High Places Inspire the Will to Safeguard Mountains

By Bob Berwyn

GOLDEN, Colorado, September 18, 2000 (ENS) - Mountains are more than just big piles of rock. For people around the world, high peaks are places that inspire reverence and awe, drawing pilgrims, poets and prophets. Those feelings can be harnessed to help protect mountain ecosystems, said those attending the first ever conference about the mountains of the United States.

About 150 mountain lovers, conservation activists and land managers from around the country gathered in Golden for the National Mountain Conference last Thursday and Friday.

Noted author and mountain scholar Edwin Bernbaum launched the conference with an impassioned talk on the cultural and spiritual significance of mountains.

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Gray's Peak (left) and Torrey's Peak in Colorado's Rocky Mountains near Golden (Photo Bob Berwyn)
"Mountains represent our highest aspirations," Bernbaum said. "Environmental programs must be grounded in a deep emotional commitment to be sustainable."

Tying conservation efforts to local traditions is one way to establish such emotional bonds, he explained.

Bernbaum described a push to reforest an area around a Hindu temple in northern India, near the source of the Ganges, a river considered sacred by Hindus. By relating the effort to Hindu tradition, organizers were able to garner enthusiastic support for the program. Now, pilgrims to the temple plant trees as part of their pilgrimage.

"Lets band together and dedicate ourselves to creating a new ethic for mountain stewardship," Bernbaum exhorted his audience.

Bernbaum highlighted the role of journalists, recalling that when the Egyptian government proposed building a gondola to the summit of Mount Sinai, "Time" magazine columnist Lance Morrow wrote an essay denouncing the plan. The subsequent public outcry eventually swayed officials to abandon the scheme.

A theme of creating a common bond among various mountain oriented recreation and conservation groups ran through the two day event.

"There are adversaries enough among those who would exploit the mountains for nothing but profit," said Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) executive director Andy Falendar.

The conference, held at the American Mountaineering Center, was organized by the AMC, the American Alpine Club, the American Hiking Society, the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Colorado Mountain Club, The Mountaineers and the World Conservation Union.

A series of seminars helped focus attention on a list of 10 critical issues, including encroaching urban development, natural resource extraction like logging and mining, declining ecological diversity, air quality degradation, climate change, recreational over use and abuse, increasing conflicts among user groups and access issues.

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A road cuts through wetlands in Loveland Pass in the Rocky Mountains (Photo Bob Berwyn)
Dr. Lawrence Hamilton, vice chair for mountains for the World Commission on Protected Areas, offered an international and cultural perspective, noting that the critical issues affecting mountains in the U.S. differ only in degree from those faced by all the mountains of the world.

"Mountains deserve a place alongside tropical rainforests and coral reefs," Hamilton said. "They are an earth feature deserving attention."

The United Nations agrees, having designated 2002 as the International Year of Mountains.

Apart from environmental questions, Hamilton said there are also social issues needing attention.

"Mountain people around the world are being marginalized and their cultural values eroded," he said.

Hamilton described a program designed to help settle nomadic tribes in the mountains of Asia by drilling wells and building permanent structures for them to replace their tents. When the tribes settled in their new villages, their cattle soon overgrazed surrounding fields, denuding the land and causing serious erosion problems.

Imposing Western cultural values on these tribes led to an undermining of the traditional sustainable mountain lifestyle in that region, Hamilton said.

The conference closed on a note of excitement, as former underground activist Dave Foreman brought his gospel of ecological restoration known as rewilding to the group.

Foreman is a founder of Earth First!, an environmental group that relies on direct action to protect the Earth. He is the author of "Ecodefense : A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching," the book that taught a generation of activists how to destroy property in the name of saving the environment.

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Wildflowers in Loveland Pass (Photo Bob Berwyn)
Jailed for his part in a plan to destroy a power tower in Arizona, Foreman has since broken with Earth First!, dropped his advocacy of monkeywrenching, and in 1995 won election to a three-year term as a Sierra Club director.

Foreman now heads up the Wildlands Project, which aims to restore native plants and animals to extensive areas through a series of large core reserve areas, surrounding buffer zones and linkage corridors between the core reserves.

This view is opposed by ranchers, miners and off-road vehicle users, and criticized by some conservation biologists. They believe that core areas of wilderness connected by wildlife corridors do not fit a region where each valley and mountain range is a separate island ecosystem.

Foreman told the conference of the need to bring back large predators such as grizzly bears, wolves, wolverines, jaguars and ocelots. These animals are keystone species whose presence reflects overall ecosystem health. The presence of these species also helps teach us about our place in nature, Foreman said.

Knowing that there are creatures out there that consider humans just another meal teaches humility, he argued.

"And there is nothing human beings need more at the beginning of the 21st century than a little humility," Foreman said.

Wilderness needs to be more than just an abstract concept, Foreman preached, explaining that the existence of "self willed" lands is important to the human psyche.

"Wilderness is a resource that helps us become better people," Foreman said. "This is an appeal to people to reach inside and find the generosity of spirit to allow other wills to exist with us."

Foreman closed his talk - and the conference - by tipping back his head and howling a high, wavering wolf call.

"We will hear that howl in Arizona. Well hear it again in Colorado and well hear it in Maine. So howl with me!" he implored and his audience did.