We who live out west are accustomed to driving long distances across open expanses, leading us to conclude that the world is vast, and we are small. Highway signs still mark the distance to the next town with food, gas and lodging, reinforcing a worldview that suggests a struggle of “man against nature,” one that nature is sure to win.
E.O. Wilson, the environmentalist, launched a movement and wrote a book by the title, Half Earth. I read the book long ago enough that I no longer remember its words, though I remember its point. We must preserve half the earth in its natural form so it remains available to the creatures who depend on it and to our posterity who, absent our commitment, will not experience its marvel, magic and majesty.
Returning from Yellowstone National Park for a short weekend as a tourist of the lowest variety, I reflect on the constant, natural reminders of Wilson’s work and movement.
The Park is not merely a place of beauty and serenity for people to see. It is a natural habitat for endangered species including grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines and bald eagles. It is also a living laboratory, a unique place where science can be conducted to better understand the planet’s geology.
Yellowstone seems so much bigger than it is. While it requires days to see thoughtfully and would continue to surprise residents of many years, it is smaller than Connecticut and larger only than each of the U.S. states Delaware and Rhode Island, but not their total area. At 3,471 square miles, it is smaller than a square 60 miles on each side.
The total area of all National Parks in the U.S. is 81,563 square miles, just over 2 percent of the 3,796,742 square miles in the country. These are not our only protected areas, of course. The total protected area in the U.S. covers 499,800 square miles or about 14 percent of the land area of the U.S., still far short of Wilson’s goal.
So, I leave Yellowstone committed to E.O. Wilson’s movement to protect half the earth as natural space, knowing that time is short and already we must undo damage done, in some cases restoring land to its natural habitat rather than just protecting it.
One key to our success will be helping those of us who live in “flyover states,” so dubbed precisely because they are large and relatively sparsely populated, to recognize that in the battle traditionally framed as “man against nature,” humans won—and in the winning lost.
Ironically, driving across our large open spaces—mostly corporate farms and ranches–we’ve learned the wrong lessons, concluding the world is vast and we are small. In fact, we populate the world in vast numbers and the earth is small and effectively shrinking. We must act now to protect and preserve it.