El Mensaje de Mérida

UXMAL, Mexico — The stones are already slick when our group ascends past the visitors’ center and into view of the pyramid. Under an intermittent drizzle, the team of wilderness conservation leaders has come to inspect Uxmal — a sacred center of Mayan learning, where priests, scribes, and shamans studied language, astronomy, mathematics, and the deeper mysteries of the gods. Chief among the gods at Uxmal was Chaac, lord of the rain. Carved images of the tusked, long-nosed deity extend from innumerable rock corners. As we round the Temple of the Magician, the windless sky opens up, drenching the dozens of international wilderness conservationists and activists who have assembled in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico to discuss the most pressing global challenges facing wild nature. “This must be Chaac blessing us,” a co-explorer quips, dodging into a convenient stone passage. For the original inhabitants of this site, with no natural water sources nearby, rainfall was all-important, and I try to summon a convincing “thanks” as I fret over the electronics dampening in my pack.

While some archeologists insist the Mayan communities of the Yucatan region were able to navigate the complexities of population growth, residents of the earliest cities, the so-called Pre-Classical Maya, weren’t so adept. Their rise was doomed by what has become a trademark of today’s industrialized societies: conspicuous consumption. As the lust for ever-grander displays of power took hold, increasing amounts of forest had to be felled for the firewood needed for the creation of lime plaster used in the temples, says University of Idaho archeologist Richard Hansen. “They started laying floors, for example, 40 centimeters thick. Why do you need a floor 40 centimeters thick?” Hansen asks, before answering with dramatic emphasis: “Because you can.”

Slash-and-burn agriculture and deforestation related to lime production had unintended consequences. Average temperatures rose; drought followed; civilization crumbled. But the early Maya weren’t the only people doomed by unsustainable environmental practices or rapid shifts in the climate, a fact by no means lost on the hundreds of researchers, scientists, conservationists, and wild-lands activists gathered at the 9th World Wilderness Congress in Mérida, Mexico. Organized by the non-profit Wild Foundation, the group gathers every four years to craft responses to the most pressing conservation challenges of the day. During the second week of November, meeting one month before the international climate talks in Copenhagen, the first order of business is averting a planetary-scale collapse of our own making.

The message is most clearly elucidated by Harvey Locke, the Wild Foundation’s vice president of conservation strategy and a leading Canadian conservationist. “We will not stop climate change if we don’t stop killing nature. It’s that simple.”

I’m overwhelmed by the call issued on the last day of the congress to protect “at least” half of the planet’s lands and oceans for wild nature. Skeptical that such a ratio could ever be reached in my home state of Texas, I would learn that a template for rewilding the Lone Star State exists and a movement is already growing.

n the hour-long bus trip from Mérida to Uxmal, I’m engaged in conversation with Madhu Saghal of Mumbai, India. Across southern India, sea-level rise is occurring faster than in most other parts of the planet, and the government is already considering relocating tens of thousands further inland.

Saghal asks questions I have no good answers for. Why, for instance, has the United States failed for so long to take action on climate change?

I describe the process, best as I am able. How industry-funded disinformation campaigns, tactics first refined by Big Tobacco, are used to spread uncertainty about climate science among the public. How our process of partisan politics warps even issues as universally threatening as climate change for polling-booth advantage. But it’s no answer. Not with the ramifications of inaction as stark as the ruins of Uxmal against the battleship-gray sky.

“Don’t they know they are killing us?” Saghal asks.

The question foreshadows another bus ride I will take here in Mérida, and another warning. This time, Grand Chief Sam Gargan, leader of the Deh Cho First Nations of Canada’s Northwest Territories, tells me how a fluctuation of a single degree Celsius brought on a serious fish kill in his country. How the rapid thawing in the higher latitudes caused hazards for those who hunt and travel across the ice. “It’s very dangerous,” he says.

In this world where spring comes sooner, freezes are no longer reliable, and tropical diseases like dengue fever have begun to march northward, there is still no united response to climate change. As some of the poorest and most climate-vulnerable nations pushed hard for promises of tough carbon reductions from the industrialized nations weeks ago, President Barack Obama announced he would not press for legally binding limits on greenhouse gases at the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. The international huddle that opened this week and runs through December 18 — intended to produce an international response to replace the failed Kyoto Protocol that expires in 2012 — isn’t likely to result in solid agreements. Meanwhile, the accelerating pace of climate change inspired world-renowned biologist Jane Goodall to plead with more than a thousand in the audience on my first day at WILD9: “We cannot continue spiraling out of control. The planet will simply collapse, as parts of it have started to collapse already.”

