Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

According to conservation biologist Michael Soule, the human brain functions with high-speed neurons that allow us to react to immediate dangers, but often at the cost of ignoring long-term threats. As a result, we get ourselves into trouble on long-range issues like the economy and the environment.

Soule explained in talks last week at Carbondale and Aspen that humans are like the hypothetical frog that, when thrown into boiling water, jumps out. When the water is gradually heated to a boil, however, we fail to address the changes until our gooses are cooked.

The fire has been building under the economic boiler for some time, but it’s only now that we’re feeling the heat. Soule says the same dynamic is occurring with a pending environmental crash of which few people are even aware.

Now that our attention is finally focused on the economy, nature again takes a backseat. (Ironically, the economic crash is good for nature by reducing resource consumption and climate-changing emissions.) Our short-term interests are predictably trained on the economy because it’s impacting our everyday lives. Yes, even in Aspen.

What we’re seeing locally is a variation on the classic boom/bust cycle ” with rapid growth jolted into precipitous downturns. Real estate has tanked along with construction spending. Restaurants and retail shops are feeling the pain. Jobs are disappearing. If the model holds, we’ll see a spike in crime, social dislocation and domestic violence, and rising drug and alcohol abuse.

Our focus, long-term, should be on a reset of the resort economy with a re-evaluation of the kinds of services we want to provide to a shrinking customer base. This means revamping our marketing away from luxury to more enduring and accessible cultural and natural amenities.

Still, the economy is only a blip when compared to the grave threats facing the natural support systems that underwrite the global biosphere. Michael Soule warned last week of eco-collapse, but as all eyes are on the economy hardly anybody acknowledges the alarm.

Soule warns of destroying and fragmenting ecosystems and of decimating “keystone” species, meaning the top predators whose absence skews the delicate balance of ecosystems. For example, when the natural predators of deer and elk (wolves) are eliminated, browsing and grazing intensify. When plants are excessively pruned back, erosion occurs, resulting in stream-bank cutting, siltation, degraded water quality, reduced water quantity, and habitat destruction for aquatic life, which is the base of the food chain. Nature stands on a pyramid. When a piece is removed, everything else shifts.

The economy is important, which is why the Obama administration is pulling out all the stops to arrest the collapse. As a society, we should be addressing, proactively and with the same intensity, threats to nature. There is no bailout for an extinct species or a destroyed habitat. Our collective future rests on a healthy biosphere that provides us air, water and food, among other essentials.

There should have been a thousand people at Soule’s talks last week, including all Division of Wildlife, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management staffs within a hundred miles. Unfortunately, many public land managers prefer collaring bighorn sheep, approving timber sales, issuing hunting quotas and processing drilling leases.

Rare is the bureaucratic visionary needed to plot a sustainable, conservationist future on a large enough scale to arrest the decline of ecosystems. Common are the career officials who do the bidding of industry-driven agencies serving short-term utility rather than endorsing scientists like Michael Soule with long-term sustainability.

Soule advocates conserving wild and near-wild lands, reconnecting ecosystems along the chain of the Rocky Mountains, and restoring predators for top-down management of species. The health of the biosphere must become a priority if we are to preserve the balance of natural systems that are governed best by governing themselves.

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