Early in his 1992 book, “Earth in the Balance,” Al Gore describes a close encounter with a “startling image of nature out of place.” Driving in Arlington, Gore had almost run over a pheasant that was crossing the street. “Why would a pheasant, let alone such a large and beautiful mature specimen, be out for a walk in my neighborhood?” Gore wondered.
Some weeks later he felt he had “solved the mystery.” "I remembered that about three miles away, along the edge of the river, developers were bulldozing the last hundred acres of untouched forest in the entire area. As the woods fell to make way for more concrete, more buildings, parking lots, and streets, the wild things that lived there were forced to flee.”
That vision--of humanity advancing, and the wilderness retreating--has troubled Americans since the days of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. And so it should. A comprehensive survey published recently by the Nature Conservancy confirms that an unusually diverse array of native plants and animals inhabits U.S. lands and waters--some 200,000 species documented so far, with perhaps as many more yet to be counted.
By and large, however, Gores own environmental agenda has had a very different focus. The pheasant anecdote is one of the few mentions of anything like traditional “conservation” in “Earth in the Balance.” “Wilderness,” “national parks” and “national forests” dont figure in his index at all. For Gore, the “balance” of the earth is mainly about such things as global warming, chlorofluorocarbons, ozone depletion and birth control. Only recently has Gore made any effort to reposition himself as a land-use
environmentalist. In January 1999 he proposed a $10 billion program of “Better America Bonds” to help cities buy up neighboring farmland to curtail urban sprawl.
But wilderness conservation has little to do with urban sprawl. Our cities, suburbs, highways and local roads now cover about 60 million acres, well over double the area they occupied in 1920--but still under 3 percent of
the land area of the continental United States. Most of what the wilderness has lost to Americans it has lost to our agriculture. For every acre of land we use for home or office, roads and byways, we currently use six acres
for crops. Another eight acres are designated as range--larders for our livestock, which, pound for pound, outweigh us. And bucolic though they appear to the casual eye, farms and ranges arent wilderness. Endless miles of wheat are not biodiverse prairie.
Happily, however, our agricultural footprint has been shrinking a lot faster than our cities have been sprawling. When Europeans first arrived on this continent, the area now represented by the lower 48 United States had about 950 million acres of forest. That area shrank steadily until about 1920, to a low of 600 million acres, as Americans spread across the landscape.
Then, astonishingly, we began to retreat, and the wilderness began to expand once again. Precisely how fast is hard to nail down: The continent is large, most of the land is privately owned, and the definitional debates
rage. But all analyses show more, not less, forest land in America today--somewhere between 20 million and 140 million acres more--than in 1920. Roughly 80 million more acres of cropland were harvested 60 years ago than are harvested today.
This remarkable reversal was made possible by the very technologies that Al Gore urges us to abandon--technologies that have permitted us to consume more food and energy while using less of the surface of our continent to produce it.
Cement, steel and synthetic plastics displaced hardwoods in our ships, dwellings and furniture. Fossil and nuclear fuels displaced wood in our residential and industrial furnaces. We traded farm acres and huge expanses of horse pasture for trains, trucks, highways, internal combustion engines and fossil fuels. An advanced transportation infrastructure allowed us to abandon inferior acres of farmland in the Adirondacks for much more productive acres in Iowa. High-tech agriculture did the rest: Better genes, fertilizers and pesticides dramatically increased yields per acre further still.
Few of these technologies find any favor with Al Gore. To his eyes, they represent only “dangerous bargains with the future.”
How risky such bargains may be is a legitimate subject of debate. But so far as conserving wilderness is concerned, the critical balance to be struck is one that Gore overlooks entirely: a balance between technologies that
are frugal with land and technologies that arent. Some alternatives may indeed be better in every respect--land-frugal and also cleaner, safer and more “natural” or “organic”; others may be worse in every dimension. But most of the real choices are a lot more difficult than that. Some of the most
difficult, such as fossil and nuclear fuels, involve technologies that are very frugal with land when they work properly, but potentially profligate when they dont.
Much though he has emphasized his green sensibilities, Gore has expressed little real interest in conservation. And he clearly distrusts the technologies that have made possible our own retreat from the wilderness in this century. Republicans ought to put wilderness conservation, and the technologies that promote it, at the center of their environmental agenda. There is politically important space here that Gore has left wide open for others to occupy.