By Vernon Robison
Some time ago I was invited on a tour through a vast expanse of remote public lands. My tour guide was an official who was tasked, in part, with managing that wild and desolate desert landscape.
At one point during the tour, my guide directed my attention to a particularly wild and rugged vista. He then asked in a rather awestruck voice, “How many places can you go to look out over an entire landscape like this one, and not be able to see any evidence, whatsoever, that mankind has ever been there?”
Of course, I understood the larger point his question was making. But I couldn’t help feeling a bit offended by his sentiment. To be honest the statement was rather unsettling. The idea that the perfect, flawless landscape must be one that does not include me or any other hint of mankind; well, that assertion left a bitter taste in my mouth. It implied that the human race was nothing more than a blight on the natural landscape.
Now I consider myself to be a lover of nature. I take joy in being in the out-of-doors and experiencing beautiful pristine landscapes. I am also very supportive of the concept that such landscapes should be preserved and protected so that they remain pristine and beautiful.
But, as in the experience with my tour guide, I so often find myself feeling offended by the major groups most active in preservation efforts. That’s because, nstead of viewing the human race as a native species which has sprung from, evolved through and now exists within nature; they seem to disdain all mankind as some kind of alien invader.
For me this attitude; that the world would be better off without us; taints all of the preservation efforts that these groups attempt. Carried into practice, such a philosophy is fundamentally and inevitably exclusive. It has lead to the perception that sensitive areas must be closed off and locked up. It has lead to the idea that our natural treasures are not safe in the hands of the unwashed masses. To truly save these places, we must be make them inaccessible to the public.
Frankly, I can’t think of a notion that is more offensive and un-American. Indeed it could not be further removed from this nation’s founding principles, or more at odds with the American values that led us to engage in national conservation efforts in the first place. Yet somehow this self-loathing philosophy has filtered into, saturated through, and utterly polluted the fabric of our federal management of public lands.
That is why the efforts of one local group, Partners In Conservation (PIC), comes as such a breath of fresh air to me. PIC is not a distant, environmental lobby pulling strings from afar. It is also not a group of ivory tower academics or cubicle-dwelling bureaucrats. Rather, PIC is a group of regular people with traditional ties to the natural areas in their own backyards. They value the open lands of northeastern Clark County like no Washington-based lobby or distant government agency ever could. So their approach to preservation is fundamentally different.
The project, currently being administered by PIC for the City of Mesquite, to restore a small parcel of land along the Virgin River is a perfect example of these differences.
If one of the aforementioned national environmental groups were handling this project, their first step would no doubt be to lock the gates and get the public as far away as possible. Only a select few experts should know or understand what was going on out there. Otherwise the unwashed local-yokels might try to get in and raise havoc.
But PIC and the City of Mesquite have chosen to throw open the gates and invite the public into the process. People are allowed to enjoy the area as they always have, even while the restoration is taking place. Imagine that! What’s more, PIC has also involved local volunteer groups in the project. The locals have actually done most of the work of restoration there. This has led to opportunities for PIC to educate the public on the unique issues faced by this particular system.
Again, if the enviros had been hired to do this project, they would have wasted no time employing active management techniques over the landscape. Quickly, they’d rid the area of anything perceived to be invasive (including, as before stated, the people) replacing it all by planting all new vegetation. Then they would monitor, study, fidget and manipulate it all into a desired “natural state”. Actually, this method sounds rather invasive, no?
But while PIC has done some small-scale planting of native species, they have for the most part let nature run its course. When necessary, they have given the area a little finessing, just to keep things moving in the right direction. As a result of this gentler, nurturing approach, the project is teeming with native life. The area looks organic and natural, not managed or manicured.
Throughout the restoration process, a national environmental group would not have wasted any time with plans to allow people back into the habitat once the project was complete. Such a thing would be unheard of to them. Why in the world would they let the locals back in just when they had finally set things in order?!
But with PIC in charge, the area has always remained open. Thus trails for hiking, biking and even motorized vehicles (the horror!) have been allowed to grow up right along with the native plant life. No advanced master-planning or management was necessary for this. No consulting firms had to be called in for studies. Amazingly, it has happened naturally and it hasn’t careened out of control. With only a little gentle direction from PIC, the native plant life and the access trails have evolved together. And it actually works! Nothing has had to be compromised or sacrificed. People are becoming a vital part of the natural landscape.
Finally, if the self-flagellating enviros were in charge, when all was done they would pack up their equipment and leave town; back to Washington. But they would certainly leave the locks on the gates. Being thus forced to look in from the outside, the City’s residents would most likely come to resent the restored natural area as something from which they had been excluded. It would be just another example of their taxpayer dollars being used to keep them out. Ultimately, the area would grow to be seen by the public as something that had been lost.
But when the PIC project in Mesquite is complete, the result will be quite different. It will be a beautiful and natural public space. People in the area, who have rolled up their sleeves over the years to help in the restoration efforts, will place great value on this spot. They will always hold a proud and personal stake in its future protection.
Though the ongoing 18 acre project along the Virgin River is admittedly just a tiny endeavor in the larger world of land management, it thus far shines as a great success. The City of Mesquite and PIC should be commended for the innovative and common-sense approach to conservation they are exhibiting there.
Though it is small, this Virgin River restoration effort should be held up as an example of conservation as it was always meant to be. This project brings a welcome return to the true and founding principles upon which the American conservation movement was originally built. What’s more it shows that preservation efforts are most effective when they are ‘by, for and of the people’.