Much is made of the need to conserve wildlife and preserve wildlands for the sake of future generations. I would argue that there is just as strong a need to be good stewards of the planet for the sake of past generations. We talk of “natural history” with an emphasis on “natural.” We practically ignore the “history” involved.
Here in the United States, we have a legion of icons who built the foundation for our modern environmental movement. Do we owe them nothing for their unique visions, legislative action, scientific research, and passionate protests? What about artists like Ansel Adams who brought images of wilderness to the masses who had never seen Yosemite? Aldo Leopold gave us a “land ethic.” Rachel Carson cautioned against the indiscriminate use of DDT. We would not be where we are today were it not for the likes of these heroes and heroines.
We can erect monuments to such people, honor their work in film documentaries and written biographies, but what better way to leave a legacy than to insure their efforts were not in vain? Yes, more wilderness has been preserved, more parks created, and more species discovered, but then there are challenges like the reintroduction of predators into parts of their historic geographical ranges.
The debate over wolf introductions is incredibly volatile, but I have heard no one speak of how doing so would bring history back to life. The national park system, at the very least, should be dedicated to preserving a historical spectrum of habitats and ecosystems. There is Colonial Williamsburg, there are civil war re-enactments, and countless other examples of “living history” in the human context of the term. What about the history of wildness?
Recreating in a museum diorama that which used to be is not enough. Resurrecting the mammoth, or even the Passenger Pigeon, may be a bit too much, as we also need reminders of our extreme human mistakes. Still, I feel impoverished that I have been deprived of even the opportunity to see a Carolina Parakeet, a Great Auk, or a Sea Mink. The California Condor once flew over the Columbia River, according to Lewis and Clark. We should consider restoring its presence there.
Once my own mentors pass away, you better believe I will remain dedicated to making sure their voices carry on, that their fights go on. I owe it to them. Another natural landscape destroyed by needless development, a dam, or pollution? Not on my watch. Allow another species to go extinct due to human greed or neglect? No way. I’ve got your back, John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, Bob Marshall, Dian Fossey. Your missions didn’t die with you.