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  Where the Wild Things Are
  BQR ~ fall 1998

ilderness' preciousness lies not only with its immense richness of life and scenery, but also in its scarcity. Designated wilderness constitutes less than two percent of the conterminous United States. The Grand Canyon and its river afford something unique even within the context of wilderness. It is not another roadside attraction nor the grand cash register. It is not yet Central Park nor Disneyland. It is something different, something rare and immensely valuable. If our first priority in wilderness is care of the land and the community of life, then the second is to assure for the traveler the time and space for discovery. That discovery may be of place, or purpose, or something altogether different, but it will be their discovery.

Kim Crumbo

 

   Well, let's just get started then. A lot of the story is right here in the rocks of Grand Canyon. There are the big physical breaks in deposition, geologists call unconformities, like the one between the schist and the Tapeats Sandstone. There are five big breaks in life's grand lineage called mass extinctions, preserved in the changeovers of fossil assemblages. ‘Mass' belies the incremental nature of the process. Well, species wink out one by one. The cumulative loss, however, is massive (the Permian extinction, about 245 million years ago, wiped out 95% of all known marine animal species). After the big crashes, the slow reflowering of life spans some 5 to 10 million years.

   There is always a background rate of species loss, but it is very low—a quantity measured in millions of years. In stark contrast, Grand Canyon National Park lost at least 12 vertebrate species over the past century: river otter, muskrat, jaguar, Colorado squawfish, two species of chub, Great Basin timber wolf, leopard frog, zebra-tailed lizard, sage grouse. The condor is back again, but the razorback sucker is what conservation biologists call the walking (swimming) dead: a couple left, not reproducing. Not to mention the whole swarm of ecologically critical invertebrates we know next to nothing about. The rate of loss from Grand Canyon is blindingly fast.

   Really, this article is about wilderness. It seems these days that wilderness means what we cannot have, what we cannot do, the aerial dollars floating over Grand Canyon that we are prevented from grabbing. Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, and Olaus Murie saw much more in wilderness: abundance, opportunity, mystery, vastness, solitude, and best of all, intricate life. These were not ideas, they were observations, real as the fifth wave in Hermit. Many today think we have the luxury of pondering and discarding these observations like daydreams, for their lack of immediate importance. But, remember, species loss is incremental, fragmentation of habitat is piecemeal, breakdown of natural processes is gradual, land is degraded by human use patch by patch. As we slide toward the sixth great extinction (the biologists aren't arguing about this one), driven by pervasive human activities, where is the refuge for the living world? In wilderness.

   It seems also that many are stuck broadside against the concept that wilderness is a place designated as legal Wilderness (and all the arguments about whether a place ought to be, shouldn't be, is or is not qualified to be such). The web of life in Grand Canyon has no idea what we are talking about—it is busy being wild. The confusion stems from using the same word for what needs protecting (wilderness) as the word for the protection itself (Wilderness). It's like using the word horse for both the animal and the barn. The horse standing out in the rain has no doubt of its being a wet horse.

   This is an entreaty for barnraising. We used to do that, working together. Grand Canyon and its community of life are out in the rain—hordes of humanity demanding access—protected only as a Park. Wilderness designation, the protective structure, requires the National Park Service to stop "improving" the parks, ending the proliferation of buildings and pavement, or signs and beachfront riprap. This is precisely the reason Congress insisted on wilderness consideration for such areas. The National Park Service has shown its willingness time and again to bend under the pressure of demand, sacrificing the wild. Wilderness designation is the only legislation that has stood the test of endurance. It shifts the focus to maintaining ecological integrity and the opportunities to experience qualities of nature found only in wilderness. Could Powell have imagined 20,000 people a year travelling down the river? What evidence indicates this will not increase again, beyond our own imaginings, over the next century?

   Why should we care? I once visited with John Nichols, author of The Milagro Beanfield War, after a reading. Over crumpled paperbacks held out for his signature we acknowledged the eventual and inevitable annihilation of the earth when the sun becomes a red giant, one day along the geologic time scale. Vaporized. Inescapable. But meanwhile, life is marvelous and precious, the unfolding of life on earth magnificently complex, and John and I agreed we don't want to be the ones driving the bus into the sixth great extinction. What better place to try to protect the web of life—native biodiversity—than one of the world's premier big landscape parks. In Grand Canyon, we can let Nature be trip leader.

Kelly Burke

Some of the facts presented here are from David Quammen's recent article in Harper's Magazine, "Planet of Weeds." Extirpated species list from L. E. Stevens.

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