Let us be clear on one point: Nature is impossible to conserve in some fabled or mythical state of pre-human or pre-Western influence. I do not say this to destroy or argue against state parks and conservation efforts. I say this because we need to address what it is we are actually trying to do, and to realize how it impacts the environments we are supposedly trying to preserve.
First, there is no pure state. Wild American Buffalo no longer exist in the wild. They were eradicated by white hunters on one front, and interbred with cattle on another front, creating a new creature in the wild that is referred to by conservationists and ranchers as either Bison or Beefalo. The wild buffalo that were preserved by private conservationists are currently being resettled out to a new range in Montana in land where park rangers are busy eradicating non-native plant species and evidence of human habitation. (source: Mother Jones) Now, this state is attempting to go back to pre-Western ranges, except it is, at best, a theme park of conservation. After the human habitations are cleared away, and the non-native species are stripped off, and the buffalo are permitted to roam, the “natural” aspect of the park will be artificially created. And, nature does not hold still. Voids are filled. Niches are created, exploited, and lost. The climate has changed so much since the wild herds of buffalo across the plains, and human hunters will not be permitted to drive whole herds into arroyos for ease of slaughter. What natural state is that, then?
Who decides what is natural? It is a political statement. Nature already has made hers: Bison. The interbreeding of cow and buffalo is what nature chose. The fading boundary between grizzly bear and polar bear is what was chosen by nature. The “coydog” and “coywolf” are what nature chose. The explosion of life from invasive species, again, what the natural system chose as a response to the stimuli provided. To let things truly be “natural” we have to stop doing a lot of the things we consider to be conservation.
What is conservation, anyway? I am proud to say that I love the idea of the buffalo reserve, and would love to support it. But, I recognize that it is more about human guilt and atoning for the guilt than it is about the buffalo who happily interbreed with cattle and continue to roam in our wild places, today. We murdered an entire species, that was a pinnacle and apex species of an ecosystem that is mostly lost, and we have an opportunity to bring back that system, and to set up a preserve for all the survivors of colonialist policies of land management. I think that’s a great idea. But, it is, also, a product of Western ideas of land management. State parks are not natural landscapes. They are cultivated to preserve an idea of what that landscape is supposed to be. It is a designed space, with trails cut into the sides of hills, trash cans and restrooms, and signs posted to point out the features I am supposed to be seeing.
Nature has already decided what she wants to do, and is constantly deciding.
The future of all of these spaces will change as species diverge, cross, eat, breed, die. None of the spaces we hope to conserve will remain static, unless we act upon them to hold them in place. (We call our impact on the state park an attempt to create a natural landscape!) The ground, itself, will shift in the foot paths and root zones of species. Rivers do not flow on a stable path; rather, they ramble over the land left and right, or dig down deeper into it and deeper into it and deeper and deeper into it.
Ergo, we are conserving away our guilt. We are creating parks and reserves to the landscapes and species and land formations that we feel terrible about destroying. We find beautiful places and hold them still, and hope to God it saves them. It’s a noble thing, but nature is indifferent to your nobility. There is no honor in the jungle, only change. Always change. Transformation, metamorphosis, life and more like and different kinds of life. We are a part of the process of transformation, even as we attempt to create a space where our influence is removed. There is no non-human landscape, only landscapes that exist in the myths of our guilt and landscapes that can be exploited by the needs of the man.
There is no conservation. Nature does not require our conservation. Nature will be fine, with or without our presence on this earth.