Re: Aboriginal Overkill and Native Burning

Bret Diamond (diam9018@TAO.SOSC.OSSHE.EDU)
Mon, 1 May 1995 21:35:35 -0700

On 5/1/95, Jim writes:

> My dissertation research deals with environmental ideologies and wilderness
> protection in the Northern Rockies. Those environmental groups under study
> also promote the myths of a pristine pre-colonial past in which wildlife
> were abundant and native peoples lived in idyllic harmony with self-regulating
> ecosystems. Those beliefs coincide with a need to provide an alternative model
> to the way our society now relates to nature and/or "wilderness."
> Perhaps federal land managers such as the Forest Service adhere to the myths
> of a pristine past because they have unwittingly adopted the discourse of
> environmentalism. The Forest Service is always having to justify its actions
> and prove its management skills to conservation groups which continue to
> bring legal suits against it. I think that environmentalism has set the
> agenda and defined the terms of engagement. They have redefined the past in
> terms which relate to their interests in the present.
While I agree that indigenous floral and faunal management has at times
been lacking, I will argue that A) there is substantiative evidence to
show that indigenous peoples did/do live more in balance with nature than we
do now, B) whether or not it was in "idyllic harmony" is a matter of
perspective. Also, I would like to point out that to my knowledge, all
ecosystems are self-regulating. By using the word "myth" it is apparent
that you do not agree that indigenous peoples were/are good stewards of
the land. I believe that an examination of the facts will show otherwise.

1. The natural rate of species extinction (data extrapolated from the
fossil record, etc.) is two species per year. From 1600-1700, there were
21 species known to have gone extinct. 1700-1800, 36 species. 1800-1900,
84 species. 1900-1980, 104 species. Projected species loss for 1900-2000,
185-193 species (Living In the Environment, eighth edition) Number 1
cause of species extinction--habitat destruction. Some estimates suggest
that we are currently loosing species at the rate of about four an
hour-every day.
2. In 1500, there were 60-125 million American bison. By 1892, there
were only 85 left. It has been estimated that 2.5 million bison a year
were killed between 1870-1875. They were slaughtered (by whites) to A)
subdue the plains tribes, and B) because they competed with sheep and cattle
for rangeland.

Perhaps we do romanticize somewhat about native interaction with the
environment, but I don't think that anyone can support an argument that
ecosystem health is better today than it was pre-contact. I believe that
in order to plan for the future, we need to establish an accurate base-line
for what we have already lost. Your post is reflective of the so-called
"wise use" movement that wants to diminish the damage that we have done
to the earth so that resource extraction levels (and thus profits) will
remain high. Honoring, or even acknowledging that indigenous people
tread lightly on the earth does little to promote these agendas.

One last note, the Forest Service is "always having to justify it's
actions and prove it's management skills..." because the Forest Service
has been reduced to an extension of the timber industry whose sole
concern is profit. In the words of R.F Dasmann, "Those wishing to
exploit the land for their own private benefit never cease their political
efforts. Those who would protect the natural world cannot afford to do