The United States’ failure to act on climate change has been perhaps one of the most bewildering issues surrounding the phenomena. As the improving science of climatology solidifies our understanding of how emissions from human industry are increasingly destabilizing the planet’s natural systems, recent polling suggests the U.S. public has grown increasingly skeptical.

So troubling has been the disconnect between science and policy that a task force of the American Psychological Association was set up to explain our collective inaction.

“Just as one might puzzle over the collapse of vanished regional civilizations like the Maya of Central America, the Anasazi of North America, the Norse of Greenland, and the people of Easter Island, future generations may find it incomprehensible that people, particularly in industrialized countries, continued until well into the 21st century to engage in behavior that seriously compromised the habitability of their own countries and the planet,” states Psychology and Global Climate Change, published earlier this year.

The team of eight researchers suggested a ream of conditions were to blame, including despair over lack of control, the power of our habits, perceived scientific uncertainty, outright ignorance, and distrust of the government.

Of course, if climate change is a truly psychologically paralyzing prospect, we’re screwed. As one organizer of the Wilderness Congress tells me, “If you just want to sit on your couch and be overwhelmed, you will watch the world go to shit.”

Current forecasts suggest that if the world continues along the business-as-usual track, temperatures by the end of the century could leave much of the earth a virtually uninhabitable husk. If the gap between knowledge and action has been caused by poor communication, however, we are fortunate there are among us those gifted in the art of simplification. Take John Sterman and his bathtub, for example.

Sterman, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management who has studied sustainability issues since the 1970s, says climate change action has never really caught on because it’s not been explained in a way people can grasp. So he uses an everyday item, the bathtub, as a teaching device, as featured in this month’s issue of National Geographic.

Imagine the tub is our atmosphere. Into it pour 10.2 billion metric tons (and growing) of climate-influencing carbon dioxide a year. An unplugged drain — representing our oceans, forests, and grasslands — can siphon out roughly 55 percent of our carbon emissions, according to the Global Carbon Project. The rest stays in the tub, our atmosphere, where it traps ever more radiant heat close to the earth, forcing the temperature of the planet to rise. “People think that if we cut emissions we would soon cut the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and temperatures would start to fall. That’s just not true,” Sterman says. Best estimates suggest that if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today it will take hundreds, if not thousands, of years to drain the tub back to levels that existed prior to industrialization.

While nations debate how quickly to wrench the tap shut, the message from Mérida is about keeping the drain clear; wild lands and seas, responsible for absorbing half of the greenhouse pollution human industry kicks off, must be protected. The formal message being distributed to Copenhagen delegates, El Mensaje de Mérida, signed by roughly half of the world’s conservation organizations, demands they “recognize that large-scale nature conservation is a first-order climate change strategy for both mitigation and adaptation, and is necessary to address both the climate change and biodiversity extinction crises.”

It further urges that the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change adopt 350 parts per million as the upper limit on global greenhouse gas concentrations “to avoid the disappearance of key elements of life on Earth such as coral reefs.”

While carbon dioxide levels have fluctuated over time, since industrialization the concentration of greenhouse gases has shot up dramatically to today’s 387 ppm, the highest it has been on the planet in at least 800,000 years, according to ice core samples. Even the capacity of natural systems to absorb all the extra carbon is being stretched. The oceans, for example, have grown significantly more acidic as they store increasing amounts of carbon dioxide. This process threatens the bottom rungs of the ocean food web as the ability of shell-forming algae, corals, and shellfish to produce the calcium carbonate needed for life is challenged. Overall, very little attention has been given to how wildlife will adapt to rising temperatures, WILD9 delegates said.

“When you look at the `Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change` report, there are hundreds and hundreds of pages and thousands of scientific references about what will happen in the future with different degrees of warning. That part on adaptation, particularly for wild lands and wild species, in this … it’s about 20 pages,” said Lisa Graumlich, director of University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment. But even as nations fumble toward a common response to the climate crisis, the protection of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems is not a given, said Peg Putt, of the Australian Wilderness Society and a former Green Party member of parliament.

