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Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Keep some wilderness in your life

By James A. Swan, Ph.D.
Author
"In Defense of Hunting"

I recently returned from a week in Alaska. I went with high expectations to bring home a big box of salmon fillets, but in three days fishing the Kenai River, all I got was one 16-inch Dolly Varden that soon thereafter became a tasty dinner.

The first push of sockeyes had surged through. They had passed by and were upstream at the Russian River. The second run had not yet come up the river, and the water was high and murky as the record high temperatures of 85 degrees and higher melted the snow pack faster than normal.

A good fisherman always has as many excuses as lures.

About a year ago I fished the same spot on the Kenai, albeit two weeks later. The run of more than a million "reds" was so big the Alaska Fish and Game raised the limit to six sockeyes per person per day.

We all limited out every day and most of our party caught at least one king that weighed at least 30 pounds, plus some silvers and halibut. It's nice to be at the right place at the right time some of the time.

Upon returning home to the San Francisco area the salmon fishing was red hot. The four party boats out of Sausalito all limited on kings to 25 pounds on a recent outing, which was par for the course. A friend who fishes from a private boat had limited five days in a row.

So, if you want to catch king salmon, forget Alaska and come to San Francisco.

Kenai River kings may be the world's largest, but the run up the Sacramento River is bigger and cheaper for most people to access. And if you can handle a little "light chop," the ocean off San Francisco is teeming with salmon.

Wild places can be a land of great abundance, if you are at the right place at the right time. They can also be places of great scarcity where the forces of nature predominate and people starve if they are not at the right place at the right time.

That's a lesson that a wild place can best teach; it's one reason to go to wild places, regardless of your eventual success … or lack thereof.

Watching a great, wild river surge past or standing at the foot of a glacier as it groans and sloughs off great chunks of pale blue ice is humbling. It invokes a sense of awe and wonder that reminds us of our basic roots.

As our technological power to do more and more increases, we must always be asking not if we can do something, but should we do it. The power of wild nature that reminds us of our place in the web of life is wilderness' place in the conservation of man.

Wilderness provides a baseline to judge all other things.

Encounters with places that are wild, beautiful, rugged and dangerous touch us deeply, making us aware of parts of who and what we are that can't be reached by books, TV or video games.

Wilderness places should not be easy to access by any form of travel except motorless watercraft, horses or foot. They should be places where the only crowds permitted are swarms of salmon, herds of caribou or flocks of geese.

Nature's moods, forces and passions can only be truly understood when the sounds of motors are not audible and man's footprints are no more pronounced than those of a moose, a bear or a wolverine.

Drifting down a river in a raft, we came within 20 yards of a bald eagle. Another time a cow moose decided to cross the river we were fishing and was swept downstream by the current so that she was only 15 feet from our boat.

Those experiences are the best trophies of all we took away. It is the unpredictability of wild places that makes them always filled with excitement.

Returning from Alaska, the importance of wilderness becomes clearer when I read about recent forest policy decisions.

In one, the Forest Service wants to restrict ATVs in certain areas.

Hooray! I know it's a lot easier to bring an animal you shot out of the woods with an ATV. And it's faster and easier to reach that remote lake, but that does not mean that you should be able to do it.

Horses work as well as ATVs for packing things out, and they are a lot quieter and less damaging to the environment. I, for one, believe that there should be primitive places where no motors should go. I'd restrict air flights over those areas, too, if possible.

The Bush administration also has just set forth new plans to ease logging in forests, thus stirring up a predictable hornet's nest of controversy among environmentalists. Many eco-groups have become dependent on controversies and enemies to keep money coming in. Maybe such groups should be called "green parasites."

Managing a modern forest is not an easy job. We need lumber, watersheds, wildlife habitat and land for recreation. Such diverse and often competing uses are not all compatible, but we pay people to manage such resources so they ask for the headaches they get.

Clearly the current forest policy of fire suppression is not working. It seemed to be based on an illusion that wilderness is always a pristine stand of big trees. That is an artificial Disneyland reality that is harmful in the long run and unnatural. Logging also clears the mature trees to provide lumber and create new shrub land.

Suppressing all forest fires and calling for cessation of logging diminishes habitat for many species of wildlife dependent on foliage like deer, elk and moose. It drives them into towns, onto roads or railways where they come into conflict with people and BMW's become predators.

Fire suppression also results in a buildup of dead trees and other debris that sooner or later will explode into a really big conflagration that won't be easily controlled.

Managing wild forests requires an ability to make tough decisions to preserve the spirit of the wild, as well as provide the resources we need to keep the country running. It's not an easy job.

People should take an interest in forest policy so those who seem to scream the loudest (and understand the least) do not prevail.

It is heartening that nearly 450 gun groups recently signed a petition to oppose the Bush administration's decision to open Alaska's Tongass National Forest to road building.

As Aldo Leopold pointed out many years ago, natural-resource management should be guided by a land ethic based in loving respect for nature.

I suppose there are many ways to cultivate that land ethic. But when you are alone in a truly wild place, the power of that ethic is more apparent. And when you take responsibility for killing some of the food you eat, you learn respect for nature.

That is reason enough to keep some areas not only roadless but free from all motorized vehicles. All the science in the world is only as good as the minds and hearts of those who use it.

The new forest policy allows state governors to request that certain areas of forests in that state be kept roadless by putting it in writing.

I hope the governors out there will take pen in hand have the guts to save large areas of wild places, so future generations will be able to know firsthand the feeling of the land ethic from the greatest teacher of all — wild nature.


James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.