Parks Without People


In a recent thoughtful opinion piece in Sierra magazine, the house organ of the Sierra Club, editor Jason Mark tentatively floats the concept of “parks without people,” areas where human beings are not allowed, where natural processes can proceed without human impacts or manipulation.

This is not a new idea, as proponents of wilderness have grappled with the concept for decades, struggling to find a balance among political and economic expediency, ecological reality and human cultural history. Wallace Stegner’s 1960 “Wilderness Letter” clearly laid out the case for the benefit of wilderness to the human psyche. In his 1991 book, Wilderness on the Rocks, Howie Wolke thoroughly explored the concept of wilderness, the contradictions inherent in its definition and application to the real world of natural ecological relationships and human profligacy.

“Wilderness” is a fragile, human defined concept, that is complicated by a detailed examination of a world in which every square inch is influenced and modified by overwhelming human domination of the planet.

Nevertheless, the idea has merit, not as Mark explains in the subtitle of the article: “What if we were to create nature preserves that were strictly for science?”, but in its idealogical purity.

What if we were to create nature preserves strictly for the place itself, for the natural habitat, for the species who live there as their only home?

Isn’t the preservation of biodiversity, habitat and non-human species of merit in its own right, regardless of its benefit to humans? Or can value only be communicated as a human concept that has no meaning in a non-human context?

Mark points out the range of practical difficulties of promoting and developing this approach in the economic and political society that dominates management of undeveloped lands today, with quotes from a government bureaucrat and a scientist:

Jon Jarvis, the former director of the National Park Service: “… the establishment of protected areas and parks are a political construct, built on public support. If you don’t have some level of public use, you won’t have public support.”

Arthur Middleton, a UC Berkeley wildlife biologist: “We need baselines, some ability to know something about what happens in the absence of people. But to be blunt, it doesn’t seem within the reality in the US.”

Another side argument to this discussion is that humans are a part of nature and therefore if we preserve wilderness and natural habitat, we benefit humans as well. The E. O. Wilson Foundation’s Half-Earth Project takes this middle ground approach “to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.”

Meanwhile here at home in Our Fair County, local government officials sprinkle their Strategic Plans with meaningless buzzwords and aphorisms, such as “sustainable,” “climate disruption,” and the most dreadful “vibrant environment,” all the while conducting business as usual, widening highways, building more and more insanely tall, glass and concrete apartment houses, parking garages and million dollar single family homes.

Despite the flood of rhetoric and neologisms, everything humans do is, of necessity, anthropocentric. “Parks” must have people, because that’s what the word means: “an area of land, usually in a largely natural state, for the enjoyment of the public, having facilities often owned, set apart, and managed by a city, state, or nation.” In order to demonstrate relevance to potential funding sources, bureaucrats describe all projects in human terms. Thus, natural areas are referred to as parks, and developed as parks for human use, because there is no perception of any bureaucratic or economic justification for saving undeveloped land for itself.

Balancing human needs and desires with the intrinsic needs of natural ecosystems, habitats and species requires a revolutionary change in our relationship with the biosphere in which we live and from which we obtain everything we need and desire. This revolution cannot be achieved until we change the way we think about the natural world and our place as one species among many.

The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.  Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire

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