Solitude Sought in Nature Threatened by Overpopulation and Overcrowding

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By Leon Kolankiewicz

Leon is an Advisory Board Member and Senior Writing Fellow with CAPS. A wildlife biologist, and environmental scientist and planner, Leon is the author of Where Salmon Come to Die: An Autumn on Alaska's Raincoast, the essay “Overpopulation versus Biodiversity” in Environment and Society: A Reader and was a contributing writer to Life on the Brink: Environmentalists Confront Overpopulation.

In a career that spans three decades, three countries and more than 30 states, Leon has managed environmental impact statements for many federal agencies on projects ranging from dams and reservoirs to coal-fired power plants, power lines, flood control projects, road expansions, management of Civil War battlefields, NASA's Kennedy Space Center operations and a proposed uranium mine on a national forest. He also has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop comprehensive conservation plans at more than 40 national wildlife refuges from the Caribbean to Alaska.

The writer's views are his own.

September 11, 2015

Sierra Club 1981 BulletinYears before I became persona non grata in the Sierra Club for my criticism of its leadership’s refusal to acknowledge immigration’s environmental impacts and my participation in the intra-club insurgency known as SUSPS (Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization), I actually wrote a feature story for Sierra / the Sierra Club Bulletin, that organization’s flagship publication.

The July/August 1981 issue of Sierra carried my article, “British Columbia: Canada’s Battleground on the Pacific,” in which I mourned the fact that the pristine forests, rivers and mountains of Canada’s spectacularly beautiful westernmost province were rapidly being converted into wood chips, pulp and paper, hydroelectric kilowatts, mine tailings and gaping pits. Into eyesores and effluent, in other words.

As an American, just what qualified me to weigh in on pressing environmental issues in a Canadian province? Well, I had just finished four years as a graduate student at the University of British Columbia’s School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP). Among other distinctions, SCARP gave birth to Ecological Footprint analysis, conceived originally by my brilliant and groundbreaking M.S. thesis advisor, Prof. William E. Rees, Ph.D.

Yankee or not, I had thoroughly immersed myself in B.C.’s environmental and conservation politics, especially wilderness and wildlife preservation. I had also written my master’s thesis on pollution control in the Fraser River, Western Canada’s most important river for Pacific salmon.

Anyway, at one point in my Sierra article, I invoked the iconic American conservationist, Aldo Leopold, who had remarked in his 1949 conservation classic, A Sand County Almanac, that:

British Columbia WildernessIn Canada and Alaska, there are still large expanses of virgin country,

Where nameless men by nameless rivers wander, and in strange valleys die strange deaths alone.

But nowadays, I went on to lament:

…in the Northwest, there are no more nameless rivers, and most of the remaining strange valleys will soon be logged, dammed, mined or opened to rugged individualists in jeeps and campers.

Since that article was published almost 35 years ago, the world’s population has swollen by an additional 3 billion and America’s by about 100 million. British Columbia’s population is more than 50 percent larger. And the beleaguered solitude and space I bemoaned have become ever-more menaced by the relentless tide of humanity and our long shadow. By our growing resource demands. By our far-reaching and intrusive noise. By our ubiquitous impacts on the Earth-enveloping atmosphere and climate. And last but not least, by the maddening crowds and traffic jams in our most beautiful, awe-inspiring natural areas, such as national parks.

Jet contrails streak across the sky.
While they are not smoke or pollution per se
(they consist of water vapor
and ice crystals), contrails are still an aesthetic blight and symbolize
humanity’s heavy-handed omnipresence over the planet. They also
contribute to “global dimming,” a decrease in the amount of incoming
sunlight reaching the lower atmosphere and Earth’s surface.

I have experienced firsthand the disruptive manmade noise and obnoxious crowding in some of America’s wildest and grandest places, including the very first wilderness area ever formally established in the United States, the Gila Wilderness in southwestern New Mexico. Aldo Leopold himself, then working for the U.S. Forest Service, pushed for the Gila. It was set aside (legally protected) in 1924, a full four decades before the Wilderness Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Johnson in 1964.

Backpacking through the Gila in 1989, I was appalled at the constant din of jet traffic overhead, and blue skies marred by persistent jet contrails. It may have been wilderness in name, but it wasn’t in reality any more. In Leopold’s day half a century earlier, the silence and the expansive blue sky would not have been slashed and sliced by a steady succession of commercial jetliners.

Now, as soon as the noise from one jet passing overhead faded away, another began; they were almost perfectly synchronized to completely obliterate authentic silence, and a sense of majestic solitude, of being “away from” or beyond the grubby reach of industrial civilization. This artificial noise injected into the natural setting wasn’t loud enough to drown out bird song or the whispering wind, but it was loud enough to be noticeable – and jarring, because this was “wilderness,” empty, vacant, “untrammeled,” devoid of manmade objects, and one of the most thinly populated places left in the continental USA. Yet mechanized man’s pervasive presence was unavoidable and overbearing even here.

In Leopold’s day, there still were wolves in this wilderness. Now, the howl of the wolf had been replaced with the incessant buzzing of jet traffic overhead. The price of progress?

Gila Wilderness
New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness.
The howl of the wolf has been silenced, while the song of the bird and
rustle of the breeze now are accompanied by the ever-present din
of a  ceaseless procession of commercial jets passing overhead.

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