Dean M. Chriss
Photography

Wildlife, Wilderness, and People

January 20, 2017 - Updated February 4, 2017

Rufous-winged Sparrow
Rufous-winged Sparrow

Even in my preschool years the woods seemed like a comfortable and enjoyable place, and it still does. I grew up in what was at the time rural Ohio surrounded by woodlands and family farms. I took up nature photography in my teens while living there. College took me to the big city and later life found me residing in more urban locales, but photography always took me back to nature on a very regular basis. I've spent between two and three months each year for more than three decades taking pictures in the natural areas of North America and elsewhere. Because I return to some of the same locations many times over many years, any changes become obvious. Those simple observations say without a doubt that wildlife and wilderness are rapidly disappearing all over America. One could reasonably guess that similar or worse things are happening all around the world.

There are many specific reasons that most things wild are in decline but all of them have their roots in human population growth. There are 108 million more people in the U.S. and nearly 4 billion more in the world than when I started taking pictures. Each of those people needs space for themselves and for growing, harvesting, and extracting all of the resources they consume1. As we turn more of the world's land area toward supporting our population we turn it away from supporting everything else, and the population of every other living thing declines. For instance, in my lifetime many common and widespread American songbird populations have declined by 50 to 80 percent while numerous woodlands and rural areas, including the one I grew up in, became nothing but housing developments and shopping malls. Many states like Ohio have even opened their parks and other state-held lands to resource extraction making them less wild, less scenic, and less useful for wildlife. Making it worse the U.S. House of Representatives has begun a widespread anti-environment campaign to make national parks, wildlife refuges, and other protected lands vulnerable to exploitation2. Human population keeps growing, people keep using more resources, and the world is not getting bigger. The first thing to yield is, and always has been, wildlife and wilderness. At some point long after they vanish it will be our turn to yield, starting with the poorest among us.

Recent scientific studies have found that we eliminated 58 percent of the global wildlife population in the last 50 years. In the last 20 years we have converted 10% of the world’s wilderness to our own use, with only 23% of the world’s land area remaining as wilderness today. With entire ecosystems collapsing we are witness to the sixth wave of mass extinctions our planet has seen in a half-billion years. Even so, this is not a major news story and many know nothing about it. As long as it doesn't affect their favorite television show most Americans are fine with it. The only thing that surprises me is that we got to this point so quickly. I never thought I would live long enough to see such drastic changes, and as Monty Python might say, I'm not dead yet.

So what about all of the conservation efforts undertaken by various countries and sincere individuals trying to preserve our natural heritage? There have certainly been successes. For instance, they saved the bald eagle from extinction. In 1963 there were only 417 nesting pairs. By 2007 when bald eagles were removed from the U.S. federal endangered species list there were 9,789 nesting pairs. That's wonderful, but while that and some other good things were happening more than half the wildlife population on the entire planet disappeared. It seems that even when a national symbol like the bald eagle garners enough support to make it back from the brink of extinction, the rest of the neighborhood keeps going to hell. The sad fact is that the best efforts of the best people have helped selected species in selected places but have never in history halted or reversed the overall downward spiral of wildlife and wilderness in America or elsewhere. Obviously our collective efforts have not been sufficient, and with America set to roll back many environmental protections3 the future looks bleak.

It might be possible for people to change everything I have written about here, but the concerted will to do it does not exist. That is because things like wildlife and wilderness play no role in so many lives, and those same people feel no responsibility to preserve the natural world for anyone in the future. I know quite a few people who fit this description. They are by far the biggest obstacle to slowing, halting, or reversing the decline I've been discussing here. On the scale we're talking about, just slowing this decline would be difficult even if everyone wanted it. With the prevailing attitudes and politically based hostilities to all things "environmental" it is impossible.

On our current course the extinction of most species that are not useful to people and the elimination of wilderness is assured. I think this will come to pass with most being as unaware, just as they are now. I feel sure of this because the warning signs have been obvious for decades, huge areas of wilderness have vanished, and lots of species have already gone extinct, with most people not knowing, not caring, or oblivious. Development of the last wilderness and the passing of the last wild tiger, grizzly bear, butterfly, and bee will each have no more impact and be no more relevant to most than any other side story in the news.

People do not miss what they never knew. Humanity will miss wildlife and wilderness the same way it misses the extinct Passenger pigeon. Until 1870 they made up more than one third of the entire U.S. bird population and there were roughly 5 billion of them4. Single flocks of Passenger pigeons contained hundreds of thousands of birds and there could sometimes be up to 100 nests in a single tree. Literally everyone knew them and now no one does. Today Passenger pigeons are not missed or even thought of unless we see an old photo or read an essay by some idiot photographer. As Aldo Leopold wrote in 1947, “Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know”. It is obvious that all of nature as I know it is being relegated to the past. Fortunately so am I.

