View From Sapsucker Woods: Time for Conservation in Alaska

By John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab
April 15, 2008
living bird magazine spread

There are places on our planet that can be appreciated, revered, and fully protected only in the context of earth time. The Grand Canyon is an obvious example, because it displays time so explicitly and majestically. Vishnu Schist underlying the inner gorge is 2 billion years old, the Kaibab Limestone on the rim is “only” 230 million years old, and the Colorado River took a mere 2 to 3 million years to cut through this gigantic time column.

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Alaska is a less obvious example. Reverence for Alaska requires not just an appreciation of the gargantuan forces of glaciation and mountain building, but also a willingness to understand and to accept humanity’s place in earth time.

Full understanding of time is a rare privilege today, given our preoccupations with youth, technology, and instant access to everything. For this reason, I begin my conservation biology classes at Cornell by having the students stand up and form a line beginning at the back wall, snaking down a side wall, and ending with the last student in front, facing the class. Each student represents 100 million years, so 35 students present the entire history of life on earth. (The same exercise with a larger group can begin at earth’s origin, at 4.5 billion years, or even the big bang, at 14 billion.)

From back to front, we trace the big events of evolutionary time: DNA, nucleated cell, photosynthesis, multicellular life, flowering plants, backbone, shelled egg, flight, dinosaur domination, the cataclysmic end-Cretaceous extinction, and finally, the 60-million-year- long “age of mammals” to which we humans belong. By this point, we’re focusing on the last student in the line. Dinosaurs disappeared about halfway through him. His outstretched right arm represents the age of mammals: titanotheres, uintatheres, horses, camels, sloths, saber-toothed cats, kangaroos, elephants, walruses, whales, monkeys, and the great apes—all these evolved, and many disappeared, over just the past 50 million years. Bipedal humanoids emerge somewhere beyond the first knuckle on my student’s index finger. All of human history— yes, the origin of the world’s great religions, cultures, and philosophies, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Mona Lisa, the Chinese dynasties, the great world wars—all of human history is represented by the pale, crescent tip of one student’s fingernail! As I slowly walk back alongside time, I ask the students to keep our status as humble newcomers to earth time in their minds at least for the rest of the semester. If they’re willing, it will help them for the rest of their lives.

Earth time has reached a pivotal crossroad. The path now is influenced by whether and how a single species appreciates itself, its own place in larger time, and its choices. Human culture spread across the world in the blink of an eye (about 50,000 years by most estimates), spreading diseases and unprecedented predatory technologies to every land and every sea. Our diaspora reached the Western Hemisphere just yesterday by earth time, beginning in frozen Alaska. We swarmed southward through two continents in just 12,000 years. As we had done elsewhere all around the world (except Africa, where we evolved), we colonized most of the surface area and laid waste to the vast numbers of naïve, large-bodied animals in our path. Gone in a heartbeat were mastodons, mammoths, camels, horses, sloths, sabertooths, and giant condors. Just a moment ago, we almost extinguished the great bison herds.

Today, as we work to extinguish the last of the great uncut forests, our species is beginning to ask whether it might be prudent to slow down. Could we stem our appetite and influence over so much that blossomed before us? Should we seek alternative behaviors in order to preserve and revere the last vestiges of truly wild earth—if for no other reason than to allow some future descendants the privilege of learning from these places?

Alaska remains. Thundering herds of caribou migrate through landscapes that retain their full gamut of large carnivores. Millions of waterfowl gather each summer to grow new wing feathers in the safety of endless lakes and horizons unbroken by roads. The sounds of wind, wolves, and loons prevail across one of the earth’s last great regions of essentially pre-human wilderness. Must we relinquish such a place just yet? Must we declare that its earth time is over?