes undetected by Montana society is that the most revolutionary, grassroots, or radical defenders of wildlife, are all too often either left out or else ejected when they refuse to negatively hallucinate the most ecologically disturbing actions of the “partnerships,” as these groups might be called.

It is hardly conciliatory to stand up to the New West’s surreally emerging threat to its wildlands. Close cousin to the recreational industrial complex, its large and discourse-controlling environmental kin – its environmental groups and their fealty to the myth that we can limitlessly grow and consume wildlands with impunity – forcefully and efficaciously directs its censorship against its dissenters.

Annick Smith, the co-editor with William Kittredge of The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology[4], closes her 2018 Missoulian essay question as to whether Montana is “Still the last best place” with the answer: “So yes, Montana is still my Last Best Place. I don’t know if it will be the last best place for my children or grandchildren — or yours, dear readers. But I know we can help to preserve the good and the rare: grizzly bears and wolves, old-growth forests, native grasses, and migrating birds. We can build sheltering towns and healthy gardens, fund our schools and universities, and take care of the old, the sick and the poor. Or not. The future is still partly in our hands. At least for a little while.”

To walk our wild lands, or even to gaze upon them from their town-settled borders and know what they contain, is to experience not only the beautiful but also the sublime – the two pillars of aesthetics, which is the foundation of any life lived richly and uncompromised. To still live among the full pre-1492 fauna of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and its lands to the north, seeking full protection through the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, that is still The Last Best Place. That living, that primal surge of aliveness that comes with the proximity of the grey wolf and the grizzly bear, and massive herds of elk and the wily wolverine, that is The Last Best Place. To sit quietly, having walked many miles into the vast wildlands that these iconic beings need in order to persevere, and to feel our smallness, the one among many – ness of the human species, is to be freed from the frenetic marches of our thoughtless insistences. To limit our consumption, our consumerism, and to place a higher order as determinative of our political, societal, and psychological desires, that is the land use ethic and conservation aesthetic of which Leopold so evocatively wrote.

A few What ifs. If conservation groups can regain their revolutionary voices and become once more “loud, educative, noisy, disruptive, systemic and ongoing.”[5] If they put ethics and aesthetics first. If they don’t shrink from holding to account the systems of despoliation of Montana’s wildlands – including the recreational industry and its participants, when they cannot place Leopoldian limits upon themselves. If they stop negatively hallucinating the incursive footprint of Montana’s industrial recreation industry. Then we just might keep Montana “The Last Best Place.”

Notes.

1. In Meaning and Melancholia. London: Routledge (2018).

2. Bollas (2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7eBWG_DgRAo&feature=youtu.be

3. In Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Chicago: Haymarket Books (2014).

4. Seattle: University of Washington Press (1990).

5. Henry Giroux, (2018). American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism. San Francisco: City Lights Books.