You can be sane and have a sense of humor and a little self-consciousness and still think that if this country were in a toaster, the smoke alarm would have gone off a long time ago. You can relax about Reverend Wright's saying, "God Damn America," over and over on Fox News because you understand that God took things into His Own Hands and damned America the day the Supreme Court appointed George Bush captain of our ship of state. And you can decide that issues of wolves and wilderness don't matter because within 50 years they will be trumped by human population growth, national bankruptcy and the end of cheap energy.
A friend who has dedicated his life to environmental causes says this: "Our efforts toward wilderness preservation and salmon recovery have amounted to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic." His words came back to me during the recent battles over wolves and Mike Simpson's yearly attempt to get his CIEDRA development and tourism bill through Congress. Here's what I think my friend meant:
The reintroduction of wolves has certainly provided jobs for wildlife biologists. In moments of cynicism (even I have them) I think that federal biologists simply won a Darwinian battle with Idaho biologists, who were running a nice little agribusiness involving tame elk herds and out-of-state hunting licenses.
But it's also clear that wolves have been a good excuse to avoid thinking about less-solvable environmental issues. The wolf issue distracts wonderfully from the inexorable rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, the release of synthetic estrogens from plastics, nuclear proliferation, growing dead zones in the oceans, and the loss of agricultural land to pollution, erosion and suburbs.
An obsession with CIEDRA seems to have allowed Mike Simpson to avoid his own painful problems. CIEDRA has consumed years of congressional attention in the midst of national decisions to go to war, increase the deficit, backpedal on alternative energy research, and castrate environmental and financial watchdog agencies. A thoughtful examination of unhappy consequences hasn't been part of Simpson's lockstep support for George Bush's favorite things.
What Simpson did think long and happily about was tying the creation of a Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness to a giveaway of public land to trophy-home developers. If CIEDRA passes, Stanley, Idaho, will be converted to Suburbia, a country where environmental torture is legal.
Since CIEDRA was conceived, we have gotten ourselves in hock to China and OPEC. And giving public land to developers turns a sacred trust into a liquid asset that can be traded for more oil or toxic pet food.
Simpson is just trying to do his job. He's trying to put the first-class deck chairs near the bandstand and the third-class chairs down in steerage. He doesn't appreciate people who interrupt him and point over the bow rail, to where there's a big chunk of ice getting bigger.
If the slow economic suicide of this country continues, all we will have left to pay our debts is our public land. It won't matter if the Boulder-White Clouds are protected by our laws. The Chinese or the Saudis are going to want them, too. That's what the iceberg looks like for wilderness.
The iceberg for wolf partisans is similarly economic. The last time the wolves were shot out of the West was in the 1930s, when many people were feeding their families with wild game. A simple formula: We can afford wolves as long as the poorest people in the state aren't competing with them for protein.
It's easy to get comfortably consumed with these issues, but it's far wiser to look to the future. Two-hundred-dollar oil, more decades of Mideast war, and a debt-engendered depression will tear our attention away from wolves and wilderness whether we want them to or not.
On May 18, Mike Simpson will address the Idaho Conservation League at Redfish Lake Lodge. Ice will still cover the lake, but the lodge will be warm and full of self-congratulatory good cheer, as the battle is again joined to designate Idaho's wild lands as wilderness for the benefit of future generations. But I hope that Simpson and everyone else who is there will stick a hand in the icy water off the dock, remember those who went down with the Titanic, take a look at the SUVs and pickups in the parking lot, and contemplate for a moment how insane they all will seem to their grandchildren.