The Arrogance of America's Designer Ark


In May of 2001 I returned to Rwanda to experience again the full joy and wonder of mountain gorillas. As the din of rainfall on foliage reduced their play to pantomime, young gorillas wrestled before me while their elders sat nearby like simian Buddhas, watching motionless as the heavy rains matted their long hair.

Twenty-five years earlier I had lived among these gorillas in Rwanda's Parc National des Volcans. With Amy Vedder, I recorded their actions, counted their numbers, and initiated a plan to halt their slide toward extinction. Through the 1980s I allowed my hopes to rise along with their numbers, as our plan took hold in the form of the successful Mountain Gorilla Project. With the 1990s came civil war, a brutal genocide, and a series of aftershocks that shifted the still-dangerous conflict into neighboring Congo.

Leaving the forest on that day in May, I reflected on the renewed wonder of my cross-species experience and on the remarkable fact that the gorillas still survived at all. More than 1 million Rwandans had died during the preceding decade, tens of thousands were in exile, and AIDS continued to ravage the nation. Poverty and land hunger were widespread. Yet 360 mountain gorillas lived in peace within the 420 km2 Virunga forest—100 more than I counted in 1978—and not 1 m2 of Rwandan parkland had been cleared. Tourism revenues helped justify this protection, yet total visitation in 2001 was only one-third of the prewar record of nearly 7000 visitors to the gorillas. Still, every day, a contingent of a dozen well-disciplined soldiers provided an invisible security perimeter surrounding guests and gorillas alike. Despite an array of problems of biblical proportions, Rwanda was spending scarce resources to protect its share of our global heritage of wildlife and wilderness.

One month later, in June 2001, I sat on a rise overlooking the vast coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. I had dreamed of watching the 130,000 members of the Porcupine caribou herd grazing below as their newborn calves nursed and frolicked nearby. But winter lingered late that year and the caribou remained in the high mountain valleys to the east, across the Canadian border. The solitary brown bears and wolves would have to wait for the annual feast of the calves. Days later, I stood on an unnamed barrier island in the Beaufort Sea, looking south toward the Brooks Range—a stunning backdrop to the coastal plain as it stretched in white-capped majesty across the entire horizon. The thought that the U.S. government—my own government—could violate this primal wilderness landscape and threaten its wildlife for 6 months of oil production was more chilling than the wind off the surrounding pack ice.

This past summer, I returned to Rwanda with Amy and our two sons. Our 2 days with the gorillas were a powerful experience. So too was our time with chimps and a half-dozen other primates in the 970-km2 Nyungwe Forest, soon to be named Rwanda's newest national park. Tourist numbers were on a near-record pace. And Rwandan friends and colleagues on both sides of the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic divide talked with hope of reconciliation and recovery—despite implacable poverty. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was expanding its assault on the nation's wilderness and wildlife through every administrative, regulatory, and budgetary mechanism imaginable. And it continues to seek access to the oil beneath the Arctic Refuge, our only protected arctic landscape, in the name of “energy security”—an Orwellian deception of the highest order.

The worlds of the Virunga forest and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could not be more different. A lush mountain rainforest and a treeless plain, an equatorial setting and the land of the midnight sun, evergreen and permafrost, a ravaged nation and the land of the free. The contrast in commitment to conservation between Rwanda and the United States is also striking. It is the impoverished nation of Rwanda that is making the greatest sacrifice to protect its parks and wildlife, while we in the world's wealthiest nation are prepared to despoil a pristine wildlife refuge to prolong our unsustainable addiction to fossil fuels.

This situation illustrates a critical difference—some would say a basic hypocrisy—in how we Americans view conservation issues around the world and in our own backyards. While we ask Asians to live with tigers, Latin Americans with jaguars, and Africans with a host of dangerous and inconvenient species, we have eliminated wolves and other large predators from most of our country and fiercely resist their return. We expect the Congolese and Bolivians to practice sustainable forestry and establish criteria to measure its performance, while American tax dollars subsidize patently unsustainable timber harvesting across our national forests. Our record in marine fisheries, mining, and oil extraction is similarly disappointing. Yet we continue to hold other—generally much poorer—nations to a higher standard of wildlife and wilderness protection. With each apparent contradiction between our demands on others and our performance at home, we risk the appearance of hypocrisy and dangerous divisions within the international conservation community.

The United States is not an evil force in conservation. The remarkable notion of national parks was born in the United States. The U.S. Wilderness Act brought larger landscapes and even higher standards into the fold of protected areas. The United States has developed systems for controlled hunting that generally assure a healthy supply of most game species, while avoiding the serious poaching and bushmeat problems that confront wildlife managers in most less-developed countries. Networks of applied research, public outreach, and education reinforce the conservation cause, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act has no equal for strict wildlife protection. Many developing countries are hardly paragons of protectionist virtue. Malaysian logging companies have deforested vast areas of Southeast Asia; unsustainable flows of bushmeat pour out of Congo Basin forests to feed remote urban populations; and some foreign governments have cynically approved the application of DDT to sensitive ecosystems, wildlife, and people.

