A Dying Green Fire and the Cost of Conservation

Man always kills the thing he loves. And so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in.” -Aldo Leopold

As a young man Aldo Leopold, a future leader of the Twentieth century conservation movement, went out to hunt wolves. The then-contemporary thought was that by eliminating predators it would vastly improve the quality of deer hunting. One evening while out hunting he successfully shot and killed a female wolf and injured one of her pups which then escaped. What follows is possibly one of the most famous (and in my personal opinion, one of the most haunting) quotes attributed to Leopold:

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then and have known ever since that there was something new to me in those eyes, something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”

That moment served as a turning point for Leopold, away from a precipice that lead to ecological disaster and back toward a way that led him to develop the concept of Land Ethic as a way for humans to coexist with rather than dominant the living world around them. This was 1914, at a time when an entire nation was facing an environmental abyss. Four years earlier Wisconsin deer populations hit a record low as commercial hunting and an unregulated season threatened to extirpate the species from the Driftless up through the Northwoods. Poor soil conservation practices utilized by farmers during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries devastated native brook trout fisheries.

Nationwide populations of migratory bird species collapsed as commercial hunters shot them down out of the sky by the hundreds, often using “punt guns” that looked more appropriate on the deck of the navy destroyer than floating in a coastal estuary. In 1914 the last surviving passenger pigeon died in the Cincinnati zoo, only a few decades after individual flocks numbered in the billions of individuals. It was only one of many species driven to extinction or near-extinction by unregulated hunting in the United States.

It seems the pattern in human behavior is to hit the brakes hard right before we go careening off a cliff and hope we stop in time. Aldo Leopold was one voice that led the way toward modern conservation ethics, and with him followed the great state of Wisconsin. To be fair the state’s legacy of environmental conservation preceded Leopold by many decades, though the first years offered mixed results. In 1887 the city of Madison established one of the country’s first fish hatcheries. Around the same time an attempt to establish the first state park (known simply as “The State Park”) was rebuffed by lumber barons who eventually convinced the state to sell two-thirds of public land to private interests.

By 1915 Wisconsin’s fledgling park system was established, beginning with Devil’s Lake near Baraboo. In 1927 the state established the nation’s first commission to manage wild game (the great-great-grandfather of today’s Department of Natural Resources). In 1934 came the Wisconsin Conservation Congress, a body of citizens that serves of advise the DNR on regulations– a rather unique organization that sets Wisconsin apart from many other states and offers every interested citizen a voice in the future of fish and game.

In addition to the actions are the people that have come to influence environmental thinking and conservation ethics: the aforementioned Aldo Leopold, whose A Sand County Almanac is required reading of anyone who gives a damn about the outdoors; John Muir, who spent his formative years in Portage before lending his voice to an entire nation of naturalists; Increase Allan Lapham, Wisconsin’s first geologist, one of the founders of modern meteorology, and a visionary when it came to forestry management; “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, who eschewed the lumber industry’s poltical power in favor of protecting the state’s natural resources from exploitation; Gaylord Nelson, Wisconsin governor and senator and the founder of Earth Day. The whole of the Menominee people have developed a means of ecologically sustainable forestry on their reservation.  I would add to this growing list the name of Dave Vetrano, a retired biologist with the DNR who is almost single-handedly responsible for the current success of trout stream populations, and the creator of the LUNKER structure around which revolves modern in-stream habitat restoration.

In short, Wisconsin and its people have long been on the leading edge of the Land Ethic.

Then, on the other hand, there’s Scott Walker. The governor’s initial proposed budget, rolled out just a short time ago, offered a dreary picture on the future of the state’s natural resources.

