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Real Human Moments in the Grand Canyon

<und this experience to be incredibly meaningful in a variety of ways, some of which are personal and some of which are more closely linked to the intellectual debate surrounding wilderness. Many of the reasons that the trip was so meaningful stem from the fact that it sought to teach through experience. Considering that the ideas we discuss are complex and that they often resonate emotionally, I think it was highly constructive to have a relatable context in which to experience the interplay of information, ideas, and emotions.

In the classroom, I am liable to criticize liberally. As is expected, I suppose, Carleton has taught me to think analytically, to question, and to recognize those moments where I might offer an opinion, whether it conforms to the majority or not. Of course, that is not always easy. While I still face nerves when it comes to voicing my opinion, I have gained confidence in the classroom. I have discovered that I am able to place more faith in my ability to locate arguments that I disagree with, to articulate why I disagree, and then explore how I might craft my own opinion. It has been interesting to insert myself into the wilderness conversation because it also strikes a chord very close to my heart. I am passionate about the outdoors, have been hiking and backpacking my whole life, and love going to national parks. Yet, as we delve deeper in to the wilderness debate, I am having an increasingly difficult time understanding how humans adopted the role that they currently hold in wilderness protection.

The NPS has an admirable goal in that it aims to protect the natural resources that humans have managed to so effectively overexploit. Yet, as a nationwide institution, it is also catering to a huge number of visitors. In our meeting at the Albright Training Center, Laura emphatically stated that despite its intimate relationship with people, the primary role of the NPS is to protect the natural resources. I think that this is one of the places I am feeling stuck. What exactly is the motive for protecting those resources? Is it purely for the enjoyment of people? Or is it because all biological systems have an inherent right to be on this earth? Of course, I would love if these could go hand-in-hand. We maintain areas in order to protect natural systems and in doing so, provide places for people to enjoy. And maybe this is ideally what the NPS would do; but some part of me just feels like the goal of securing human enjoyment is trumping the right of biological systems to evolve without constant human interference.

Of course, it is not that I oppose the goal of providing human enjoyment. Wilderness areas have an incredibly powerful effect on me as an individual. I firmly believe that nature has a unique ability to help people construct emotional bridges between themselves and their surroundings. But there is a part of me that is bothered by the level to which humans seem to play God in terms of deciding what a natural system should look like: what species are “good” and which are “bad,” which plants and animals deserve active protection and which do not, which areas of land should be set aside and which should be left for human development, etc. I realize that decisions must be made and that those decisions are incredibly difficult but I am having a difficult time justifying how such decisions should be carried out.

The raw difficulty of making such decisions became incredibly clear when talking to NPS management. Like I said earlier, classroom discussion has made critical analysis increasingly comfortable. It is easy, relatively speaking, to read an argument, find the flaws, and run with them. Listening to Laura speak, I realized how incredibly dedicated many management personnel are to initiating difficult discussions and implementing productive changes and yet how difficult it is to do so. In terms of the NPS itself, it must balance its own goals with national public interest, must respect natural systems alongside visitors and local communities, and construct management policies that are in keeping with the NPS mission statement while simultaneously achieving local, state, and congressional support. The magnitude of such a decision-making process is hard to begin to comprehend. My hat is off to those who take on such tasks.

Meeting with park management provided me with a greater understanding of the complexity and rigor of their positions. While this instills in me an incredible amount of respect for the work that the NPS does, it also leaves me feeling uncertain. Should humans be managing the land and the species occupying it so intensely? Should humans be allowed to decide what constitutes the correct number of a given species? And if so, how do we go about determining that? In making these types of decisions, it seems like we are selecting a certain ecosystem and then freezing it at a desired point. And yet, raw biological forces such as evolution drive systems through change. The constant interplay between organisms and their environment and between organisms and other organisms means that some will make it and some will not. The balance established at any point is the result of a myriad of different factors working under the umbrella of an ecosystem. Introduce a change and that balance will change as well.

I do not wish to excuse humans for the gross impacts that we have had because we have certainly overstepped our bounds and are overexploiting the world in which we live. Perhaps I am struggling with where to draw that line – given that we are very much a part of a huge, interconnected system, what is acceptable human behavior and what is not? I do not necessarily think it is right to freeze a given population at a certain number because change is inherently fundamental to any ecosystem. At the same time, I have also felt strongly in favor of species conservation and believe that protecting species (especially species that we have placed in danger, as is often the case) is important. I do not know how to reconcile feelings like these.

Based on my complete rambling, I suppose it is fairly obvious that I am not sure what I think right now. I have a lot of conflicting thoughts about ideas that I once felt relatively certain about. The Canyon was an especially poignant experience in this regard because it provided a physical context in which to apply these ideas (which seem to get philosophical and abstract relatively quickly). While I might go round and round in my own head about what I do or do not think, I realize that concrete decisions must be made surrounding these ideas. In the world that we have established, we lean heavily on management, policy, and rules to tell us what is acceptable and what is not. Therefore, the idea of wilderness is also subjected to the bounds of words, trying to define it in a way that makes sense to humans. The conversation makes sense based on how human civilization operates but when I try to think about packaging a nice set of ideas regarding what is wilderness, nature, or the wild, it seems quite overwhelming.

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