“Intact” Ecosystems: What Does That Mean?

Vehicles waiting to enter the North Entrance of Yellowstone;
Jim Peaco;
July 28, 2015;
Catalog #20471d;
Original #IMG_9185

I wanted to highlight some interesting information from Lance, which was embedded way down in a different thread here. I’d like to start by reiterating one of my favorite Andrew Greeley quotes
in which Bishop Blackie Ryan says about individualism:
“Actually, individualism doesn’t exist”..””the word is a label, an artifact under which one may subsume a number of often contrasting and sometimes contradictory developments and ideas. Such constructs ought not be reified as if there is some overpowering reality in the outside world that corresponds to them.” From The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Garmain. Today we might also ask of popular abstractions “who or what communities initiated these abstraction?” “why” and what other people or communities might win or lose from such framing?”

We old people remember forest management before the idea of sustainability took hold, and then the idea of ecosystem management,then ecosystem health, restoration, and ecosystem integrity. Basically, you could have the same thinning project and discuss whether it was sustainable, whether it fits in to ecosystem management, whether it contributes to ecosystem health, or ecosystem integrity, or restoration. But if you were watching, often the same folks were on the same side of arguing that the project is, or is not, sustainable, etc. all the way to integrity. I call this the “abstraction of the decade.” It’s great for producing new conferences and scientific papers with basically the same on-the ground information with a few new ideas thrown in. basically the same old disagreements (bad vs. good) under the mantle of a new abstraction. Again, as an old person, I’m not sure we’re moving the ball forward, however we might mutually envision what that would look like, by changing labels. Nevertheless it appears that a new abstraction has entered our abstraction corral.. the “intact” ecosystem.

Given that, let’s go on to what Lance observed in his comment here:

When the Greater Yellowstone Coalition talks about ecosystem integrity they state as their vision, “Our vision is a healthy and intact Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where critical lands and waters are adequately protected, wildlife is managed in a thoughtful, sustainable manner and a strong, diverse base of support is working to conserve this special place as part of a larger, connected Northern Rocky Mountain Region.”

When the Trust for Public Land talks about an intact ecosystem they highlight the area having all the species that were present during the Lewis and Clark expedition.

In my quick review a few key themes came out: viable populations of historic flora and fauna, clean water, and connectivity to other regions. Less explicit were a relative lack of a human presence and natural process progressing unimpeded by human intervention (dare we say untrammeled.) I don’t have an issue with a definition based on these key points. I would disagree with a definition based on , “ those hunks of landscape we all know of that deserve more protection than they’re getting…” since it is presumptuous of me assume that my preferences are universal. We are lucky in Montana to have ecosystems so intact. Much like the Eastern Wilderness Act allowed more trammeled land to become wilderness along the east coast than we we consider pristine in the west, a certain amount of flexibility would need to be applied to implement in other states.

Now the Bitterroot Front abuts the Selway-Bitterroot and is part of the Central Idaho ecosystem and at this time is one large furry omnivore away from having it’s full complement of animals. So one issue of the Bitterroot Front Proposal impact the future introduction of grizzlies naturally, as one did this summer, or by introduction. A related question would be impacts on connectivity to the Glacier region and the Yellowstone region. As an aside it is interesting the the core of both of these ecosystems are trammeled National Parks, indicating that wilderness designation is not an absolute requirement for a healthy ecosystem.

I am still puzzled by how you can have a heavily trammeled Park in the middle of an “intact” ecosystem. Is it really as simple as “grizzly bears and wolves are there?”. Or does it mean “impacted by recreation and tourism only”?

10 thoughts on ““Intact” Ecosystems: What Does That Mean?”

  1. I have to say while I’m not always a proponent of definition by committee, I do like the Forest Service definition that Jon provided in the other thread, ” “The quality or condition of an ecosystem when its dominant ecological characteristics (for example, composition, structure,
    function, connectivity, and species composition and diversity) occur within the natural range of variation and can withstand and recover from most perturbations imposed by natural environmental dynamics or human influence.”” This definition includes ecosystem resilience as a key factor. (Do we need to jump down the rabbit hole with a definition of resilience now as well?)

    Of course one of the challenges on determining resilience is some the influencing factors have non-linear responses and threshold effects we don’t completely understand. I guess that is on of the arguments for wilderness, be safe and don’t touch. Then the concept of island biogeography bigger is better and even areas such as Greater Yellowstone, the Crown of the Continent, or the Central Idaho Wilderness complex all somewhere around 10 million acres are still considered islands and not big enough to sustain megafauna such as grizzlies by themselves. If these islands are still not intact by themselves how do apply the concept of an intact ecosystem to parcels of land that are orders of magnitude smaller ?

  2. Re a “trammeled” Yellowstone Park: I suppose about 95%, maybe more, of the crowds of publics never leave the roads and developed areas. There is much wild country left in Yellowstone, where rather few people go to be alone. However, the threats are always there to expand commercial uses and impacts in the Park. Recent expansion of winter activities and access are an example. As for comparing Parks to wilderness, the latter often has one important drawback: livestock grazing, that most parks, but not National Monuments, do not. But I agree that all the fine-sounding terms you mention have often been used without definition. Alas, we have to analyze each area and issue based on its own set of local conditions, not with “buzz-words”.

