Nature isn’t a museum

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Americans are increasingly approaching nature with a “look but don’t touch” mindset — and losing a fundamental part of their national identity in the process.

Tourists are trekking to national parks in record numbers. In fact, some parks now require reservations to manage the number of visitors and protect sensitive ecosystems.

Yet while the number of people flocking to get a glimpse at wildlife is increasing, the share of Americans who hunt, fish, and forage — who touch, rather than just look — has been declining for decades. Just 4.6% of Americans bought a hunting license in 2020, down from 7.7% in 1960. Only 8.8% bought a fishing license, down from 10.6% in 1960.

This slide is concerning, because an immersive relationship with nature — one where even average Americans can touch, not just look — has always been foundational to our national identity. George Washington relieved his stress from presiding over the Constitutional Convention by going fishing. Teddy Roosevelt, the father of the conservation movement, sought to preserve open spaces and thereby prevent America from turning into Europe, where hunting — and the primal connection with nature it offers — was a privilege reserved only for the rich.

Of course, in one hundred years, there will still be forests and wildlife in the United States, even if the population continues growing rapidly. It isn’t difficult to designate lands as preserved in perpetuity.

But with a population anywhere from 500 million to a full billion (if open borders truly become a reality), it will be impossible for millions of hunters, fisherman, and foragers to enjoy the same routine interactions with nature that they have today. A country so densely populated would need far more regulations on what can be used and what must be left “undisturbed” in natural settings.

Already, those regulations are far more restrictive than past generations faced.

Not long ago, I found a beautiful patch of Chanterelle mushrooms that spread as far as the eye could see. I was forbidden by the local forest department to take home a few to enjoy for supper.

I understand why the prohibition is in effect. If everyone did the same, there would be no more Chanterelles. But it’s a shame that simply gathering mushrooms — something that previous generations took for granted — is no longer an option for many Americans.

Many so-called growthers argue that population density is the solution to dealing with ongoing population growth. And it’s true that dense development is more environmentally friendly than uncontrolled urban sprawl.

But it doesn’t solve anything in the long term. More natural resources are needed to support more people, and that means developing open spaces for food production, warehousing, transportation networks, waste disposal, and designated “nature preserves,” where humans can look but not touch.

Nobody wants to see kids in cages, or inhumane treatment of immigrants seeking a better life. But given that immigration is the driving cause of population growth, a firm, rational policy on the issue of immigration — one that cuts the number of people moving to the United States each year to a sustainable number — is necessary for future generations to enjoy our natural resources. Such a policy would benefit workers of all races, as Bernie Sanders pointed out in 2015. Our current policy of de facto open borders is an ecological, economic, and political catastrophe.

How many people can we sustainably admit each year into this country, while maintaining open access to our resources? Americans who love the great outdoors have a right — and a duty — to start that conversation.

Wyatt Verlen is a graduate of Depaul University in Chicago and a native midwesterner, lifelong outdoorsman, and passionate conservationist. This piece originally appeared in the Detroit News.

NOTE: Items posted to the WCN Blog Pages are the opinions of the writer, and do not necessarily the opinion of the Wilson County News, its management, or staff.