Featured Writer: Michael Frome
Michael Frome, Ph.D
Michael Frome has long been a well known author, educator and tireless champion of America’s natural heritage and wilderness. He began his writing career as a newspaper reporter for the Washington Post. He has been a featured columnist in Field & Stream, Los Angeles Times, American Forests and Defenders of Wildlife, and has written eighteen books. His autobiography is titled Rebel on the Road – And Why I Was Never Neutral. He has also been a teacher at the universities of Idaho and Vermont, Northland College and Western Washington University, where he pioneered a program in environmental journalism and writing. The University of Idaho established in his honor the Michael Frome Scholarship for Excellence in Conservation Writing. He is now updating another work, Regreening the National Parks. Michael Frome and his wife, June Eastvold, pastor and poet, live in Port Washington, Wisconsin.
Note: Parts of this introduction were taken from Heal the Earth, Heal the Soul: Collected Essays on Wilderness, Politics and the Media, 2007 by Michael Frome, published by Bartram Books, Milwaukee, WI.
Essay on the Adirondacks: Pride of the East, Pride of All America, Sanctuary of Hope
By Michael Frome, Ph.D.
When I was growing up in New York City, the borough of the Bronx to be specific, and dreaming of distant places, the Adirondacks could have been as far removed as Idaho in the Far Northwest, while Idaho could have been on the other side of the moon. Today, the Adirondacks are only an expressway drive away from New York City, and Idaho is within a day by plane from almost anywhere, and the other side of the moon doesn’t seem too far either.
I was acquainted with wild animals through visits to the New York Zoological Park, otherwise called the Bronx Zoo, fantasizing that one day I would get to observe those species in true jungle settings. Fantasy ultimately became reality but when I arrived in Africa, South America, Alaska and Southeast Asia the wildness of early dreams was markedly diminished by roads, dams, logging, oil drilling, factory farming and the “golden hordes” come to observe wildlife through a picture window, with drink in hand or from a high-powered Land Rover.
In the span of a generation the world turned upside down. Rural or agrarian culture yielded to the industrial, the age of electricity to the age of electronics (or whatever it may be now). When I was a kid, listening to the radio was a treat, to many Americans still then a novelty. So were automobiles. I remember when riding the subway cost only a nickel. So did a hot dog at Yankee Stadium. For that matter, Babe Ruth, the king of swat, in his best year received the staggering sum of $80,000.
Where have we come from and where are we headed? In a time when one parcel of open space after another seems to vanish overnight, urbanized to oblivion and succeeded by pyramiding humanity, what is the rightful role of wild places like the Adirondacks? – that is, if they have a rightful role at all? What of the animals? Are they to be found in the onrushing future only in zoos and picture books? If they re to remain as natives in the shrinking shreds of native lands remaining to them, who will save that habitat and the wild species?
I felt privileged and proud to keynote the discussion of such questions at a conference on Wildlife and Man in the Adirondacks, held at Lake George, New York, in September, 1985, commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the Adirondack Forest Preserve. For one thing, I believed then, as I do now, that the centennial was an absolutely marvelous landmark of our civilization. The 1885 action of the legislature became additionally impressive as the foundation for consequential actions, such as designation in 1892 of the Adirondack Park, embracing both private and public land, more than twice the size of the preserve, the largest area of its kind in the world, and the constitutional amendment of 1894, declaring that:” The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.”
The authors of that amendment could have been drafting the Wilderness Act, adopted by Congress a full seventy years later. Then there was the 1970 report of Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks recommending a plan to restrict uses of private lands in order to protect scenic, recreational, wilderness and watershed values. The commission went much further, proposing that almost one million acres in fifteen separate tracts be designated as wilderness and administered in accordance with principles patterned after the National Wilderness Preservation System. It also proposed a wild, scenic and recreational rivers system, propagation of rare indigenous species of wildlife, such as marten, lynx, loon and raven, and reintroduction of extirpated native species, which might well include moose, panther and wolf. Up to that point, no federal program had gone so far.
“The Adirondacks are preserved forever.” So Governor Rockefeller declared on May 22, 1973, in signing legislation placing 3.7 million acres of private property within the bounds of the Adirondack Park under land-use restraints. Together with 2.3 million acres already owned and protected by the state, this entire composition of valleys, lakes, rivers and mountain peaks became the largest area in the country under comprehensive land-use control, including wilderness designation. This was still true early in the twenty-first century, despite many efforts to weaken protective covenants. New York state government, under Republican and Democratic control, has consistently supported the preserve.
