Natural resource eras: Where we’ve been, where we are now
BY THE MASKED BIOLOGIST
Special to the Star Journal
I have given a lot of thought to what kind of natural resource era we are currently in here in Wisconsin and around the country. The history of the United States can generally be encapsulated by eras, from colonization and settlement to our modern era (which has yet to be officially named but appears to be labeled as the new millennium or the war on terror). These eras tend to be developed around political or social events, and although none of them are labeled specific to natural resources, many had a direct impact on them.
That’s not to say that our nation’s attitude toward natural resources hasn’t occurred in eras. The era of initial concern about what used to seem like endless resources started after the end of the civil war, when consumption of timber had spread from New England across the Midwest. It was the start of observations about how some places needed to be protected and preserved, like Yosemite National Park and the Grand Canyon. Well known authors like George Perkins Marsh and conservationists like John Muir worked to bring concern about our renewable resources to the forefront. What followed was the creation of the Forest Service and the National Park Service.
Obviously, I am leapfrogging through more than a century of history, but I want to get to the environmentalism and public participation era, defined as the period from 1970 to 1993 by the Forest History Society. This era is important to me personally because I lived it from birth through early adulthood. This is the era of Woodsy Owl, spokes-bird for not polluting, as well as protecting the environment. It is the era of Iron Eyes Cody, the “crying Indian” who made us all feel terrible for how we polluted forests, rivers and streams. The Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act were both passed into law by Congress in the beginning of this era. DDT, a pesticide that was pushing the bald eagle to the precipice of extinction, was banned. The Endangered Species Act was put in place to help restore the bald eagle and other species whose numbers dwindled due to the impacts of humans. The growing hole in the ozone layer, save the whales, and dolphin-safe tuna all arose in the 1980s. I hunted, fished, camped, and climbed my way through all of it—and developed my love for the outdoors.
What happened in 1993 to end this era? The spotted owl. The concern over this bird and the potential change to its habitat forever changed natural resource management; the northern goshawk was close behind. These birds, held up as specialists that needed old growth forests, brought to light the need to manage responsibly on an ecological scale, giving rise to ecosystem management. This was a very new field during my college years that focused on managing on an extended time scale across a large landscape.
Personally, I feel this was an indicator of the swing of the pendulum away from preservation, through conservation, to the opposite of preservation—an era of exploitation. Today, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act face constant challenge. Politicians hold up natural resource management agencies as the opponent. People seem to want to squeeze the very last bit of use out of every single bit of resource. If they see land or water seemingly sitting idle, they question why, and seek a use for it, often one that privatizes it for their own benefit and not the benefit of all. Exploitation has two definitions; one refers to unfairly benefitting from the work of another, the other is synonymous with utilization—making use of and benefitting from resources. No matter how you look at it, one of the two definitions applies. Which do you think best fits our state’s and nation’s current natural resource attitude?
The Masked Biologist earned a bachelor of science degree from a university with a highly regarded wildlife biology program. He has work for natural resource agencies from the Rocky Mountains, across the Great Plains and into the Midwest, which provided opportunities to work with a variety of common and rare fish, plant and wildlife species. Follow The Masked Biologist on Facebook.