A Wilder Bay Area

Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect

Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.

Lind assumes, for example, that low- and middle-income suburbs will continue to expand ever outward, consuming much if not most of the land opened up by the decoupling processes, wherein human development occurs with a shrinking environmental footprint. As was the case in the 1950s, he argues, young couples will continue to shun the cities, flocking instead to single-family homes on private lots. The only thing that will change is transportation technology, which supposedly will facilitate commutes over longer distances than are currently feasible.

Is Endless Suburbanization Inevitable?

This argument is no doubt partially correct; some people will seek out new suburbs. Yet the notion that American metro areas will inexorably expand ever outward is predicated on continual population growth, which in turn depends on high levels of immigration, a phenomenon that is hardly assured given this country’s political climate. At present, the fertility rate of the United States is only 1.9 children per woman, well below the replacement level.

But regardless of immigration policy and population growth, the suburban impetus represents merely one side of the coin. Many people today crave an urban existence, provided the existence of reasonably safe neighborhoods. In such circumstance, the denser the inhabitation, the more desirable the area may become. To appreciate this fact, simply examine the Manhattan housing market. Recent research shows that urban identification has a political bent, with self-described liberals greatly preferring cities to suburbs. But according to a 2014 Pew Research poll, conservatives do not think any more highly of suburbs, with most preferring rural areas and small towns.

Although Lind portrays cities and suburbs within a strict dichotomy, such a view is becoming anachronistic. Many inner suburbs are growing more urban, and as the obesity crises gains attention, urban walkability becomes more desirable. In some places, such as along the Orange Metro Line in northern Virginia, smallish “bead cities” have emerged around public transportation hubs. In California’s suburban Silicon Valley, relatively dense condominium complexes are springing up apace; available units sell immediately at prices that leave outsiders breathless.

Low-Intensity Grazing Lands Will Be Restored First

Lind is also led astray by his focus on agricultural lands. To be sure, most rewilding advocates hope to see large expanses of farmland eventually returned to nature, but farmland is not the first category slated for restoration. More appropriate are low-intensity grazing lands that already support many rare species, which cover millions of acres in the western United States. Much of this expanse is only marginally economically productive as it is; if synthetic meat substitutes were to gain favor and out-compete flesh in price, grazing pressure would fall, allowing major opportunities for wildlife restoration.

But even if large expanses of current cropland can eventually be restored to nature, we would not expect much of the transformation to occur on the edges of metropolitan areas. Instead, the most suitable areas would remote, low-value farmlands, such the wheat fields of central and eastern Montana. Lind imagines that such distant farms will be transformed instead into baronial estates of the hyper-elite, who would convert them into English-style manors graced with tree-dotted lawns. But such landscapes are climatically inappropriate for the Great Plains, and it is doubtful that many billionaires would select this area for their estates. Most people favor scenic areas for their rural retreats and vacation zones. Mountains and seacoasts entice, not flat farmlands transitioning to grass and scrub.

Ironically, the one thing that could endow such areas with charm would be wildlife restoration. Some rich Americans apparently do esteem (partially) restored ecosystems beyond measure; how else can one explain Ted Turner’s two million acres and 51,000 bison? If a huge swath of the Great Plains were to become an American version of the Serengeti, it too would gain a profound draw, both for would-be estate holders and vacationing members of the middle and upper-middle classes. Most of these people will want to hear wolves howling, and not merely see bison, elk, and pronghorns peacefully grazing.

Lind is almost certainly right to contend that large expanses of private land will not be converted into public wildlife reserves. But his vision of sprawling estates also stumbles on the fact that vast areas are already under public ownership. More than half of the land area of Nevada, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho is currently controlled by the federal government, and even California sports a figure of 45.3 percent. Most of this territory is geared mainly to resource extraction, particularly through forestry and grazing as overseen by the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. It is highly doubtful that such public lands will be privatized; even the most conservative presidential candidates have not advocated selling off our National Forests.

Even with Rewilding, Agriculture Abides

Even if urban development intensifies and marginal ranches and farms begin to transition to wildlife habitat, much agricultural land would remain resistant to rewilding. Not even the most ardent ecomodernist images a 21st century economy that eliminates cropping. Indeed, the basic decoupling scenario calls for increasingly technologically intensive, high-yield cultivation over large tracts of land. Most of California’s Central Valley, one of the world’s premier agricultural production zones, would fall into this category.

Other kinds of farms will also find a place in a progressively decoupling future. An increasingly prosperous, technologically oriented society will likely intensify its demand for bucolic landscapes yielding quality products. Even if fully palatable wines could be produced without grape juice in a laboratory, affluent consumers will still want to visit wineries, enjoying the scenery and delighting in particular vintages produced in specific appellations. By the same token, charming organic farms producing heirloom fruits and vegetables, classy olive groves offering tastings of the first crush, and pocket piggeries provisioning local charcuteries will likely thrive, as indeed they are now in parts of Northern California. An ecomodernist scenario, in other words, could allow plenty of room for the kind of neo-Arcadian agricultural landscapes favored by such writers as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman.