As history demonstrates, however, nothing is ever “preserved forever.” Once-treasured places may be lost forever, but once saved they need to be resaved over and over, again and again, their propriety reviewed, defined, defended and renewed in a changing society. That is, if society chooses to save and renew them. Old or new laws and regulations may have their place, like government itself, but only people make things work.
The conference at which I spoke was a manifestation of our democracy, with its broad representation of participants, professional biologists, public officials, conservation leaders and private citizens there to consider a serious and extensive program. While focused specifically on the Adirondacks, we were all weighing principles of wilderness and wildlife that may, and hopefully should, be applied universally. Let the Adirondacks, as in times past, I declared, show the way for times future!
My research and observations tell me that Americans want and support their wild places, that they want them protected and preserves as part of a healthy, wholesome society. I could say that the advance of technological supercivilization makes the remaining fragments of original America more priceless, but that would be a subjective value judgment on my part. Nevertheless, I believe that little people are way ahead of their elected officials, public administrators, resource professionals and the institutions of learning where these professionals are trained. Enrollment at most forestry and natural resource schools has been steadily declining; not simply because “the jobs aren’t there any longer” – there’s plenty of work and challenge for those concerned with sustaining and restoring land health – but because a new generation demands a new curriculum, to replace the old rules and roles predicated on commodity production. The new curriculum must replace the old, designed as it was for employment in exploitive industries and in inbred federal and state resource bureaucracies. A number of these institutions have changed names from “forestry school” to “school of natural resources,” not always, however, with new curriculum.
Evidence that Americans support wilderness is in the opinion polls underwritten by the timber industry that produced answers the sponsors never expected. I see further evidence in statements of elected public officials and candidates for office. Few speak for elimination of wilderness. Even ardent public lands foes are likely to go before the electorate to say, “we have enough wilderness already,” or “we must balance preservation with jobs,” rather than “we should not have any wilderness at all.”
I saw evidence in the record of the Reagan Administration, which came on strong in the first term, determined to undo wildland protection. However, President Reagan and company learned they had mistaken their mandate. Before the election for a second term the Sagebrush Rebellion, the Tea Party of its day, promoting the giveaway of western public lands, was quieted. James G. Watt was dismissed as Secretary of the Interior, before the election. And Anne Gorsuch Burford was likewise dispatched from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The President in 1984 signed into law legislation adding eight million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System. He chose not to make an event of it, yet he officiated at adding the greatest amount of land to the Wilderness System since passage of the Wilderness Act 20 years before – that is, except for the huge Alaska acreage of the Carter Administration. He was wise enough to avoid exercising a veto. President Reagan may have his private feelings, but his administration definitely softened, and may even have improved somewhat, at least in its projected image.
The most singular evidence of public support is in the land itself. Laws establish wilderness only on paper. Yet here in the Adirondacks, Idaho (enriched by more classified wilderness than any state except Alaska) and throughout the country, wilderness exists in fact. It has endured, if you ask me, despite resentment from industries and resistance from professional resource managers, because people of all walks of life want it, and feel the need of it, as part of our modern civilization, a show of ethics and idealism in contrast with the supertechnology, supercolonialism, greed and violence that seem characteristic of our age.
Wilderness provides a wonderful resource for learning, learning in many fields, including wildlife science, human behavior and ethics, all related. Aldo Leopold in a 1941 essay on “Wilderness as a Land Laboratory,” expressed it very well:
“Paleontology offers abundant evidence that wilderness maintained itself for immensely long periods; that its component species were rarely lost, neither did they get out of hand; that weather and water built soil as fast as or faster than it was carried away. Wilderness, then, assumes unexpected importance as a land-laboratory…
All wilderness areas, no matter how small or imperfect, have a large value to land science. The important thing is to realize that recreation is not their only or even their principal utility. In fact, the boundary between recreation and science, like the boundaries between park and forest, animal and plant, tame and wild, exists only in the imperfections of the human mind.
Our generation is still catching up with the full meaning of this statement. I would summarize the lessons facing us as follows:
- The earth is here for us humans, but not for us alone. We may perch atop the pyramid of life, but the fact of superiority and power imposes special responsibilities as well as rights. We exist and enjoy the world only by virtue of conditions created long before the arrival of humankind and through the millennia by other forms of life.