At WILD9, Putt excoriated the currently proposed forest protections in the UN’s Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, or REDD.

“It all depends on what you mean by ‘forest,’” she told audiences. “`REDD` does not distinguish between natural forests and plantations, so massive conversion of natural forests to plantations is not covered. … For many forest areas, they can be degraded to the point of ecosystem collapse and still meet the definition of forest.”

It is this the sort of situation that the Message of Mérida seeks to address.

“We’re saying, this isn’t good enough,” Locke said. “Let’s get serious about the state of life on this Earth. Let’s get down to 350 `ppm CO2` where we should be, at the very minimum. And let’s get on with having a sane century, shall we?”

living forest and a tree plantation are perhaps primarily distinguished by the diversity of species present. Howler monkeys, orangutans, giant sloths, and jaguars are the stuff of forests, the substance of biodiversity. For this menagerie to stay healthy, there must be room to roam. In Nicaragua, the founder and executive director of the non-profit Paso Pacífico, Sarah Otterstromm, is working to create that space.

While she has successfully enlisted help from local communities to restore coastal habitat and slowed the trade in sea turtle eggs by paying residents up to $2.50 per hatchling that reaches the surf, her aims extend further. She hopes to one day establish a chain of protected areas linked by ecologically protected corridors along the entire Pacific Coast of Central America. It’s the same concept that first informed a Central American jaguar-protection effort, Paseo Pantera, in the 1990s, and the dream that followed of a Mesoamerican Biological Corridor that hoped to protect undeveloped wilderness from Panama to Mexico.

Such efforts reflect the deepening conviction that isolated parks are not enough to allow wilderness to thrive; connectivity is what matters. Conservation biologists have long understood that preserves and parks surrounded by developed land are essentially biological “islands,” and, as such, are more prone to species extinction and vulnerable to the invasion of destructive non-native species.

By contrast, tigers are already returning to a chain of protected areas spanning the length of India and Nepal’s boundary where more than 4,400 acres of formerly degraded habitat have been restored in recent years, said Ghana Gurung, conservation program director at World Wildlife Fund – Nepal.

Other bi-national projects include the expansion of protected lands in the northern Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua to complement the 800,000-acre Big Bend National Park in West Texas. A similar bi-national Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative habitat protection plan is gaining support from a range of private interests and non-profits. Even a park as large as Yellowstone, it seems, needs connections. “Yellowstone will not make it through time unless it is connected, or reconnected,” said Locke, one of the visionaries behind the proposal to drastically expand protected lands between Yellowstone National Park and Canada’s Yukon Territory.

However, even the most wide-ranging conservation strategies are sure to be challenged by the unpredictability of climate change, Graumlich told WILD9 attendees.

In recent years, snow cover in parts of western Canada has decreased by 25 percent, wildfires have increased six-fold, and snowmelt is coming weeks earlier, she said. “We know that high latitudes will warm more quickly than middle and low latitudes,” Graumlich said. “This is the place where you get those runaway warming effects.”

The cumulative impact of these changes has enabled pine bark beetles to reproduce more quickly and left the trees more vulnerable to infestation. “All of the kinds of conservation planning we are doing has — on some level — assumed that if we could just have some conservation conversation with logging interests and provisional authorities we could maintain old growth forests. That’s not so clear,” she said. “As we look at two and three degrees `Celsius` warming, we’re going to see the demise of old growth forests … at a scale we have not seen in the 20th Century.”

Of course, forests are not the only ecosystems that will suffer from climate change. Less than two degrees Celsius is expected to bleach out the world’s remaining coral reefs, half of which are already dead or dying. The sea turtles Otterstromm has been fighting to protect, which feed on those dying reefs, are also threatened by warming oceans and sea-level rise, researchers are discovering. More than three degrees Celsius and “we basically see a massive extinction of all the wildlife,” Graumlich said. Without rapid intervention, many researchers are suggesting the planet will reach as high as six degrees by century’s end.

Thanks to habitat losses worldwide, now being exacerbated by climate shifts, a major extinction event is already under way. Last month, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature released its annual “red list” of threatened and endangered species, reporting that one out of every five known mammals is now at risk of extinction. Thirty percent of the world’s amphibians, and 28 percent of its reptiles, are likewise close to disappearing forever. As are 70 percent of the world’s plants and 37 percent of freshwater fishes.

All told, 17,291 species of 47,677 species studied are considered threatened by the IUCN.

