Science versus activism: A century of shifting environmental landscapes in the ESA journey
An early proponent of the aims of ecology described it as “research on the original flora and fauna and their conditions of existence. ” Because many ecologists depended upon what they hoped were undisturbed patches of nature as their study material, they were dismayed by the accelerating industrial exploitation of natural resources from the late 19th century onwards. Ecologists feared that endless demand for raw materials and land endangered remaining natural areas. Proponents of reserves of pristine nature suggested they would allow experts to uncover fundamental ecological laws and principles to provide clear scientific value. They struggled with what was to be the role of ecologists in developing the theory and practice of their new field, its utilitarian application to such “practical arts” as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries, and the preservation of nature. To “read” nature correctly seemed to require undisturbed areas for study, but the wholesale modification and destruction of landscapes raised the question of what they were to do in the face of sometimes gradual, sometimes dramatic change. Did these depredations demand that ecologists interact and collaborate with conservation, managers and local residents, or focus instead on building their nascent science at a remove from the workaday world?
The early committee set up to identify and take political action to preserve wilderness sites for scientific study produced, in time, a voluminous atlas of those areas. Its authors were well aware that financial constraints and competing duties meant their atlas could not keep up with the rate of change in landscapes. Though the aspiration was to document “undisturbed” nature, it was in the face of rapid and destructive human disturbance. The federal establishment of Glacier Bay National Monument was a singular, though in some ways temporary success in preservation for science in an otherwise rapid attrition of natural areas.
Ecologists concerned with preservation of nature took several approaches to the political pressures and loss of study sites. They could separate their scientific work from their political activism; shift from long-term studies of natural areas to shorter-term studies of disturbed, less natural areas; or, in the face of ever-contracting natural areas in the US, turn their attention abroad in the hopes that undisturbed regions were waiting just over the horizon.