Dean

1 Some of this population growth, but not close to all of it, can be compensated for through efficiencies; doing more with less. LED lights and higher mileage cars are examples.

2 The GOP Congress changed House rules to declare that all public land has a value of $0. That makes transfers to states and other entities exempt from cost benefit analysis regardless of how much revenue or benefit they provide for the public. Read more about this here.

As part of a larger attempt by the GOP Congress to weaken national park protections, on Jan 21, 2017 the U.S. House of Representatives moved to encourage oil drilling in our national parks.

On February 2, 2017 the GOP Congress voted to allow coal mining waste to be dumped into nearby streams and rivers. They say disposing of it in a less destructive manner is too "burdonsome" for mining companies.

3 In 2016 Donald Trump lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million and became President of the United States. This occurred with Russia manipulating American news media with timely releases of information stolen from his opponent's computers. Then, claiming a popular mandate from a minority of voters he proceeded to appoint the most anti-environmental cabinet in history. Rick Perry now heads the Department of Energy, which he wanted to eliminate but could not remember the name of as a candidate in the 2012 Presidential election. Perry replaces Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu. Confusing money with brains Trump declared "We have by far the highest IQ of any cabinet ever assembled”. It may well be the richest cabinet ever assembled, with the most foreign investments and conflicts of interest, and the most to gain by decimating the environment. The same party that expanded our national parks system under Theodore Roosevelt and gave us the EPA when American Rivers were catching fire now scorns its accomplishments. Today's GOP promotes outright hostility toward protection of nature and our environment, and they have somehow popularized that notion. Something is very wrong when people can be rallied to fight against the very world they live in.

It has become obvious that Donald Trump is either a pathological liar, or if he actually believes everything he says he must be mentally unstable. Neither is desirable given the office he  holds. Trump organized the "birther" movement and obsessed on President Obama's birth certificate for five years before saying he believes Obama was born in the United States. Since becoming President Trump's Twitter storms have included countless false and unfounded claims ranging from massive voter fraud that kept him from winning the popular vote by a landslide, to his inauguration attendance being huge in spite of photos showing the opposite, to his phones being wire tapped by President Obama. When his lies prove false he explains his way around it saying he was misunderstood or simply tweeting the words "fake news", as a child might do. Add to this an endless stream of "alternative facts" presented by his vapid minions Kelly Ann Conway and Sean Spicer and we've got a real mess. None of them seem to have any regard for the truth. Spicer made a better Easter bunny than a press secretary, but I digress. Above all, Donald Trump does not know the meaning of the word responsibility, never admitting a fault or mistake. Since he became President chaos and instability have become the norm in America and the President himself is a major source of fake news. Maybe that's because he gets his "intelligence" from conservative talk show hosts and the apocalyptic visions of his unkempt advisor Steve Bannon rather than from actual intelligence agencies like FBI or CIA. When a real crisis happens no one will know whether or not to believe what Trump says. In the meantime he will keep making stuff up so the rest of Washington can spend millions trying to figure out whether what he said is real. I just hope America can survive four years of having this flim flam man and his cronies in the Whitehouse.

As if that's not bad enough, American healthcare is in the process of becoming less available with fewer people insured at higher prices thanks to the GOP obsession with completely repealing Obamacare instead of fixing it. The GOP is all for repealing the individual mandate and letting people decide whether they want insurance. That sounds great until one realizes that unless that uninsured person is wealthy others end up paying their medical bills if they get a serious illness or injury. It's the height if irresponsibility. Somehow the rest of the developed world has managed to have universal healthcare for decades while America took a small and imperfect step forward and now leaps to the back of the line again. That's a real shame.

At the moment it looks like the GOP budget sacrifices things like the environment and "Meals on Wheels" that feeds house-bound senior citizens so they can finance a huge increase in military spending. In case you don't know it, we already spend more than the next 7 countries combined on our military, and that's before any increase.

H.R. 861 to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency: https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/house-bill/861?r=10

Relaxing coal pollution, methane flaring rules: https://arstechnica.com/science/2017/02/relaxing-coal-pollution-methane-flaring-rules-this-week-in-congress/

4 It took 45 years for us to completely eliminate Passenger pigeons but most were gone in less than half that time. The last Passenger pigeon lived for 29 years at the Cincinnati Zoo and died on September 1, 1914.