by Denny Olson

In my column last month, I defined our earthly “community” as far larger than just the Flathead Valley community – or any community that includes just one species – us. To be sure, we have spent untold quadrillions of dollars and work hours to shape that larger community to fit our own needs and wants. In the Lower 48 states, 97.3 percent of our surface area is developable, leaving 2.7 percent as “untrammeled” and wild. Even there, we trammel those spots with trails for hiking and XC skiing. Agriculture, cities, suburbs – all land uses to serve our human purposes – literally cover the map. Agricultural land (food and forestry) is 52 percent. Wetlands comprise 5 percent of land cover (formerly 10 percent). Three percent is urban and suburban. We have 65,000 square miles of mowed lawn! In the entire world, humans have removed three trillion trees (half of what was here originally) to open the land for our uses. The point is often made – correctly – that we are “part of nature, too”. Yes, but we have proven to be an absurdly and dangerously dominant “part” of nature. 

Put into scientific perspective, nature’s checks and balances on life have been honed through an often painful evolutionary process spanning an estimated 3.5 billion years. Along the way dinosaurs came and went, along with millions of other extinctions. Comets and asteroids pummeled us, the sun hiccupped its output a few times, but life, resilient life, persisted. We now have 6 billion species of insects and perhaps 18,000 species of birds, for example, and one species of homo sapiens, which has been around now for 0.00057 percent of that long, long “life-time”. And in that time, we have had nearly the same impact as the asteroid that killed all the giant reptiles. One would think that those scientific estimates might lead to some level of humility on our part.

Therein lies the problem. Somewhere along our short timeline, someone decided that the rules of life do not apply to us. Instead of “we are part of a vast system honed over billions of years – and subject to those processes which created us”, we in western civilization decided that the entire planet belongs to us – instead of the other way around. And in our haste to make that so, we began shaping the world for our convenience. 

Large-scale infractions of the “rules” are becoming obvious. Deforestation, global climate change, and exponential extinctions can all be traced back to our own self-absorption. Our newfound powers vastly outweigh our ability to think ahead to long-term consequences. And, we can trace that lack of ability back to our own desires and conveniences. “It’s about me, isn’t it?”

This tendency is on a sequential scale, of course. At one end of the scale, individuals who, through a sociopathic lust for power, combined with greed, start wars and commit genocide on our fellow humans. Others, unaware that the rest of nature is our unquestionable life support system, take from nature anything that will make them richer and more powerful, and eliminate anything that gets in the way. 

But biology can not be politicized, even though some people try. Neither is ecology subject to our human invention called economics. It is just there, as it always has been. Most of us understand that, and make rules and alliances that will temper those primitive and dangerous individuals. Humans are mostly good and kind people, but we often confuse symptoms with problems. At the other end of the self-absorption spectrum, we still appreciate those natural processes that created us, and the wild places that are represented by parks, wilderness areas, and other protected spots. But we often “appreciate” them in the same old context of “what’s in it for me”? As an example, 3.5 million of us appreciating Glacier National Park in a given summer have high potential to take the “wild” out of wild. Most of us love wild places because they provide us opportunities to do our chosen types of recreation. Some folks like to snowmobile and motocross in the woods. Some others like to mountain bike the trails, appreciating the wild at a somewhat slower mph. Some of us would rather hike, snowshoe and XC ski – or maybe slow down even more and, say, go bird watching. The impacts on the nature of things in wild places are on a scale, but all these activities have some impact on nature. 

Those impacts are the symptoms, to the tune of only 2.7 percent of our lands left to be considered “wild”. The problem is that we still approach nature as a place to exercise our self-absorption – what is its value to us. If nature were able to ask the same question – on authority of its vast seniority, “What are those two-leggeds good for, to the rest of us?”, how would we stack up?

Stay tuned. Next Niche column in September I’m going to make a case for places like Owen Sowerwine, a close and convenient wild place, as an answer waiting for that question, a place to turn off our self-awareness and tune in to a world we will impact some, but very little. It will, in a roundabout way, be a chance for us to learn a little something about … us.