December 3, 2001
Leaving wild lands alone benefits
people at least 10 ways
Point of View by TOM DUFFUS
Recently I was asked what value to
humans there might be of natural, wild land. The conversation
concerned property in northern Minnesota deemed ecologically
significant. The comment was framed more like: "If
the land just sits there, what good is that to people?''
It was a good question, especially at a time when people
are reflecting on the value of life itself.
Why should we care about wild places?
Here are 10 reasons to care:
1. Dinner on the table. A mere 20 species
provide 90 percent of the world's food. All major food
crops, including corn, wheat and soybeans, depend on
the introduction of new strains from the wild to resist
disease and pests. If those strains are lost, the security
of our food supply will be threatened. For example,
a wild relative of corn called Zea diploperennis is
exceptionally disease-resistant. If successfully interbred
with domestic corn, its genes could boost corn production
by billions of dollars. Zea diploperennis grows on only
one mountain in western Mexico.
2. An unopened medicine chest. Forty
percent of all prescriptions dispensed in the United
States are for substances derived from plants, animals
or microorganisms. The list of wonder drugs originated
from wild species includes aspirin (from meadowsweet),
penicillin (from fungi), digitoxin for cardiac treatment
(from common foxglove), L-dopa for Parkinson's (from
velvet bean), and taxol for ovarian cancer (from the
Pacific yew of "Pacific old growth forest'' fame).
Like unread books in the library of the universe, who
knows what medicinal treasures await us in as yet undiscovered
3. Do it for the GNP. We derive most
of life's necessities -- food, clothing, medicine --
from just a small number of plants and animals. Thousands
of nature's products are used routinely by industry
to produce everyday goods. Consider just one wild source,
the humble seaweeds. Compounds derived from seaweeds
are used in plastics, polishes, paints, deodorants,
detergents, dyes, fire extinguishers, to name a few.
By preserving the diversity of life, we preserve genetic
capital for future generations and act as trustees for
4. Life support for the planet. Economists
and ecologists are only beginning to understand the
value of the services that healthy ecosystems provide
to our planet. Bacteria break down organic material,
building and fertilizing the soil. Wetlands filter pollutants
from drinking water. Trees and plants return oxygen
to the air. Vast South American forests create rainfall
on a continental scale. If it were ever possible for
humankind to artificially duplicate these services,
the cost would run to trillions of dollars.
5. Homo sapiens, the curious beast.
We are driven by a desire for knowledge. The millions
of undiscovered species are a scientific frontier that
must be preserved in order to be studied. Some scientists
believe we know more about the surface of the moon than
we do about the deep ocean floor on our own planet.
6. Diversity is beautiful. Shopping
malls can be useful, but imagine how boring it would
be to see nothing but sameness each day. Humans are
intrinsically drawn to variety in landscapes, and wild
places provide beautiful variety that enriches our lives.
Whether the destination is the North Shore, Yellowstone,
Hawaii or Africa's savanna, people the world over travel
thousands of miles simply to see and experience diverse
landscapes. And they pay to do this.
7. Living history books. We will never
recapture the wild land that Native Americans knew,
where majestic bison roamed the prairies by the millions
and ancient white pines scraped the sky around the Great
Lakes. But we can and should preserve and restore examples
of these landscapes. They help us to understand the
past and the people that shaped us, and in turn are
a legacy we can hand off to our heirs.
8. Respect for creation. Does every
species have a "right'' to exist? If so, then our
duty to the creation is clear. But even if not, humility
in the face of our capacity to despoil the land is called
for. In biblical history, God instructed Noah to take
along on the ark two of every living thing, so they
would not be lost forever. Many believe their Judeo-Christian
heritage enjoins them to be responsible stewards of
the creation, and similar themes run deep in other religious
traditions as well.
9. Why risk it? Some species appear
to be "keystones in the arch,'' supporting entire
ecosystems, like the sea otter in the Pacific coastal
ecosystem, or voles in northern aspen forests. When
they disappear, the web of life begins to unravel, as
complex interrelationships of predator and prey are
lost. It makes no sense to lose now, through apathy
or greed, something that we might one day realize was
vitally important. After all, extinction is forever.
10. A stand for life. At a time like
this, when the dark side of humanity is so starkly revealed,
inevitably the better virtues of human nature prevail.
And what could be a more fundamental, more enduring,
precept than that which benefits all peoples, all generations,
for all time. At a time like this, it is worth remembering
that Earth abides. As long as there is a human civilization,
it is enriched by the preservation of the full variety
of life on Earth. Wild land is the medium for all life.
TOM DUFFUS is program director for
the Northeast Minnesota office of The Nature Conservancy