OUR OPINIONS ARE MORE OFTEN BASED ON pseudoscience than we suppose. This is nowhere more evident than in our response to the claims of environmentalists. In part, this is because we are now a largely urban people who yearn for open, uninhabited land. Unlike our forebears who conquered and earned their living from such land, we know few of its realities.
But a more important reason we swallow the pseudoscience that often informs the claims of environmentalists can be found in the legacy of the founder of American environmentalism, John Muir. Muir was a Scottish immigrant whose lifetime bridged the 19th and 20th centuries, a gifted writer and orator. Muir’s chief contribution to the environmental movement was his belief that man can only diminish, never improve, the beauty of wild land. And in his day, this was largely true. At that time there were no schools of forestry, or land and wildlife management; clear cut logging and market hunting with live decoys and cannon-size shotguns were the norm.
A fair reading of Muir shows he never intended that people be prohibited from enjoying the grandeur of nature. He believed Americans should see and enjoy the magical sites that abound in their land. But Muir’s legacy has been distorted beyond recognition in the years since World War II. Modern environmentalism has rejected science-based land and wildlife management in favor of a radical ethic that rejects man’s right to enjoy wilderness areas. Where the old environmentalist ethic was inclusive, since 1945 it has been increasingly exclusionist. You won’t find proof of this in anything in print from the major landholding environmental organizations. The proof lies in their lands and would not be obvious even to many supporters of such organizations.
The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is one such organization. TNC is based on a laudable principle: that environmental conservation has a price, and that price ought to be borne through voluntary private action and not coercive government action. Accordingly, TNC, like other land holding environmental organizations, buys up selected tracts of land to set aside for conservation.
TNC is the largest environmental landowner on the East Coast. Its protected locations I am familiar with include Virginia’s two counties on the Delmarva Peninsula and sites in Connecticut, New York, and the Low Country on the South Carolina coast. Save for a few showcase properties, I can recall none that had access trails, tree identification, or wildlife signage for hikers. I’ve never seen on TNC properties evidence of such common forestry practices as girdling disease-prone trees to make way for healthier stock or the removal of forest floor litter that can turn ordinary forest fires into firestorms. Admittedly, there are significant costs associated with these and other practices commonly employed by private and commercial owners, and it is possible that the significant cost savings are one reason why environmental landowners make access as difficult as possible.
TNC is adept at cultivating wealthy donors and networking through them to identify others. TNC makes the barrier islands separating Watchapregue, Virginia, from the North Atlantic accessible to its members, but local families, many of whom have lived there since before we were a nation, can no longer hunt, fish, and camp on these islands.
In other cases, TNC’s hands-off land management policy is arguably detrimental to the land and species that are ostensibly being preserved. Several years ago I came across a TNC tract of over twenty acres in East Hampton, New York that was posted “No Trespassing.” The local office told me that land was off limits because it hosted a rare orchid. I noticed, however, that the site was a low-lying area very close to a large salt pond. A serious hurricane, I thought, could have quickly inundated the orchids in salt water. A call to the New York Botanical Gardens put me in touch with an expert who told me that the protected orchids could easily thrive elsewhere. So much for TNC’s claims and endless crusades about protecting endangered species.
The American public seems unaware of the difference between science and the exclusionist environmentalism practiced by organizations such as TNC. We seem ready to accept, without question, our role as second-class citizens in nature. Concern for the spotted owl, for instance, has resulted in huge chunks of the Pacific Northwest being deemed off-limits to loggers. But in Europe, they’ve taken a different, more human-friendly course. Spotted owls love old-growth forests because they prefer to build their nests in dead, decaying trees, better known to foresters as “snags.” When the German Greens noticed how successful their American counterparts had been in declaring U.S. lands off-limits under the guise of protecting the spotted owl (and in related fundraising) they tried to emulate their success in Bavaria. But there the German Forestry Service countered with a program to encourage children to build bird houses, thousands of them. These were placed in forests of all ages. The result: the owls preferred the manufactured housing.
While the Sierra Club, TNC, and others are quick to cite John Muir in their literature, Muir wanted Americans to see and revere the splendor of their land. The current environmental leadership, on the other hand, values money, political clout, and control of ever more land, objectives more readily accomplished in an atmosphere of artificial crisis created by the false specter of man’s threat to the environment. John Muir would scarcely recognize his own legacy today.
Randy Richardson was for twenty years the president of the Smith Richardson Foundation.