A Heritage In Peril

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Northeastern woodland Indians cleared large acreages for their use, and migrated every thirty or forty years to find new soil for crops and new wood for houses, canoes, weapons, utensils, and firewood. As hunters, they were generally more conservative than the white men who succeeded them. Some actually divided the territory controlled by the tribe into family hunting arounds, keeping an inventory of game and imposing limits on themselves. In the south, though less wood was needed for fire and shelter, the valley flats and hillsides were burned to flush out game, a practice that created savannas of brush and grass—excellent feeding grounds for deer, wapiti, bison, heath hen, and turkey.

On the plains, the nomadic hunters of the bison also burned off the old, dry turf, clearing the ground for new growth of protein-rich legumes and grasses. Prevailing west winds carried these fires, as well as those started by lightning, into what are now Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, carving out peninsulas along the border of the great eastern forest that also became grassland.

When the Indians were driven out, the tall grass prairies were gradually plowed and planted, and most of the burning ceased. So the hardwoods returned, wherever possible. The winged seeds of the cottonwood, the elm, and the silver maple took hold along the streams, and on the drier uplands shrubbery broke tip the thick sod, shaded out the grasses, and was eventually eclipsed by young oaks and hickories. Thus, at first, the landscape built up again, until it was covered with the vegetation most suited to the climate.

Such natural buildups and breakdowns (whether by fire, ice, or other disturbance) are continuous. But the kind of breakdown accomplished by European man has been much faster and more complete; and in some areas the damage wrought is irreparable.

Only three hundred years after the arrival of the first settlers, the face of the continent has been drastically altered. The forests have been cut down; cattle and sheep have overgrazed the rangeland; the plains have been planted and tilled, often unwisely; marshes have been drained and high dams built that have backed up the waters of rivers into valleys and canyons. Sewage and other wastes from growing cities and industry have polluted the waters.

Among the birds that have become extinct along the way are the great auk, the Labrador duck, the passenger pigeon, the heath hen, and the Carolina parakeet—all of which had been very plentiful and gregarious and were easily killed for food or sport. The snowy egret was nearly shot off its marshy breeding grounds for the sake of its nuptial plumes, a favorite decoration for ladies’ hats. Before 1890, ten million people had settled the West, the Great Plains were stocked with more than eleven million head of cattle, and the teeming millions of bison had been slaughtered almost to the last individual. The pronghorn antelopes, once as numerous as the bison, were down to about 30,000. mostly in the Southwest and Far West. About 125,000 wapiti survived in the northern forests and the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. The big carnivores also retreated into these relatively inaccessible places and into the wilds of Florida. Mountain sheep were driven higher in the Rockies, to the tundra homes of mountain goats, and the desert bighorns dropped to only 300.

As soon as timber became scarce and topsoil on the cutover lands had washed away, clogging river bottoms with silt and killing fishes, cries for conservation were heard.

At the turn of the twentieth century, watersheds were replanted and massive reforestation projects were begun in the South and West—tree farms for the raising and harvesting of fast-growing conifers. Areas strip-mined for coal were graded and replanted. Much later, in the prairie states, the soil bank was formed to let nature heal the wounds of drought, plowing, and overgrazing.

At mid-century, however, war and prosperity caused new inroads into natural resources, and today a population of 195 million, bigger cities, and bigger industry have made pollution of the air and water a bigger problem than ever. About eighty-five per cent of the contiguous United States is either farmed, grazed, or lumbered, often not wisely; farm and ranch lands equivalent to the combined areas of Texas and California have become man-made badlands, desolated by erosion. Giant old redwoods are still being felled as new crops grow to “commercial” size (which takes about eighty years), and in the west coast valleys of the Eel, Klamath, and Smith rivers the denuded hillsides pour down torrential floods.