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Habitat Off-limits to Humans

by Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

February 11, 1994
Dr. Reed F. Noss
The Wildlands Project
7310 NW Acorn Ridge
Corvalis, OR 97330

The Wildlands Project
P.O. Box 5365
Tucson, AZ 85703
(2721 W. Calle Carapan, 85745, 602-884-5106) wildearth@igc.apc.org

Re: The Wildlands Project Land Conservation Strategy

Dear Dr. Ross:

Thank you for opening my eyes! I think that your paper "The Ecological Effects of Roads, or the Road to Destruction" [from Preserve Appalachian Wilderness, Vol.2, No.3, first published in "Killing Roads" under the name "Diamondback"; available from PAW NET, 117 Main St., Brattleboro, VT 05301, for $3] is one of the most important ever written. Apart from seeing an occasional road kill, I had no idea that roads had such diverse and devastating effects on wildlife. Your paper is right at the top of my "List of Required Reading for the Entire Planet". I just have a few questions for you.

It seems to me that many species of animals cannot, or will not, tolerate the presence of humans. For example, we have all noticed that birds fly away when we approach. Don't you think that, if we are to be honest, we have to admit that if we are to preserve all species, we have to set aside areas that are completely off limits to humans? We may compromise on what we accept "on the ground", but I see no reason to compromise in presenting the facts.

I am fond of saying that it is almost impossible to destroy the environment without roads, and I have long thought that roads were the beginning of nearly all environmental damage. But a couple of months ago it occurred to me that that isn't true. The damage starts with mapping! Mapping is the precursor to all other human activities. In other words, I think that along with setting aside areas for the exclusive use of wildlife, we should also de-map those areas. As long as the area exists on a map, some people will be tempted to exploit the area. Where does mapping end? It doesn't. There is no limit to the amount of information that we can "mine" from a place, and the number of purposes we can devise for going there. Remember the early maps of the world, with their "terra incognito" and pictures of dragons? I think that should be our model!

Ironically, maps are one of my favorite things. I always carry lots of maps, they are the first souvenirs of any trip I take, and they are one of my most important sources of information. I think they are beautiful, and I love the economical way they impart information. However, if we are serious about preserving wildlife and preventing extinction, we should sacrifice some of our curiosity and de-map the core habitat areas.

Actually, no matter how detailed our maps are, they still contain blank spaces between the lines, so this "terra incognito" is there already. I am just asking that we recognize it and value it appropriately. I believe that we need to be absolutely honest, and not compromise in what we say. Let the politicians do the compromising, but let it at least be done with full knowledge, not from a watered-down version of reality.

In Australia, the aborigines live in and manage the national parks (together with the national government). I think this is a wonderful idea. I know that man, even native peoples, could be better managers of wilderness, but they are at least better than the rest of us on some ways, and giving them that job explicitly, with the help of scientists and the aid of federal or international government will not only help protect wildlife, but also help preserve these endangered native human cultures. Of course in all human activities, priority must be given to wildlife. Perhaps following wildlife, in order, should be native peoples, children, and the poor. A good criterion is whether a given group can protect itself from another group. For example, plants are perhaps the most vulnerable, and therefore should be given the highest priority.

Don't forget about noise and air pollution, which are capable of travelling to habitat areas. Airplane overflights (or even nearby flights), freeways within earshot, upwind air pollution sources, etc. must be prohibited.

Don't forget plants. I don't know enough about botany to know if your land conservation strategy will accommodate the needs of plants. You don't say much about them. I would guess that plants have different requirements for their reserve areas than animals. For example, their response to global warming may be different. And I wouldn't want the "plant people" to feel left out of this process. We need all the help we can get.


Michael J. Vandeman, Ph.D.

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