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.
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 lowa 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
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 aboutit 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 rainhordes of humanity demanding accessprotected
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 lifenative
biodiversitythan one of the world's premier big landscape
parks. In Grand Canyon, we can let Nature be trip leader.
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.