  3. For whatever it’s worth: https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/wilderness.htm

    From the NPS:

    Yellowstone National Park has always managed its backcountry to protect natural and cultural resources and to provide visitors with the opportunity to enjoy a pristine environment within a setting of solitude. Yet none of the park is designated as federal wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964.

    In 1972, in accordance with that law, the Secretary of the Interior recommended 2,016,181 acres of Yellowstone’s backcountry be designated as wilderness. Although Congress has not acted on this recommendation, all lands that fall within Yellowstone’s Recommended Wilderness are managed to maintain their natural wilderness character so as not to preclude wilderness designation in the future. The last Yellowstone wilderness recommendation sent to Congress was for 2,032,721 acres [which would be over 91% of Yellowstone National Park’s total area of 2,219,791 acres].

  4. You have wonder about the politics of Yellowstone wilderness. “50 national park units have designated wilderness, totaling more than 44 million acres.”
    I guess the point is that parks and wilderness are intact because they heavily regulate human uses.

    To Sharon’s point, I’ve often thought there were “science fads,” where new terms, rather than new ideas, could justify new research. I think there are some elements of different “abstractions” here, but I also think there have been some changes in policy. One is fully embracing sustainability. The Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act recognized sustainability of “outputs.” We now recognize that means we have to have sustainability of ecosystems, and we have been fine-tuning what we think that means, especially in the context of a changing climate. Natural range of variation is the current iteration of that for the Forest Service. That should include the idea of restoring extirpated species.

  5. Howard Zahniser’s biggest gift may have been his cajoling an ever-unholy Congress into performing a miracle by passing a law the heart of which was essentially pure poetry. The old-time English meaning of “trammel” was “fish net”. Zahniser read a lot of poetry, Job (the Old Testament) where God tells Job that, contrary to his human tendency to reduce everything to be about “him” he wasn’t created apart from that big bad monster (Leviathan in that case) he was created as part of him, so quit thinking you know everything. He also read William Blake, where I think he got “untrammeled” from. Blake hated human tendencies to reduce the meanings of things in order to fit into a temporal “nets” of manipulation, would have objected to the modern bad habit of calling human beings “consumers” for instance. But basically, Zahniser meant “untrammeled” to mean “unmanipulated” by our human tendency to think we know everything and then “fix” things so they suit us. It was never meant to mean “untrampled” which, for all the good intentions from the Forest Service and other agencies who were tasked with coming up with (human) wilderness regulations after the act passed in 1964 and coming up with the “purity” tests instead, is the definition I think most people default to these days. Think in poetic terms (cuz that’s what the law says we must do). “Untrampled”? Nah. “Untrammeled”. Better.

    • I could have swore that trammel came from the old French word tramail meaning fine gauged fishing net. I thought the old English version had to do with binding up corpses which isn’t quite as poetic. Regardless I agree with the intent. That’s why I used it. To be intact, and ecosystem had function relatively naturally with a minimum of human constraints.

      • I imagine they’re from the same root. Maybe I misspoke when I said “old English”. Technically that refers to words rooted from the England before the French showed up. How about “old-enough English”? Ed Zahniser, Howard Z’s son and a poet in his own right, is the go-to for digging deeper into his dad’s thinking, but I think Blake may have had a hand in popularizing the “Job-ish” notion that humans have a tendency to think they know it all and then “trammeling” (or substitute a modern English curseword) it up. Brandy and his dad were big into democracy to the point that it was their religion, and that’s what’s so fascinating to me about the long fight they waged to pass the Wilderness Act: the intersection of the two to the point where they were different sides of the same coin, and then Congress actually passing such a thing into law! Try doing that now.

        • Again, that’s pretty philosophical. I’m not so sure that environmental history would show hubris to be the problem, more like people desperately trying to make a living. And it’s interesting to compare that to the NEPA language of productive harmony between humans and Nature. Note: I am not against Wilderness, I am just compassionate for people who could get kicked out for other people’s philosophy. I am also highly compassionate for the managers of Wilderness who have to negotiate difficult philosophical/legal/real world complexities.

          Also a bipartisan bunch in Congress passed the LWCF so there is hope…

          • Just for the record, I made my living for many years out in the woods, but I always defaulted back to “philosophy” (read: thinking past my own paycheck to what’s best for the land) when it came down to it. Introspection (or “philosophy”) is not a bad thing for humans to do, and my point in these threads is to highlight the hard reality that in these times of climate catastrophe we have no choice but to do it. Indeed, agencies such as the Forest Service and BLM are required by law to do it, have been since the Wilderness Act. NEPA was written in the 70s and of course is written differently, and yes, there are plenty of loopholes if we wish to exploit them. My point is, why would we? The Wilderness Law took 8 years from the time Howard Zahniser wrote it up at his coffee table on a yellow legal pad to getting it signed by Johnson, and went through many changes and compromises of course. But that word “untrammeled” stuck in there to the end and there it still is, a challenge. Is it really all about us and our now-arcane ways of making a living? That’s what those of us who love to “make our living” outdoors, including land managers, need to ponder. Call it philosophy, but I can testify that you don’t need a college degree to do it.

    • Bill, thanks for the philosophical voyage. This helps explain how people can have spent all these years disagreeing about the details. It also explains how these ideas may not have resonated with people currently using a place as per the Appalachians. I still think there’s a difference between “leave it alone” versus “kick existing users out.” I think so did Congress vis a vis grazing.


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