How does wildlife preservation come about? The threat of natural or even cultural extinction won't do. It takes the exertion of well-connected people.
What does it take to save a flower, an acre, a mountain, a cultural region?
Diana Marcum’s fascinating recent feature for the Los Angeles Times is a microcosm of conservation history, recounting the human mechanics behind the survival of Carpenteria californica, a rare white wildflower of the Sierra foothills. Marcum also captures -– unwittingly, it seems — the politics of “endangerment” and preservation, a story less of botanical vulnerability than social power.
Carpenteria californica, presumably known to the Sierra Miwok and Yokut Indians for many generations, was “discovered” by 19th century explorer John Fremont, who promptly lost his way back to the original wild clump. Later a Swedish scientist came upon the plant, collected seed, and sent it to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. There, Carpenteria californica was grown into showy specimens, a wonder for international pros of horticulture and amateur naturalists alike.
Carpenteria’s native range is tiny, just two counties in central California. Much of its homeland, east of Fresno, was purchased in 1913 by two sisters with “Utopian” inclinations. They eventually amassed 1500 acres in the area, and one sister took a special interest in this local wildflower, considering it her private emblem of peaceful resistance during World War I.
The tale goes on…. Crucially, it involves other California elites—wealthy landowners, intellectuals and philanthropists. In Marcum’s account, it’s clear that through their resources of leisure time, money, organizational experience, and clout, they were able to create a nature preserve on the plant’s habitat. In league with the national Nature Conservancy, the Mary Elizabeth Miller Preserve was founded.
Whew. The future of Carpenteria californica seems assured. But what about the other 792 plant species that the federal government has deemed endangered or threatened? And, just as vital, what about those plants and animals whose habitats don’t happen to be located near the property or playgrounds of “Utopian” elites?
Marcum’s story is especially compelling now, in light of the March on West Virginia’s Blair Mountain, held just a month ago. Some 400 protesters—trade unionists, environmentalists, neighbors, historians—marched 50 miles to the mountain, holding a weekend rally. They demanded protection of this spot and other Appalachian lands from mountaintop-removal strip mining and support of Appalachia’s working people.
Blair Mountain is sacred ground. But has most of the nation even heard of it?
Alex Bloedel, who reported on the march in The Daily Yonder, wrote, “In 1921, upwards of 10,000 coal miners gathered arms, hijacked a train, and fought against a local police force of about 2,000 – led by Logan County Sheriff Don Chafin and funded by the Logan County Coal Operators Association – before peacefully surrendering to federal military forces sent by President Harding. Hundreds of miners were killed and injured by Chafin’s men and by privately-hired bomber planes in what was one of the largest civil uprisings in American history. ”Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of New York, an environmental lawyer and one of the speakers at the Blair Mountain rally, said, “If you buried 25 feet of a Hudson River stream, we’d put you in jail. What they’re doing is illegal, and they couldn’t get away with it except that they have been able to muzzle the press and dismantle our democracy.”
Is that really it? Or is it that Kennedy and his neighbors along the Hudson, like the wealthy sisters in the western Sierra and their allies, have the power to overarch the media, to change the law and its enforcement and, if necessary, buy outright the lands they love?
In their assessment of U.S. conservation law The Endangered Species Act at Thirty, Dale Goble and Frank W. Davis note that 22% “of the known occurences of federally listed endangered plant species are in urban areas” though this urban territory comprises just 8.4% of U.S. land area. While one might reasonably think that endangered plants are more likely to be native to rural locations, in fact urban plants are three times more likely to have received federal protection than the land area would suggest.
“Several factors contribute to this pattern,” Goble and Davis write, “including habitat loss and fragmentation, the association of urban areas with high-biodiversity environments such as coastal habitats and valley floors, and relative survey effort, which is greater in urban than rural areas.”
But Goble, Davis and Marcum all fail to see how conservation “effort” and, crucially, conservation success are bound up in cultural politics. City wildflowers stand a better chance of protection than rural flowers do based not on their rarity but on the rare power of the people who live nearby. Is anyone honestly claiming that the natural environment of New Jersey is more ecologically diverse than West Virginia or Arkansas?
Clearly, a determined group of wealthy and well educated Californians have been able to save an endangered wildflower, but an Appalachian mountain, the site of one of the greatest confrontations in U.S. labor history, can’t be protected from decimation. In 2009, Blair Mountain was added to the National Register of Historic Places. “Nine months later, after pressure from coal companies on state agencies, it was removed from the register.”
Mountaintop removal mining blasts off the top of hills to expose coal seams. It not only destroys local plants and animals but poisons local waterways, changes the landscape forever, and endangers human life, too. All these can be and have been sacrificed in the name of coal production.
Robert Kennedy Jr. can’t conceive of mountaintop removal mining along the Hudson River but that’s not because the press has been “muzzled”; his hometown paper, the New York Times, has run scores of articles and editorials about strip mining. It’s because the “Utopians” of Southwest Virginia lack the power of California and New York conservationists. It’s because there’s coal inside the Appalachian hills, and the region is
so economically desperate that many of its leaders—and residents—have
been willing to support strip mining, even as it destroys their
Can a rare blossom—or more than one—be found blooming this summer on the side of Blair Mountain? Who can “discover” it, send its seed to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, and grow it for the world to see? And who can find a livelihood to compete with mining in West Virginia, to win and end the fight against mountain-top removal?