Many years ago I was driving along a dirt road in rural Zimbabwe.
We had been following a game fence for several miles, a formidable veldspan barrier between a tired looking patchwork of withered maize fields, goats, and clusters of rondavels out the passenger window, and the intact open woodland of a game reserve on the driver’s side.
Dirt roads allow plenty of time to take in the scenery and I couldn’t help but notice how one of my fellow passengers, a former student recently appointed to the wildlife department as a trainee scout, was so captivated by it. Not the savanna with its prospects of a kudu bull framed by an acacia thicket, an elephant ambling along ready to tug at the sweetest smelling grass tussock, or maybe even a leopard draped across the bow of a marula tree; no he watched with great intent the farmland.
“Which do you like best,” I asked him, “the savanna or the lands?” He looked back across at me with eyes wide, forehead furrowed and cheeks raised and said nothing. He turned back to his left to look out of the window and said softly “the lands”.
It was not the only time during a decade in Africa, that included the great fortune of visits to half a dozen countries, where the locals made it very clear how important agricultural land was to their very soul. Fields and pastures are, after all, the source of sustenance to us all and a place of protection and community. Human modification of the wild and dangerous savanna into safer and more comfortable countryside is the achievement that founded our ongoing numerical and lifestyle success.
In the west we sometimes pretend that the wild mountains, forests and windswept moors are our places of true beauty, but actually we too have quite the soft spot for farmland. Countryside would end up as a more popular choice for most than wilderness. Even the words themselves evoke opposites: cozy comfort aside inglenook fireplaces with a slice of apple pie, or gray skies, damp smells and wind that howls.
Given these deep and innate responses it’s no surprise that there is a conflict over what to do with wild areas. Should we set some aside and then keep out of them to be what they are as unfettered cauldrons for nature? Or should we designate them and, with a calming hand, mollify all that that wildness? After all we are under more pressure that ever to make every hectare of the land productive and available to yield fuel and raw materials for our voracious economic engines.
Australia is slipping into the midst of this conundrum.
After many decades of increasing environmental protection with laws set to slow or stop landscape modification, restrict pollution, and set aside close to 7% of the land [529,380 km2] as conservation areas, change is afoot. State governments in Victoria, Queensland, and NSW are variously allowing areas designated as national parks to be used by recreational hunters, mineral prospectors, graziers and even foresters.
Whatever your politics, hunting, livestock grazing, digging big holes and cutting down trees do seem rather odd activities to allow within a national park. Remember that the majority of these areas are either rugged and remote [part of their initial charm] or unproductive for all the usual commercial things we like to do. Allowing them environmental value seems to make perfect sense.
There is also the important ecological reality that once an area of land is grazed by livestock, or cleared, or a road cut through it, or big holes dug into it, then it will never again be as it was. Our modifications are irreversible.
We can [and should] restore landscape after the effects of our worst excesses but, by definition, we cannot return a landscape to pristine wilderness. All we can do is set areas aside for nature to be and preferably areas that we have not messed up too much already.
Recognition of environmental value, so that each set aside area has meaning, is a really smart thing to do.
Yet in doing so we are at odds with our instinct for the safe place that is productive. We all want to look to the left of the dusty road at the brown stalks of the harvested mealies just as the young wildlife scout did, because at core we are all control freaks. We are desperate to keep the nastiness of nature at bay and make the land safe and productive for our families — something inside says that that wild wood must be tamed. Let’s send in the guns, the herders and the chainsaws.
Only we are better than this. Surely there is enough in us to recognize that we do not have to be afraid of lions or wolves anymore and we can let some small proportion of the planet be close to what it was before we swarmed across it.
And surely we don’t have to go back to the trenches of environmental warfare where passion to protect and equal passion to exploit creates sides that throw dirty grenades at each other and the only winner is the peddler of vitriol.
For goodness sake let a national park be a national park.