A Rewilded Bay Area

Imagine if you will a future San Francisco Bay Area modeled on these ideas. In simplified terms, its heartland would be composed of high-density cities (San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose) linked to transportation-oriented micro-cities set within an intensified suburban matrix. This urban zone could support a significant amount of wildlife, ranging from pigeon-hunting peregrine falcons nesting on high-rises to diverse assemblages of smallish animals in backyard and apartment-complex gardens. Its prime purpose, however, would be to house people and their businesses and industries. Most of the rural portions of the adjacent Central Valley, to the contrary, would remain devoted to high-intensity agriculture and agro-industry, although I would hope to see existing wetland wildlife refuges expand. (Major advances in waste-water recycling and desalinization would be necessary here). In the lowlands and gentle hills of the North Bay, Arcadian landscape of up-scale, artisanal farming might prevail.

But where in this future Bay Area would one find the rewilded lands that figure so prominently in ecomodernist dreams? Would they have to be relegated to the distant horizons?

Actually, they would not, as the Bay Area is ensconced within steeply sloped hills and mountains, many of which are sparsely inhabited and are currently undergoing a degree of rewilding. Owing to economic growth, decoupling, and changing consumer preferences, most of the terrain here is no longer needed for wood and beef production, and can thus find a higher calling as habitat and hiking land. To the south and west of Silicon Valley, for example, lies the forested Santa Cruz Mountains, where mountain lions are no longer uncommon and black bears may be reestablishing themselves. To the east lies the rugged, semi-arid, and seldom-visited Diablo Range, where tule elk, a key subspecies of pre-Gold Rush California, have recently been reintroduced and are apparently expanding.

But returning tule elk to the Diablo Range and allowing black bears to repopulate the Santa Cruz Mountains are merely the first steps along the pathway to genuine rewilding. Essential is the reintroduction of the grizzly bear, which, after all, is the symbol of the state, even though California’s last grizzly was slaughtered in 1922.

Although critics contend that the habitat of the Californian grizzly, a creature more at home in woodlands and open areas than forests, have been too thoroughly transformed into cities and farmland, the actual situation is different. Most parts of the central Coast ranges are extremely sparsely settled, used for little more than low-intensity grazing. In the Diablo Range, not only are cities absent, but so too are towns, hamlets, and even farms. Large expanses of land here would make fine habitat for Ursus arctos. Local ranchers would, of course, object vehemently, thereby requiring a transition in land use and management. But such a change is not unthinkable, even in the relatively near future.

Oddly, the nearly wild areas of Central California are unknown to the vast majority of Californians, despite their proximity to major urban areas. The Diablo Range is admittedly a harsh landscape in the summer — hot, dusty, and bone-dry — but it presents a much more gentle face during the rest of the year. Yet few local residents give it any value or even acknowledge its existence, focusing their recreational and geo-aesthetic attention instead on the wetter areas of the western coastal mountains and especially the Sierra Nevada. Perhaps if a large swath of the Diablo Range were returned to the grizzly, attitudes would begin to change.

Anthropocentric and Biocentric Zones

But even if the way could be cleared for grizzly reintroduction, opposition would persist. Many fear the return of this particular beast — and for good reason. In the productive oak woodlands of California, grizzlies can grow to a prodigious size. The largest recorded specimens weighed around 2,000 pounds, more massive that the salmon-fattened bears of southern Alaska. Even some ardent wildlife enthusiasts would be wary of reintroducing an animal that can kill a person with a mere paw-swipe.

The solution to the problem of wildlife threat was discovered decades ago in South Africa. What is needed is the equivalent of the fence surrounding Kruger National Park and adjacent private wildlife reserves, a barrier impassable to large and dangerous animals. Such an enclosure would separate an anthropocentric zone, where nature is valued but people are given priority, from a biocentric realm, where people can visit, observe and, when necessary, manage, but where biological abundance and diversity trump other considerations. I see no reason why such a fence, some decades down the road, could not encircle most of the Diablo Range, excluding some peripheral parks devoted to more risk-averse hikers and picnickers.

Nothing here, of course will be easy. Michael Lind correctly points out that technological developments that reduce the need to extract resources from ecosystems by no means guarantee the restoration of large-scale natural habitats, much less the reintroduction of locally extinct species. Taking a global perspective, it is no coincidence that Africa’s most economically advanced country, South Africa, is experiencing successful rewilding efforts, whereas most of its least-developed countries are dewilding at a rapid clip. As most ecomodernists understand, realizing decoupling and rewilding dreams, such as the one I’ve painted above, will necessarily entail a prolonged process, one that will depend not merely on technical gains, but also on politics, economics, and evolving social values. Restoring some part of our ecological inheritance will be a future that we will have to choose.

The Diablo Range. The exact boundaries of the Diablo Range are somewhat ambiguous, but the range is generally regarded as running from Mount Diablo in the north to an area near the intersections of Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Kings, and Kern counties in the south.

The Diablo Range. Here we see a slightly different depiction of the Diablo Range on a base map showing cities and roadways.

Low Population Density Portions of the Diablo Range. The Google Earth at Night base map serves as a proxy for a population density map. The essentially non-illuminated portions of the Diablo Range, which have a very low population density, have been outlined. (A “dark” section of the adjacent Gabilan Range, which extends to the northwest of the southern portion of Diablo Range on this map, is indicated as well.)

Low-density Portions of the Southern Coast Ranges. Inscribed on the same base map as Map 3, this figure shows other extremely low-density portions of California’s southern Coastal Ranges.

Low-density Portions of the Southern Coast Ranges. This figure indicates the same areas depicted on Map 4 on a base map showing cities and roadways.

Cover photo credit: Flickr User David McSpadden