Editor’s Note: The Arizona judge presiding in WildEarth Guardian’s lawsuit over the Mexican spotted owl recently amended the decision to reinstate the issuance of personal firewood permits in the five New Mexico forests included in the order. The injunction still prohibits other important timber activities that come under the umbrella of restoration projects such as stewardship blocks, thinning contracts, and prescribed burns. I’ve been reading through all the comments and editorials about this lawsuit that flooded the internet and newspapers. A significant number of them reflect a certain environmentalism sin gente that is often emotionally laden and short on scientific, political, and social analyses of our relationship with the natural world. A similar reaction to the 1995 Mexican spotted owl lawsuit that shut down New Mexico forests resulted in a bitter rift within the environmental community and hardship in our communities. I wrote an editorial in La Jicarita in 2000, five years after that lawsuit that I believe is still relevant to today’s situation. It’s also a chapter in my book, Culture Clash: Environmental Politics in New Mexico Forest Communities, which provides the history of the 1995 Mexican spotted owl lawsuit.
La Jicarita Editorial, September 2000
By KAY MATTHEWS
When Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature was published in 1996, many environmentalists interpreted its message—that “nature” is a human idea, with a long and complicated cultural history—as a hostile attack on the environmental movement. The book, an anthology of essays by well-known teachers of environmental science, history, sociology, biology, etc., was born of a conference at the University of California at Irvine in 1994, where participants came together to look at environmental problems from a humanistic, interdisciplinary perspective. The book’s editor, William Cronon, addresses the attack by environmentalists in the book’s foreword: “The criticisms we offer—whether of environmentalism in particular or of American ideas of nature in general—are intended to encourage greater reflection about the complicated and contradictory ways in which modern human beings conceive of their place in nature. . . . At a time when threats to the environment have never been greater, it may be tempting to believe that people need to be mounting the barricades rather than asking abstract questions about the human place in nature. Yet without confronting such questions, it will be hard to know which barricades to mount, and harder still to persuade large numbers of people to mount them with us.”
This question is what many of us in el norte have been asking for the last few years: has the pendulum swung too far in our reaction to what humans have “wrought” on the “natural” world so that many environmentalists, rather than helping find a middle ground to lighten this heavy hand, encourage the notion of man’s separateness from nature? The failure of these environmentalists to deal with human social issues because of this idea of separateness results in policies like Zero Cut [a 1997 initiative of Forest Guardians to stop all commercial logging on public lands] and the Wildlands Project, which define any human touch, be it corporate or community, as inherently bad.
Cronon, who is a professor of history, geography, and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, talks about this dualism in his chapter “The Trouble with Wilderness.” By defining wilderness as something that stands apart from humanity, environmentalists often encourage conflict between those who value wilderness and those who are too preoccupied with solving their own environmental problems of toxic poisoning or loss of land, water, and land-based employment: en otras palabras, the poor. “This in turn tempts one to ignore crucial differences among humans and complex cultural and historical reasons why people may feel differently about the meaning of wilderness,” Cronon writes.
By not addressing issues of environmental justice, environmentalists lose their moral ground. Here in northern New Mexico, both Native American and Hispano traditional communities have been dependent upon their surrounding forests for hundreds of years; when these common lands became public lands, they lost most of the “inhabited wilderness” that sustained them as societies. As rural el norte becomes more vulnerable to global economics it is the responsibility of all of us who value wilderness to extend our concern to the sovereignty of inhabitants of wilderness. And there are many groups doing just that: community forestry groups like La Montaña de Truchas and Madera Forest Products, and the coalition that is working to rehabilitate the Santa Barbara Grazing Allotment (including the Quivira Coalition). These are our issues of environmental justice.
We believe that there can be a more holistic way of integrating both cultural and natural landscapes where conflicts can be resolved. Too many environmentalists speak in absolutes, devising ethics in the abstract and applying them across the board. We must be able to find a middle ground based on the ethics of place, incorporating the social, ecological, political, and economic realities of each situation. In her chapter “Constructing Nature: The Legacy of Frederick Law Olmsted,” Anne Whiston Spirn sees this middle ground as that between John Muir’s idea of nature as “temple” and Gifford Pinchot’s idea of nature as “workshop,” a balance between reverence and use. Just as the loggers and environmentalists of the Pacific Northwest must come to terms with the best way to save ancient forests and the small-town economies dependent upon logging, so too must we in el norte commit to keeping people on the land through sustainable use of our forests and watersheds. Another contributor to the book, James Proctor, in his chapter, “Whose Nature? The Contested Moral Terrain of Ancient Forest,” calls these efforts “inclusive environmentalism, one uniting it with other social movements in a common moral cause: to help create a more livable world for all of us, humans and nonhumans alike.”