January 22, 2002

How Green is My Valley?

Writing in WSJ’s Opinion Journal, Thomas Bray points to the motives undergirding the conservationalist impulse to rid parks of … well, fun:

It’s not exactly a new battle. In the early 1900s, with the advent of the automobile, preservationists (and their allies in the horse and stagecoach industries) opposed allowing cars into the park. Now there are some 280 million visits annually to America’s national parks, most of them by car. This is leading to calls for confining visitors to buses, trams and snow coaches, but this may take a lot out of the experience for people who like to mosey through the parks at their own speed.

The snowmobile folks seem to have gotten the message. They are developing new, quieter and cleaner engines. But this isn’t likely to impress their foes in the environmental community, whose real gripe is that there are just too many people in the parks to begin with. In their view, the purpose of the national parks is not “the enjoyment of the people” but protection of so-called ecosystems in their supposedly pristine state.

And that, of course, is the final irony. Man has always been a part of Yellowstone. I have fished a section of the park known as the “thoroughfare” because it was a well-known travel route for American Indians and traders. Bison were never very numerous in the park because of its altitude and lack of grazing land. And the National Park Service’s own policy of putting out nearly every fire as soon as it started helped lead to the buildup of tinder that resulted in the massively destructive fires of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Just how “natural” Yellowstone remains is open to question.

That’s not necessarily an argument for opening up Yellowstone to willy-nilly development. What people like about Yellowstone and other parks is their sense of wildness. But it does argue for keeping the average human tourist–not just the backcountry trekker–in mind when debating things like cars and snowmobiles.

Bray is spot on, it seems to me. The conservationalist impulse, as I’ve tried to explain to a good friend of mine (who colors himself on the greener shade of pale), is essentially a religious impulse — specifically, a kind of secular Puritanism. And I have no problem with people who argue environmental issues from this position: keeping the land “pure” (to their way of thinking) trumps all potential “uses” for that land.

Personally, I happen to think this impulse is misguided, but at least it’s honest, and it beats having to doctor research in order to argue for such things as “noise pollution” and man-made C02 blankets, which — when coupled with legislation based on dubious science — can end up doing more harm than good…

[update: From The Weekly Standard, more on the religiosity of environmentalism; this is a subscribers only article, I'm afraid]

Posted by Jeff G. @ 8:28pm
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