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Great Lakes Article:

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 species?

 

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 the planet.

 

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 in Duluth.

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