- The manipulation of food and cover is based on the traditional anthropocentric philosophy that wildlife and fish must be used like a commodity to be considered useful. Manipulation is one approach, wholly focused on “production” of desirable game species. Abundance of game is critical to state fish and game agencies because of their dependence on sale of licenses and on equipment taxes for their operating revenues. But it isn’t enough to know there are millions of deer, elk, wild turkey, pronghorn, pheasant, bobwhite quail and mourning dove “that can survive in an environment molded by human beings,” as some game biologists like to put it.
- In wilderness at times there is apt to be less game because of the slow, inevitable natural process of supply and demand to sustain life in balance. Yet elk, grizzly, moose, caribou, mountain sheep and mountain goat, sometimes considered a wilderness-dependent species, are normally classed as game. In addition, however, whatever is natural belongs, whether considered beautiful or ugly, useful or not useful; since each organism fulfills a distinct function in its own right.
- The principal focus of concern thus far has been on the large mammals and birds, but it’s not only the grizzly, polar bear, wolf, sea turtle, whale, eagle and falcon that need help. It’s all the greater and lesser creatures. In the last two centuries humankind has wiped out an estimated 10,000 species of insects and snails, scantly referenced in lists of endangered species, ignored in natural resource inventories, yet indispensable in the cycle of life.
- The disappearance of species reveals flaws in our social and economic system. The expansion of cities, construction of highways and power dams, the use of toxic chemicals in agriculture and industry, acid rain, dumping of heavy metals in water, destruction of forests, the increase in leisure activities sending millions of people into wildlife territory – all those impose heavy pressures. Conversely, the challenge to save wilderness species provides the chance to do something for our own species as well. I learned this new on travels to California. The California condor, once numerous and widespread, was reduced to near extinction; the known number of birds remaining in the wild down at one point to only eight. It’s not difficult to understand why, considering the current condition of California, with the blight of galloping human development. But the condor has been saved, through protection of the mountain wilderness where it breeds, nests and roosts and through restrained human uses of the valleys where it forages for food – in other words, some kind of adaptation of the Adirondack Park plan. That ha not only helped the condor but also kept areas of California habitable.
- A civilized nation ought to be able to sustain itself by devouring less of the earth’s resources, or by utilizing them more efficiently, without further sacrificing the habitats of bighorns, condors, grizzly bears, wolves, panthers, or any other species. But who will lead the way? A new alliance of hunters and non-hunters who share the same fundamental goals can do it. I’ve learned that few species are threatened by the gun. True sportsmen should not be held responsible for the sins of slob hunters and wealthy dilettantes who are likely to have their guides kill their trophy animals for them. When persons of common interest allow themselves to be divided, somebody else will benefit. In the wildlife crusade that I envision there is room for all – for all willing to concentrate on the priority of saving wild places for wild animals.
- One final point on “imperfections of the human mind” to which Leopold referred. We live in a generation programmed to taking rather than giving, to success measured in terms of acquisition of material wealth rather than in caring and sharing. I remember reading an interview with Adolpho Perez Esquivel, winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize and Argentine human rights leader. How, he was asked, can a person live in harmony with the essence of life? To which he replied:
When one talks of nature one does not mean simply to admire nature, but to share it, in the sense that if food is needed one should take what nature gives us, but not with primitive blindness, pointlessly destroying nature out of greed. We need to develop respect for nature, and learn to use this wisely….
In the schools, children learn the history of power as the power of domination and conquest, instead of learning that power is necessary insofar as it is the power of service. It we do not have the consciousness of service to our fellow beings, power will continue to be utilized as the power of domination. We will continue to find ourselves caught up in violence.
Wherever I was invited to speak, I always felt I should “tell it like it is.” It wasn’t always easy and I was never sure how the message would fly. But if my hosts didn’t like it, they had the option of not inviting me back. But sometimes I was surprised and felt I was tapping into feelings ready to be released.
After my talk in the Adirondacks, I received a warm letter from Rainier Brocke, a wildlife professor at the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse who had organized the program. He wrote:
“We wildlifers go to our conferences often dominated by narrow minded state game divisions, covering the same old ground and dishing out the same old hash. We talk to ourselves and piously ask why the public has not been enlightened.
It has been my experience that the public includes many intelligent people in all walks of life who can put two and two together. All these vacillations, lack of leadership, lack of solid science are not lost on them.
To sum up, in a positive way: Good will comes when concerned public and professionals work together, endeavoring to prescribe an antidote to violence, to insure the future of the lovely Adirondacks, pride of the East, pride of all America, as the sanctuary of hope, as much for our own kind as for the wild itself.
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