Thursday, December 19, 2013

Are you an environmentalist, revisited

Photo from
Back when I worked for the National Park Service counting buildings and bushes for the List of Classified Structures/Cultural Landscapes Inventory (LCS/CLI), one of the scariest potential experiences I had came during a training held at Grand Canyon National Park (GRCA). The LCS coordinator for the Rocky Mountain Region, which includes Arizona, planned the exercise as a dual purpose activity: we'd all improve our knowledge of what was important to include in the database and we'd also collect data he could use in updating the LCS records for GRCA. The park had a number of sites that were inadequately documented or not in the database at all. Our group would survey them as part of, among other things, assessing their eligibility for possible inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the sites was an industrial one, the Orphan Mine. 

The Orphan Mine perches quite literally on the edge of the South Rim. It's clearly visible from a favorite overlook on the canyon rim, and the South Rim hiking trail detours around it on the way to Hermit's Rest. When I saw the headframe from the overlook, my immediate reaction was, oh, shit, we're all going to die. Turns out the dropoff from the headframe isn't quite as dramatic as that angle made it appear, but it's still not a place to be if either heights or not-maintained-for-many-years equipment make you nervous. 
Orphan Mine headframe and other mine buildings
Fortunately, a decision was made that we lacked the proper safety gear (e.g., ropes and harnesses, hardhats, radiation exposure badges [the Orphan was a uranium mine]). We opted for assessing a mothballed waste water treatment plant* instead. All we had to worry about there was hanta virus: the rodent dung in one of the buildings must have been several inches deep. Hemorrhagic fever? Or death by falling a long, long way down while bouncing off miscellaneous rocks on the way to the river? I'll take the fever -- at least with it odds are a person will be too delirious to realize she's dying. 

And what, the curious reader may be asking, does this have to do with environmentalism? Not much, except that when people start talking about the pristine wilderness and unspoiled vistas in national parks and other "untouched" areas, most don't recognize that the wilderness isn't as pristine as most people like to believe. The Grand Canyon in particular is often cited for its spectacular unspoiled vistas; how people can not notice a uranium mine sitting next to a popular hiking trail is beyond me. Grand Canyon isn't alone -- many of the large "wildnerness parks" are laced with old mine sites: Isle Royale has copper mines, Buffalo National River has extensive zinc mines, North Cascades has prospector's diggings for various minerals, Wrangell-St. Elias has a humongous Kennecott Copper site, and those just happen to be the first four parks I remembered without having to think very hard. National parks, recreational areas, historic battlefields, and national forests all have former farmsteads and ranches, logging camps, railroad grades, quarries, fisheries, various abandoned industrial plants, ghost towns, and old roads. There are very few places in the lower 48 contiguous states that qualify as truly untrammeled or pristine. 

Almost seventy years ago John Bartlow Martin wrote, "Go into the woods today and when  you think you are in wilderness never seen before by man, you'll fall into a prospector's abandoned  test pit or you will stumble over the brush-grown ties of an old logging railroad. Struggle all day to breast the swamps and rocky hills and you may end up in a thicket concealing a rusty four-hundred pound stove that some forgotten trapper carried into camp piece-by-piece fifty or seventy years before you." Martin was describing Michigan's upper Peninsula when he wrote Call It North Country, but his description could have applied to almost any region in the country. Wander around the open grasslands of the Great Plains where the land looks to be totally empty, and sooner or later you'll find abandoned sod houses, old fence lines, and, predating the Euro-Americans, tipi circles or the remnants of earth lodges left by the Pawnee, Ponca, or Lakotah. Decide to escape from civilization by hiking into the back country in the Cascades or Sierras and you'll stumble across old prospectors' diggings. Go walking in the Vermont woods and you'll find numerous remnant rock walls, cellar holes, and ancient orchards deep in what seems like virgin forest.  

Further, many places we think of now as being unspoiled or never populated were actually created by ejecting the residents. The Yosemite valley, for example, was home to native Americans, sheepherders, and prospectors when the US government decided to designate it as a national park. In what was to be the pattern for every national park created after that, Step One in turning it into a park was to boot the residents out and try to erase their history. The myth would be created that landscapes were pristine, they were purely the result of natural forces (ignoring the fact that the iconic meadows in the Yosemite valley existed in large part because sheep grazing had kept them open), and that the only resources and history that counted were those associated with the natural world, not humanity. In such an idealized natural world, people visit -- they do not live among the trees and scenic vistas nor do they work. The natural world, the "environment," is reified and turned into something we visit when we want a break from the unnatural world of the suburbs or city streets. This is a problem.

Why is it a problem? Because, as I've noted before, it means that way too often "environmentalists" will couch arguments against various developments in terms of aesthetic values or loss of leisure activities (e.g., don't put a pulpmill there; it will look ugly) instead of focusing on real problems: groundwater contamination, air pollution, depletion of an aquifer, etc. Even better, learn a little something about the history of an area before you start talking about pristine wilderness or the untrammeled great outdoors. Don't rave about the virgin forests when you're talking about stands that have been cut over a dozen times in the past century and you can still see the ruts from the skidders. Don't tell me how unspoiled an area is when you're standing on an old iron ore mining waste rock pile and the hiking trails are abandoned railroad grades. In short, do your homework before you get up on your soapbox, not after. 

[*Definitely National Register eligible, incidentally. It was one of the first treatment plants in the United States to treat waste water for reuse; the reclaimed water was used for irrigating the grounds around the hotels and employee housing.]


  1. I will visit this post again when I haven't had five beers.

  2. I like to think I'm an environmentalist but what the hell do I know, I can turn it off as well as anyone else when I want to do something.

    I didn't see that when there but I didn't wander around a lot, just looked over the rim for a bit and left.

    In the park here there was once a commercial hot springs complex that was popular with movie stars and such. Now they are making it difficult for anyone to go there, most of the pavement is gone and you have to hike in.


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