In part out of recognition that expanded wilderness would allow the world’s wild creatures to adapt to climate change, representatives of the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed a Memorandum of Understanding at the opening of WILD9, pledging to work together on international conservation issues.

For their part, the WILD9 organizers are pushing for a full half of the planet’s land and sea to be protected from development. “Grounded on the science, grounded on the state of things in our world, we believe it is time to advance a global vision that we will protect in an interconnected manner at least half of the surface of the earth on land and on sea,” Locke said at WILD9’s concluding session. “At least half of this earth should be left so we can have functions like life continue with us. So we can regulate the climate. So that we put a vision out there in front of humanity that says we have to stop bleeding so we can start dreaming and building a coherent view of what the 21st century ought to look like. And at the heart of that must be wild nature.”

That position is supported by an increasing number of conservation biologists, including Kenton Miller, former chair of the IUCN. A survey of current scientific literature on the topic concludes: “If commitments to sustainable development and conservation of biodiversity are to be anything more than paper promises, conservation science must move beyond crisis management, and conservation planning must strive for something more meaningful than politically expedient targets.”

If conservation biologists to date have failed to insist on adequate targets for the preservation of wildlife out of concern for the “politically possible,” the politicians rolling out emission-reduction pledges in Copenhagen this week are guilty of the same. All pledges to date fall far short of what science calls for, said MIT’s Sterman. According to ClimateInteractive.org, a climate policy calculator that Sterman helped develop, even the best proposals would lead to greenhouse-gas levels twice as high as the International Panel on Climate Change says are needed to avoid catastrophic shifts this century. “The current proposals are not anywhere near sufficient to limit the risk of harmful climate change temperatures,” Sterman said. However, they do represent “a significant improvement over doing nothing.”

Then comes the landing.

I don’t touch down at San Antonio International with the coveted hammock requested by a friend, nothing from the pyramids, downtown vendors, or the duty-free shops. Nothing to declare but the National Geographic boasting Sterman’s bathtub, ensuring the cry for wilderness still resonating within me remains coupled with an appropriate urgency for emissions-reduction.

As the din of more than 1,500 WILD9 attendees, round-the-clock speeches and multimedia presentations involving retreating glaciers, portraits of endangered species, and the message of vanishing cultures melts away, I find myself facing Texas again. What does this call to save half of our open lands mean to a state founded on real-estate speculation, where 95 percent of the land is privately owned and the builders’ lobby runs the Statehouse?

Is it possible that the rapid revaluation of Nature — a global response to the combined climate and biological crises — could refashion half of Texas’ 171.8 million acres into something our earliest residents would recognize? A tapestry of thigh-high-in-the-saddle prairie grasses, overflowing springs, and teeming wildlife? On the face of it, it seems unthinkable. But changes are already afoot that could light the way.

While more than a million acres of ranchland, farmland, and forest were fragmented by urban sprawl in the past decade, a small but growing number of ranchers and growers are voluntarily choosing to re-wild their lands. Since passage in 1996 of state legislation that created the property tax category of “wildlife management,” akin to agricultural classification, a total of 2.3 million privately-owned acres have been reclassified as “wildlife,” according to Texas A&M’s Institute of Renewable Natural Resources.

While landowners who re-wild aren’t compensated for their work, the philosophy behind it is supported by new economics that calculates in dollar values the full range of ecological “services” undeveloped lands provide. When properly assessed, the creation of fresh water, clean air, and that magical ability to absorb and store vast amounts of carbon, are worth more than mining, logging, and commercial agriculture combined, said Pavan Sukhdev, director of the Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity program at the United Nations. And there are simple ways the state of Texas can accelerate the preservation and rewilding of open lands, said Houston attorney, recent Congressional candidate, and wildlands “rancher” Larry Joe Doherty. As it stands, those like Doherty who are working to restore a wild Texas typically have to maintain other jobs; run a little cattle, sell hunting leases, or lean on an expanding nature tourism market to supplement their passion. “The essence of being a Texan is a relationship we have with the land and keeping that land functioning the way it’s supposed to rather than pouring concrete on top of it, overgrazing it with cattle, or plowing it up for crops,” he tells me.

After 10 years working the 270-acre Long Star Ranch in Washington County, Doherty has helped inspire some of his neighbors to bring the “wild” back to their property, but he recognizes much more needs to be done to encourage such efforts on a broader scale.

