TCS Daily

A Tale of Two Earth Days

By Karl Hess - April 27, 2001 12:00 AM

Earth Day is a time to challenge what is wrong and to celebrate what could be right with the planet we call home. Most of all, it is a time to learn -- a time to share a bounty of experience and ideas that could redound to the benefit of humanity and its fragile habitat. Earth Day is a reminder that this is the worst of times as well as the best of times.

Seated on a bench at the edge of the Ellipse between the Washington Monument and the White House, I witnessed the worst of times. A pre-Earth Day 2001 rally hosted by Greenpeace intended to energize the small crowd gathered to carry a message of anger and protest to the environmental agencies of the new Bush administration.

The theme of the assembly was "Take the Earth Back." It was unclear whether this meant taking the earth back to an earlier time of environmental innocence, or taking it from the corporate polluters who had, ostensibly, placed it in jeopardy of frying, choking, and starving to death. Less ambiguous were the demands of the Greenpeace chanters: "No more pollution," and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, the toxic Texan's got to go."

For me, it was definitely time to go - back to New Mexico and an Earth Day of striking contrast.

Stretching from the lower reaches of the Rio Grande River to the Mogollon Rim of the Gila and Blue Mountains of southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona is the place I call Earth. It's also the environment I embrace as home. It's a dry, choking, and starving slice of the Chihuahuan Desert for those unfamiliar with its quiet beauty and solemn solitude.

Here, a different breed of organization - the Southwest Environmental Center (of which I am a board member) - takes part in a different brand of Earth Day celebration. Our problems are as grand as the scenery and landscape of this small stretch of the lower Rio Grande. We have a river that is ailing from too much damming and irrigation, and wolves that ache to return to a niche denied them for 100 years by traps, guns, and human fear.

People are angry. They want a Rio Grande that is more than a muddy flat, and livelier than a shallow chocolate flow when the dam gates at Elephant Butte Reservoir to the north close. They also long - by an overwhelming majority statewide - to hear the wailful howl of the lone lobo echo once again across the desert mountains.

But there are no slogans here, no unflinching demands that the farmers who dammed the Rio Grande and the ranchers who waged interminable warfare against the wolf go in shame to the taunt of "Hey, Hey, ho, ho. . ." Instead, the Southwest Environmental Center and its allies look to the farmers to save the lower Rio Grande and the ranchers to bring the lobo back home - to restore the earth in a way that counts and lasts.

It's a tale worthy of Earth Day, one that tells how problems can be solved through incentives, community solidarity, and a constructive use of human nature rather than government regulation or prohibition.

Consider the Mexican wolf. In the mid-'90s, debate raged in New Mexico over whether the wolf should be returned. Ranchers argued no, fearing the wolf would bring not only predators to their livestock herds, but regulatory predation to their lives. Although a minority, they won, forcing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reintroduce cage-grown lobos to inferior habitat in the adjacent Blue Mountains of Arizona. But wolves are not stationary creatures. They roam vast distances, and in their roaming they came to the superior habitats and the inhospitable environment of New Mexico ranchers and unthinking sportsmen. Over the past several years nearly half of the reintroduced wolves have been shot by hunters judging them to be coyotes, or they have been relocated in the wake of ranchers' complaints of livestock loss.

The Southwest Environmental Center knows that ranchers will fight wolves so long as the cost of bearing wolves on their lands exceeds the benefits of having them there. It's simple math; and the sum to date has been negative in stockmen's eyes. So the Center has initiated a wolf eco-tourism project that would turn preying wolves into paying wolves for ranchers struggling to make ends meet. The program would turn a potential resource - wolf viewing on the New Mexico side of the Mexican wolf recovery area - into a marketable resource sustaining for-profit pack trips, camping, tracking, photography, and observation. Ranchers would no longer close their eyes to careless hunters. They would have a strong incentive to make certain that sportsmen more clearly distinguish their targets.

An allied environmental group, the Wildlands Project of Albuquerque, has gone a step further to make wolves more inviting to ranchers. In a report the group prepared at the urging of the Gila National Forest, a novel approach has been put forward. The Wildlands-Forest Service plan would allow ranchers to voluntarily destock their grazing allotments in exchange for trophy elk hunting licenses.

Elk are ubiquitous in Gila country. On the negative side, they displace cattle by adding to the grazing pressure on forest meadows. When overgrazing happens, Forest Service personnel take the only action they can to stop it: they cut the number of cattle that ranchers can graze on national forest lands. On the positive side, elk are potential food for wolves.

And the math is favorable. For every 100 head of cattle a rancher runs in the Gila, he earns about $10,000 in net profit. But by trading 100 head for just four bull elk licenses (that he can sell to hunters for a minimum of $4,000 apiece) the rancher can net at least $16,000.

Everyone wins. The rancher is better off financially, freed from fear of wolf predators and regulatory predation. The hunter has more elk to hunt, for 100 fewer cows can translate into as many as 70 more elk. And the wolf and its supporters gain the most with more abundant prey and a more hospitable ranching environment.

The same principles are being applied along the lower Rio Grande. Irrigation of the largest pecan forests in America and scattered fields of small vegetable crops have sapped the river's flow and denuded its banks of native vegetation. But that soon may change. In a common initiative by farmers, citizens, and the Southwest Environmental Center, an innovative plan is taking shape on the banks of the great river.

The city of Las Cruces and the county of Dona Ana make up the tenth fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States. The region requires continuous privatization and development of surrounding Interior Department Bureau of Land Management lands to fuel its suburban expansion. Revenues from the sale of BLM lands normally revert to the U.S. Treasury. But environmentalists and farmers want those dollars to stay at home and do the work of conservation.

They want to use those dollars to purchase development rights from farmers to maintain open space along the river. More importantly, they also want to use those dollars to voluntarily acquire connecting corridors and bottom wetlands to restore native vegetation and wildlife, and to buy out water rights that can contribute to the Rio Grande's yearlong flow needs and the restoration of its impoverished fishery.

Environmentalists can chant against and chide an administration that, to date, has seemingly turned a deaf ear to environmental protection and conservation. Or they can see in the reflection of the meandering waters of the Rio Grande and the fierce green eyes of the roaming lobo a grain of truth to the administration's admonition: conservation and environmental protection are best made an initiative of local governance, not a prescription of a paternalistic federal government.

The plights facing the Rio Grande River and the Mexican wolf are harsh reminders of past harm done. They are also an enticing promise to future generations of an Earth taken back by those living closest to its living parts. 

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