THE NEW WEST: A Requiem for Toughie

By on January 17, 2017

What happens when one species no longer cares about the survival of another species?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – First, a digression: I completely get Elon Musk’s enthusiasm for a manned space mission to Mars, how it’s part of humanity’s yen for going where no person has ever gone before. You know—the Star Trek kind of stuff, to seek out new life and civilizations, to boldly paddle a kayak into the nether of Uranus.

And like you, I grasp the technological dividends resulting from investment in space travel and the unexpected insights divined just from trying to get there.

The Apollo program of the 1960s, which put us on the moon (despite skeptics who said it cost too much and that we’d never succeed) resulted in revolutionary digital gadgets we now hold in our hands. Our rallying around Apollo achieved the nearly unthinkable, galvanizing national unity and pride that’s sadly lacking in today’s America.

Apollo was a Manhattan Project aimed at the cosmos. It helped transform the way we live on Earth. It’s an example of how a major public/private investment in research and development—such as one, say, that would hasten game-changing advances in clean, renewable energy—would yield similar profound results.

Finding scalable alternatives to fossil fuels pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, after all, appears to be our only hope for slowing human-caused climate change.

But to all this talk by Musk and others who want to expansively establish a colony on Mars, I ask: Why not spend a fraction of that saving what’s in our own backyard?

Apart from the escapist romance of Mars portrayed by Hollywood, what would colonization really mean: A barren world absent other beings; a limited outdoor existence that would require trudging around in the equivalent of a hermetically-sealed snowmobile suits equipped with artificial life support; inhabiting a true biological desert where the only other major organisms are cousins of microbes found in Yellowstone’s hot springs.

Certainly, people could ride mountain bikes with an oxygen tank fitted in their backpacks, shred the Martian dunes, assail canyon walls, and high-mark hillsides to their hearts’ content on electric snowmobiles and dirt bikes. The intrepid, with endorsement deals from gear manufacturers, could strive to plant their flags and be the first to have their names entered in summit logbooks.

And then what?

It wouldn’t take long before dwelling on the red planet in underground Quonset huts got old. Or maybe for a certain kind of person it wouldn’t.

Mars—devoid of trees, green grass, blue water, no sounds of songbirds, frogs or crickets, no wolf howls, owl hoots or bugling elk, no rushing streams or croaking frogs; no smells of pine, wildflowers or sage; no pressing the flesh against anything else with a soothing spirit or heartbeat.

You may have heard about the wonders of IBM’s Watson computer, a human-built supercomputer that can process 500 gigabytes, the equivalent of a million books, per second. Extraordinary. But there’s no feat of human accomplishment yet that comes close to matching the sophisticated self-willed natural engineering of a living species.

Wyoming is famous for resuscitating the existence of the black-footed after it was thought extinct. In contrast, a few months ago an amphibian named Toughie died in captivity at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

He was the last Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog, a species millions of years in the making that winked out, eliciting barely a yawn of a reaction from humankind. In spring 2016, photographer Joel Sartore, who is compiling a portfolio of animals that recently have gone extinct or teeter on the edge of it, projected the image of Toughie onto the wall of St. Peters Basilica in Vatican City.

The tenacious Toughie

In a commercial sense, a free-market economist might argue that Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrogs were practically “good for nothing”; worthless even.  A person couldn’t make money trapping them and selling their pelts, burning them in a smokestack to generate electricity, serving them on restaurant menus, using them as building materials or turning them into jewelry, like gold.

But if a NASA rover ever happened upon a frog like Toughie on Mars, it would be a reality-shaking discovery.

In order for a single species—even Homo sapiens— to exist, a life-support system must be in place. The persistence of a single species, in turn, depends upon the persistence of other species. Remove enough species from the web of life and the things that support it, and it increases the likelihood of ecological collapse.

I thought about Toughie a few months ago as Tom Mangelsen and I walked through the Cincinnati Zoo grounds with the zoo’s renowned director Thane Maynard (known as the host of the 90-Second Naturalist broadcast on radio stations coast to coast).

Tom and I were there to give a talk about Jackson Hole Grizzly 399. Maynard led us to the place where Martha, the last passenger pigeon in the world, died on Sept. 1, 1914.     

Yes, our planet has constantly been changing and species have come and gone, but never before has a single species been responsible for the destruction of so many others. We are in uncharted territory.

Ironically, people justify the push to colonize other planets as a hedge for our species to survive a planetary catastrophe. They wrongly assume it would be easy to replicate life here elsewhere.

Here on Earth, members of Congress, including elected officials from Wyoming, want to cut federal investment in science that advances our understanding of terrestrial life. They want to do away with agencies and regulation devoted to environmental protection. They deny climate change and evolution. And they want to censure the teaching of science in public schools if it doesn’t align with the agendas of their campaign contributors’ political and religious ideology. There are words for this kind of mentality.

If they don’t understand why the environment on this planet matters, they ought to spend a single day on Mars. PJH

Todd Wilkinson has been an environmental journalist for 30 years. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Washington Post. His award-winning column, The New West, appears in The Planet every week and is syndicated via thebullseye.media

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