Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Thursday, August 24, 2006


I attended a barbecue the other evening in a nearby town. Before dark, our hosts took us on a tour of the “trail” their city had just installed near their home. A mile-and-a-half asphalt ribbon wandered along a streambed, weaving its way between massive Fremont Cottonwoods (Populus fremontii), the region's largest deciduous tree. The evening was beautiful, and the atmosphere festive. Families strolled together. Children rode by on bicycles. A pair of teenage girls passed us on horseback. Dusk was falling as we made our return, and all the guests were chatting happily about what a lovely spot the municipality had built for the community. It would have taken an insufferable killjoy to spoil the moment with a dissenting opinion, so I bit my tongue. But only for a second.

Actually, my friends were justified in talking as though that forest never existed until the city paved a footpath through it. Projects like these have become as common as horseflies around here, and the hype surrounding them always treats them as conservation efforts. Sure, there are benefits to these “open space” schemes. Urban folks who live pathologically removed from the natural world are given a little taste of a vital element otherwise lacking in their lives. Parcels like this little woodland are now safer than before from larger developments that might have obliterated them. But the immediate effect on the riparian community is negative. It is stressed by increased human traffic and removal of understory vegetation. I have grave concerns about the laying of asphalt so close to a creek, and the application of powerful and persistent nonselective herbicides like Prometon that precedes it. Reasonable people can disagree over whether or not the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, but to call these projects conservation is disingenuous. Here in Utah, 70% of the land belongs to the Federal Government, and 8% belongs to the state, so conserving a given ecosystem should be easy; it should require simply doing nothing. Conservation, like love and tomatoes, is best when it's free, and that's a problem for a political system that measures everything in dollars and cents. In order to protect a given spot, a financial benefit has to be shown, or invented, with the result that conservation efforts more often than not wind up benefiting an economic community instead of an ecological one. Here in the contemporary American West, that is largely manifested by the reins of land control being passed from the ranchers to the recreationists. Land once degraded by livestock is now degraded instead by mountain bikers.

This morning I took a walk through Hidden Hollow, an "Open Space" project near my home. In an area of about one third of a city block, a bedraggled stand of native trees clings to Parley's Creek. A once vacant lot in the heart of the Sugarhouse business district has been planted to represent different local ecosystems in three discreet gardens: the Piñon/Juniper community of the highlands to the south and east, the Gambel's Oak community of the surrounding hillsides, and the Rabbitbrush steppes that once dominated this very spot. Several signs stand about the gardens with information about the basic ecology, and, of course, the biggest sign of all stands at the front, listing the contributors. It's a nice little development in the midst of urbanality, and an amenity for the community, but it's still a development, and nothing more.
upper: RED-TAILED HAWK & GRAY SQUIRREL (1996) acrylic 16" x 28"
lower: Photo of Hidden Hollow taken by CPBvK 8-24-'06


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have similar concerns about many of created or managed "green spaces" that are ostensibly set aside for nature. Many times, they are as you've described - miniature paved roads winding through narrow forests and the buffer zones of creeks and ponds. A couple of summers ago, I volunteered to do frog surveys for some landscape ecology grad students at a nearby university, so I spent quite a bit of time visiting "urban ponds" as well as those in both agriculture and very natural settings for comparison. After several weeks of visiting the various ponds, all I can say is that there is no comparison between most urban storm water reservoirs (urban ponds) and natural ponds in areas not frequented by many humans. Most urban ponds are often "landscaped" with lawns and non-native plants. Wildlife tends to be a huge pack of Mallards that gobble up any other living creature. The water often reeks and is full of algae which is being fed by lawn fertilizer run-off from storm drains. Not a pretty sight. A lot of the problem seems to stem from over-management and urban ideas of what a "natural" landscape should look like. Instead of hiring biologists as consultants, I believe many of the designers of these spaces are firms that specialize in recreational park design. I can only hope that some of the people who are now studying landscape ecology (a relatively new field) will be more sensitive to the requirements of wildlife.

4:44 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Nicely said. Thanks. Actually, "Hidden Hollow," the little park by my home, is better than most in this respect. They've made a concerted effort to mimic native ecosystems.

12:56 PM  
Blogger Matt Mullenix said...

I enjoyed this post Carel and appreciate the sentiment. I have similar feelings about these efforts, but I think they are far better than the alternatives. The situation vis. city-dwellers and access to nature is critical. Well, not just "nature," but the out-of-doors itself.

If a path through a little wooded corridor allows some city kid to spot his first Cooper's hawk, it would be worth more for that than as a strip mall. And maybe there's a local falconer who can slip in early on a sunday morning and catch a squirrel. :-)

5:11 AM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

I'm with youb 90% of the way, Matt. I do think we do that kid a disservice by raising him to think there needs to be a road in order to visit that forest--and the road makes the spotting of any Cooper's Hawks far less likely.

11:43 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

What a lovely, if discouraging post! I haven't seen too many projects like these around New York City, unless you count the long-standing parks, which are really too large and well attended to qualify. Some parts of Central Park, however, do fit the bill.

"The Rambles" is a less trafficked, winding stretch of paved "path," and seriously compulsive, competitive birders - typical of our New York stripe - frequent the area, along with those who seek to satisfy vices away from prying eyes. Most folks consider it the "wildest" part of Central Park and a few of my more urban-rooted friends are as skeptical of "The Rambles" as they are a weekend rafting trip in, say, Appalachia. ("Wild" is relative, though, and I was able to step off the path and find a suitable place to urinate, a difficult feat in the rest of the park.)

I visit "The Rambles" every now and again, but I'm always less impressed with the variety of birdlife than I am the "path" run-off and abundance of litter. Admittedly, as Matt Mullenix points out, these sorts of projects/places do offer urban children something akin to outdoor experience, but at what cost to the environment and, perhaps more importantly, at what cost to their understanding of ecosystem connectivity?

It's a tough question, but my gut agrees with you, Carel. Thanks for describing your reaction. I hope your host won't univite you from any future BBQs!

2:29 PM  
Blogger Carel Brest van Kempen said...

Thanks for bringing up Central Park. Frederick Olmstead probably began the movement with that project. I think the good outweighs the harm in places like it, and Hidden Hollow, near my home, that lie surrounded by land dedicated to human habitat.

11:02 PM  
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7:29 PM  
Anonymous Perennial Co said...

Green places are great getaways! I have an old delineated rose garden in my yard i used to plant in. Buy with the years, dogs, chickens and wear and tear, it's take it's toll on my roses. However, i love green.

6:58 PM  
Anonymous Indian Creek Nursery said...

Love anything green! myself. i also enjoy the birds chirping in the spring. It's sounds of joy in your heart!

7:00 PM  

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