The problem is not one of good versus evil. It is the perception that those in the United States increasingly follow the dictum “Do as we say, not as we do” when it comes to making sacrifices for conservation. We constantly challenge the rest of the world to sustain wildlife populations determined by natural factors of ecology and evolution. We call for foreign parks much larger than our own, in which natural processes can regulate larger and more diverse animal populations. When even these extensive areas prove insufficient, we call for protection of metapopulations of elephants and other species: networks of subpopulations that necessarily range and interconnect far beyond park boundaries. There are good reasons for the more aggressive approach to protection promoted by most American conservationists. Many derive from the experience of our own past failures to take protective actions at the appropriate time and scale. Conservation in America would be much easier today if we had saved more than “rocks and ice” when we had the opportunity to set aside more complex and interconnected ecosystems; if we had not eliminated most of the top predators; and if we had constrained our own human tendency to project our material needs, noise, roads, and structures deep into the remaining wilderness. Others can learn from our legacy. Yet they are unlikely to assume the perceived costs of conservation in their lands if they see us taking the easier path of conflict avoidance in ours.

The problem is that we are constructing a designer ark in America. We tolerate a few wolves and grizzly bears in remote corner pens, whereas elk and deer overrun their open stalls and thrive on the biological equivalent of welfare. Songbirds yield to crows and cowbirds as native fish give way to introduced species. Our parks are small, their edges hard. Everywhere, humans and their machines expand their niche and impact. The result is an array of culturally acceptable populations of wildlife, rarely in balance with each other or their habitats, and a very artificial ark. But it is sheer arrogance, of the sort America is criticized for in other domains, to believe that we can build and live in such a domesticated vessel while asking others to live in much wilder circumstances.

We are fortunate that so many of the world's less-developed nations have embraced the conservation cause and taken steps—however flawed—to protect significant wild areas and the rich species associations they sustain. But the proceedings from a growing number of international gatherings, including the recent World Parks Congress, indicate that this tide of conservation may be turning. We should not be surprised if those in other, wilder nations cast increasingly envious looks at our more peaceable ark—with its segregated predators and expansive human footprint—and seek to rid their nation-arks of big and dangerous troublemakers, while making more room for human passengers.

The appearance of American hypocrisy does not stem from an inconsistent set of values on the part of conservation advocates. From the Amazon to the Arctic, professional conservationists seek the highest possible standard of protection. The discrepancy stems in part from public attitudes in the United States, which are generally favorable to wildlife—with the exception that support for troublesome wildlife diminishes with its proximity to one's backyard. Even greater contradictions arise from recurrent conflicts between conservation interests and those of government-backed industries that continue to seek unlimited, often subsidized, access to our nation's last remaining natural resources. Under the current U.S. administration—and behind the cloud of war and terror—the business-government combine has reasserted its dominance in a manner not seen since the robber barons ruled the political roost in the late nineteenth century. The effect on conservation has been chilling.

We can do much better. The road to recovery begins with a return to our historically strong commitment to wilderness protection and a rejection of recent rollbacks in that protection. Renewed conservation leadership also requires a commitment to species recovery and habitat restoration. Past success with Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons should inform and inspire ongoing efforts to expand the numbers and ranges of wolves, swordfish, otters, moose, and others. Besides replenishing our native fauna, the cost and inconvenience of such efforts reinforce the message to others around the world that a penny of conservation prevention is worth a pound of restoration cure.

But we need leadership beyond the world of conservation, too. Science is a good foundation for understanding, but most scientific writing is unreadable or inaccessible. We need information in a more palatable and popular form. Books, magazines, and other media all have their roles in this regard. We desperately need a renaissance in film media that stress the beauty and wonder of North American wildlife and highlight related conservation issues. The current emphasis on shock and awe, danger and adventure is not helpful. Whatever the medium, we must find a way to tap into widely and deeply held American wildlife values—whether one worships at the shrine of the Origin of Species, Genesis, the Gaia hypothesis, or the Hopi creation.

But we must also recognize that we live in a consumer culture that undermines and corrupts all belief systems. We therefore need an ethic that calls for action against this corrupting influence. A reasonable starting point is the active consideration of the consequences of both actions and continued inaction within the sphere of our personal lives. The key is to tread more softly, however, not to stop walking (or driving). The decision to drive a hybrid Prius rather than a fuel-hungry SUV can lower pollution, combat acid rain and climate change, decrease our oil dependency on uncertain allies, and help protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Widespread rejection of 5000-square-foot trophy homes in favor of smaller, preexisting houses can have many of the same effects. Ditto for the disposable suburbs left behind for the poor, when wealthier citizens leapfrog into the next McCastle development, carrying the plague of sprawl across our land. Each of these actions and dozens of others has serious implications for ourselves, our fellow citizens, faraway nations, future generations, and wildlife and wilderness.

As individuals, our impact is necessarily limited; as an expanding group of informed consumers, we can bring about significant change. For larger causes requiring organization and concentrated resources, we must give time or money to those private groups fighting at local, national, and international scales. We can gain further strength through strategic coalitions with those who support an array of allied causes to improve the state of human well-being. Finally, we cannot leave politics to the politicians, with their ever-attendant lobbyists and vested corporate interests. The first responsibility of citizens in a democracy is to be informed. Once informed, we must act upon our knowledge by supporting and voting for those who share our values, including conservation.

America is the global leader among nations—economically, politically, militarily, and culturally. If we wish to claim conservation as a core value of our culture, then we must begin to demonstrate leadership through improved actions in this realm. If we are willing to pay the price and walk the walk at home, we might continue to count on the remarkable support and collaboration of the global community in this collective noble cause. The result will be a more diverse tapestry of life on Earth, and a greatly enriched human experience. If not, we will certainly fail in our conservation mission, here and around the world.