“There has to be some incentive, or reason, or motivating factor for `landowners`. And right now it’s more of a disincentive than it is an incentive,” he said, adding that many in the Texas Legislature still feel that “value” and “open space” are oxymoronic.

“They say, ‘Well, you’re not doing anything.’ `But` you’re allowing the land to be used by nature in the fashion in which is was intended: to preserve the environment.”

Steps to encourage open-lands preservation include eliminating the inheritance tax for those ranching and farming families who commit to preserve their property in a single parcel or agree to a conservation easement; making it easier for property owners to receive ag tax valuation for “wilderness” designations; creating incentives for property owners to adopt management practices that repair overgrazed lands and improve water flow; and developing programs for the restoration of native grasses.

Water is fast eclipsing oil and gas in its recognition as the state’s most crucial resource. According to the Texas Water Development Board, a drought of record in 2010 would outstrip the state’s ability to meet the demand. And with the population expected to double in 50 years, some utilities will be tempted to turn to energy-intensive answers such as ocean desalination. However, Doherty said legislators should be considering the success of operations like the Bamberger Ranch Preserve in Blanco County, where property managers have demonstrated that by restoring native habitat and improving ranching practices increased water retention can be achieved, which leads to faster aquifer recharge. While such “created” water from better management oftentimes flows on to public water supplies, the ranches themselves aren’t compensated for their efforts. Something state leaders should consider as climatologists forecast Texas, Northern Mexico, and other Western states will soon be entering a state of “permanent drought.” (See “Last Chance for a Slow Dance,” March 25, 2009.) “We need to incentivize that by allowing landowners that are maintaining open space in a contiguous manner to benefit from what they are doing to help the public. Urban areas need to realize their water supply comes from open space, rural land that surrounds them,” Doherty said.

Katherine Hayhoe, an associate professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas Tech University and contributing author for both the IPCC and U.S. Climate Change Science Program, says land use is a critical component of an effective climate policy. “Even if we can slow down our effects on the atmosphere, we would also like to increase the sinks, the things that take `the gases` out faster,” she said. “So that’s where land management comes in. Judicious land management can really make a huge contribution to … enhancing the sinks so they actually absorb more carbon dioxide than they used to. When we eventually do stabilize our emissions, it will help in sucking out some of the excess CO2 more quickly.”

With roughly 4.3 million acres preserved in parks and wilderness areas, according to a rough 2002 assessment by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, and 2.3 million acres as privately owned “wildlife,” Texas boasts only about 3.8 percent wildspace.

While 50-percent wildspace may seem impractical, Locke says that globally such a state existed as little as 50 years ago. “I’m not talking about time of the caveman, I’m talking about the time of the Baby Boomer,” he said.

Fortunately, efforts aimed at dialing back the biological clock already represent a growing movement in the Lone Star State, according to Susan Armstrong, executive director of the Texas Land Trust Council, a 10-year-old organization representing 40 groups working to promote and sustain state conservation work. “It’s not just a movement of protection, but we’re seeing it grow in terms of becoming a viable career for people,” Armstrong said.

Once a market is established for places to hide excess atmospheric carbon, either through an international agreement via Copenhagen or out of a U.S. climate bill coming up for Senate debate in 2010, landowners may have other income possibilities open up. In fact, TLTC member group,
Native Prairies Association of Texas, is already exploring the potential for native grasslands and carbon sequestration, Armstrong said. “They really are trying to get the word out about the value of native grasses for carbon sequestration … and looking toward more creative types of financing,” she said.

Back in Mérida, former NOAA chief scientist and celebrated oceanographer Silvia Earl lamented the recent tripling of the human population that has placed such pressures on the natural world. “Nature’s letting us slip through her fingers, and we’re just becoming conscious of that,” she had said. “What we do now — right now — this is the best chance we have.”

As it turns out, the things that are happening right now aren’t all bad. A template exists that can be built upon that could transform natural lands in Texas while creating new sources of income. “I don’t think there’s an easy answer on it,” said Armstrong, “but I think it’s going to be an evolution over time.”

As biologists know, the evolutionary process is a grindingly slow one. But sometimes, like an epiphany, there are remarkable bursts of creativity and color. It’s the latter sort our times require. •

Portions of this report were previously published by the Environment News Service.

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