Here’s a brief rundown of the original budget proposal:

– Cutting 66 staff positions at the DNR, half of which are related to science, research, and education (with some of the positions targeted being those related to the failed Penokee Mine, a project backed by the Koch brothers)

– Reducing the authority of the Natural Resources Board (NRB) to being advisory only, which also limits the power of the aforementioned Conservation Congress which in turn advises the NRB

– Reducing funding to non-profits involved in conservation efforts, including the River Alliance of Wisconsin and the Ice Age Trail Alliance

– Freezing funding for the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund until 2028, effectively killing a program that has protected more than half a million acres of land since 1989

– Reducing funding to local soil and water conservation departments to help minimize runoff pollution from farms

– Eliminating funding for state parks, with the assumption that parks will make up for the lost funding by increasing prices on park stickers and camp sites, or looking for corporate sponsorship (Little Debbie Devil’s Food Lake Park, anyone?)

– Cutting $300 million from the UW system budget, a system that includes the 37th ranked university in the freaking world (UW-Madison), a university with a well-regarded hydrogeology program (UW-MIlwaukee), and another university (UW-Stevens Point) known for its natural resources management program

– Etcetera

Since the initial release of the budget some of these proposals have been walked back by the Joint Finance Committee, which have restored funding to the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund and returned full authority to the NRB, but many still stand and likely will become part of the new fiscal reality in the state.

If I sound all gloom-and-doom, well that’s kinda how I feel right now, because holy Hell how does this kind of budget happen here in Wisconsin? It just makes me fucking sad.

And I’m not asking that question looking for a procedural answer, but more in the sense of how rolling back funding for environmental protections is considered a legitimate concept at this point in time. The last century has proven wildly successful to conservation, as both state and federal protections– the Clean Air and Water acts, the Endangered Species Act, the state programs listed above– have led to significant recovery and restoration of our wild lands. At the public level there are numerous non-profits dedicated to the same aims, organizations that have committed tremendous time and energy into improving fishing and hunting quality. Without them– groups such as Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Whitetails Unlimited, and at a local level the Badger Fly Fishers and Wisconsin Smallmouth Alliance– the number of miles of fishable streams and huntable public lands would be much smaller than it is today. Dave Vetrano has been quoted as saying “the good old days are today” in terms of fishing and hunting and outdoor opportunities in this state.

Yet there is still plenty more to do. Changing climate poses significant risk to local fisheries, particularly native brook trout populations. Invasive species on land threaten to turn diverse ecosystems into monocultures built of buckthorn and garlic mustard. Invasive species in our waters will crowd out traditional food sources for game fish and destroy fisheries where they’re introduced. Runoff pollution is still a major limiting factor to the restoration of many trout streams statewide. Commercial interests have not changed much since those lumber barons fought against the establishment of the first state park in the 1880s, and now they fight against environmental protections that affect their bottom line. We’re in the middle of a fucking sixth mass extinction event with species disappearing at alarming speeds.

Scott Walker has stated that his budget will help deliver the American Dream to everyone who currently feels left out.

What we need is not debilitating cuts to conservation programs. What we need is not debilitating cuts to our educational system. What we need is not tax cuts that will cost $300 million to save homeowners $5 a year on their property taxes. What we need is a new definition of the “American Dream” that isn’t the ecological equivalent of Manifest Destiny. What we need is to create a dream that isn’t obsessed with the consumerism that gives corporations and their political interests all of the power to take dominion over our inherited wild lands.

We’ve been left with an immense environmental legacy in Wisconsin. That is a responsibility we all bear. Their is a cost of conservation involved in bearing that legacy, and we must accept it if we are to survive long-term in any meaningful way as a culture, as individuals, and as a species. That means it will cost us money, as all things do. I think the cost should be much higher than it is right now if we are going to be serious about ecological sustainability; at the very least we can’t allow ourselves and our leaders to further cheapen it.

If Walker’s budget does end up saving my wife and I $5 on our property taxes in the next two years, I’ll be donating that money to Trout Unlimited, or Smallmouth Alliance, or the Nature Conservancy. That is a small cost to cover our greatest responsibility.

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Author: chesleyfan

I work, I fish, I write.

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