Conservationists Are Our Finest Killers

What does “natural” really mean?

Image: KOMUNews via Flickr

It’s surprisingly sad to see insects writhing in the sticky goo inside their radiant orange, A-frame houses. Close to death, and most limbs paralyzed in the glue, they rotate one or two legs slowly, life draining. There’s always collateral damage in conservation, no matter how small.

If the Missouri Department of Conservation’s pheromone traps succeed, then it catches a brand new infestation of the dreaded, westward-migrating gypsy moth, which signals a coming catastrophe for Missouri’s oak trees. If they fail, they take somewhere around 100,000 gnat, roach, spider, ant, katydid, harvestman, mantis, cricket, bee, moth, wasp, and one or two hummingbird lives in vain.

I’m not weeping for the insect lives lost in my entry-level conservation post. But as they die, they testify to the conservation world’s present challenge: can we kill things fast enough to save nature?

Photo by Robert Langellier

The nature of nature has changed. On the subject of invasive species, we at some point crossed a threshold from which we can’t return. In order to preserve nature now, we must intercede, control it with the human hand. “People want it to be natural, for everything to be natural,” said Missouri forester Mark Grueber. “And that’s a joke. If you let something grow natural these days, you’ve got nothing but invasives.”

In many places, particularly any land near any kind of development, letting the land grow wild will result in the short-form takeover of invasive species. Here in Missouri that means bush honeysuckle, zebra mussels, feral hogs, emerald ash borer, lespedeza, tree of heaven, and myriad others. So conservationists spend the vast majority of their energy killing them. There is either unnatural nature or natural non-nature. Nature as we like to imagine it is no more.

Historically, there are two competing land ethic philosophies: conservation and preservation. Conservation, championed in the early 20th century by forester Gifford Pinchot, professes that nature is to be actively managed. That means sustainable timber harvesting, game and fish laws, and keeping species who are integral to entire ecosystems from going extinct. In other words, a hands-on approach, or intervention. Preservation, on the other hand, with naturalist John Muir as its champion, believes the best way to keep ourselves from screwing up nature is by not exploiting it at all. In other words, a hands-off approach, or non-intervention. Teddy Roosevelt sided with Pinchot, but both philosophies staked claims in certain areas. Ever wonder what the difference between National Forests and National Parks is? Conservation philosophy dominates the former, preservation the latter. There is almost four times as much National Forest as there is National Park.

So we do a lot in the name of conservation, some of them borderline crazy. Sometimes we shoot invasive feral hogs out of helicopters with machine guns in Texas. Sometimes we sell expensive big-game hunting licenses to Hemingway wannabes in Africa in order to fund conservation. Sometimes we invite literally anyone to come lop off as many invasive Burmese python heads as they can with machetes in Florida.

Photo by Robert Langellier

Usually, conservation tactics are not so bombastic, but as invasive species continue to spread, they look less like restoration and more like frantically plugging up holes in a failing dam. Missouri, for its part, has one of the deservedly proudest conservation departments in the U.S. Usually they kill right, and occasionally they kill wrong. If they didn’t, feral hogs, originally set free for hunting, would erode the soil and pollute the water. Honeysuckle, once planted as an ornamental, would choke out the forest understory and make it impermeable to anything larger than a squirrel. The gypsy moth, hitchhiking in on campers’ firewood, would kill untold numbers of oak. Still, nationwide, kudzu runs rampant in the South, the emerald ash borer and walnut twig beetle run amok on our ash and walnut trees, and starlings descend on every city in the contiguous U.S. Through pollution, habitat destruction, and adding and subtracting species to environments, we’ve messed things up so badly even that if the entire human population of earth blasted off into space tonight, our natural ecosystems as we know them would still be destined for unrecognizable change. If we’ve set a system in motion that will change our ecosystems without touching them, how do we now define preservation? Preserving nature requires an increasing amount of intervention.

In its early days, conservation was a compromise. Its primary beneficiary was not nature, but rather industries that capitalize on nature, like logging and sport hunting. English gardener John Evelyn published his paper “Sylva,” arguably the first conservation text, in 1662 in order to more efficiently log timber in England. In the early 1800s, the British government moved to protect teak trees with the purpose of preserving the “household” of nature, a term that framed all of the natural world in terms of human use. At the time, the government needed to supply the Royal Navy with enough teakwood to fight the Napoleonic Wars. As Aldo Leopold later wrote, lamenting those who exploit nature for industrial ends, “the wilderness [man] cannot personally see has no value to him.”

The question of “Who does conservation serve?” is a fluid one. An old Missouri Department of Conservation document states that in the late 1800s, “hunters and fisherman were beginning to divide themselves into two opposing groups—the market hunters…who made their living by selling wildlife versus the sportsmen who hunted and fished for recreation. A deep conflict arose between these two groups.” In 1935, a group of 75 recreational sportsmen met in a Columbia, Missouri hotel and formed the Restoration and Conservation Federation of Missouri, which soon established the Missouri Department of Conservation. Hunting, along with fur trapping, fishing, and logging, which formed the livelihoods of rural Missourians, came under careful regulation in 1937. It was a huge victory for hunters from St. Louis, and a blow to people in rural communities.

Photo by Robert Langellier

Of course, without early conservation law, Missouri would have been logged, hunted, trapped, fished, channeled, and burned to devastation. Turkeys and deer would be extinct from the state. The Missouri Department of Conservation saved the state’s environment. But it’s worth noting that the department celebrates hunting season for its 1.2 million deer as “an economic activity totaling $1.1 billion per year.” Conservation is the neoliberalism of environmental policies. It falls in the large middle between laissez-faire market philosophy and preservation. It claims to be about nature but is foremost moved by economics. That is, it’s a sincere attempt to save the earth without making the rich any less rich.

“Just as a butcher is no animal keeper, a forester is no forest keeper,” said Peter Wohlleben, German forester and author of the bestselling book The Hidden Life of Trees. “As a teenager I wanted to become a conservationist. But I started to realize that I was, in fact, destroying everything.” And yet, given the state of transformative climate change occurring today, conservation versus preservation seems to represent a different conflict than it did in 1900. Instead of “manage” versus “let it be,” it might now be “kill” versus “let it be killed.”

Missouri’s Ozark highlands have some of the best arboreal diversity in the U.S. Leaves here are shaped like footballs, hearts, stars, lances, teardrops, needles and fans, and hands with knobby fingers, baseball gloves and sailing ships, sprockets, flames, tridents, and fleurs de lis. The Conservation Department tasked me with saving them, or at least helping to trap the invasive gypsy moth, which will defoliate them.

Photo by Robert Langellier

But there’s a lot of blood on the road to life. One guiding principle of conservation extends far up the food chain from the insects I kill, which everyone who’s been to secondary school for resource management, ecology, agriculture, geography, biology, or anything else outdoors already knows: saving is just another type of killing.