From Shasta Bioregional Gathering 5

Sustainable SF

The State of the System
Bill Devall

A natural system has semi-permeable boundaries that are constantly in a state of flux and flow. It is valuable to investigate the overall health to indicate how an ecosystem is affected by various human and natural activities, and to help humans understand the intricacies of the natural cycles that surround them. A “state of a system” assessment is an analysis of the present condition of a natural system at a certain point in time, a study that can provide a benchmark by which to measure both positive and negative trends.

The information we collect on natural systems is never truly complete. It is an ecological law that nature is reliably more complex than humans realize. However, we can use the most accurate measures available to assess and increase our knowledge about the complexities of natural systems through scientific research, observation and human intuition. By all widely accepted scientific indicators and by assessment of the cultural and social system, it is clear that the Klamath-Siskiyou-Shasta Bioregion is in a state of distress.

Natural disturbances have created and shaped the geography and plant and animal communities of this bioregion over millions of years. Within the past fifty years, the bioregion has experienced two “one hundred year” floods, in 1954 and again in 1964. The bioregion experienced a seven year drought during the 1970’s. Scientists are predicting the strongest El Niño of this century during the 1997-98 winter season (which may bring stronger storms and possible flooding in an already stressed system). Some scientists predict that warmer water temperatures will attract fish that usually inhabit the southern waters off Humboldt County. These fish may prey on already low populations of coho salmon.

Human activities in this bioregion over the past two centuries have had a major impact as well. The introduction of industrial civilization in 1850 dramatically influenced the Klamath-Siskiyou-Shasta Bioregion. Prior to 1850, various practices of Indian nations (such as the controlled burning of meadows, fishing and acorn gathering) minimally effected the system. However, the effects of these actions pale in comparison to the damage done by industrial civilization. This bioregion has experienced 150 years of “drawdown,” (the removal of the biomass richness and biodiversity in a region that existed prior to human influence). Since the first lumber mills and commercial fisheries opened in Humboldt County in the mid-1800s, the pattern of the bioregion’s biomass withdrawal has been continuous and unrelenting.

Our forests have suffered some of the deepest wounds from human influence. Virtually all watersheds outside of designated wilderness areas and parks have been stripped of their mature forests. The landscapes within state and federal parks (such as those within Redwood National Forest and Humboldt Redwoods State Park) contain only a small percentage of the existing historic, mature forest in this bioregion. The remainder of the parklands are cutover and, in some places, extremely eroded due to road building and logging activities. In 1850, an estimated two million acres of ancient redwood forest existed between the Oregon border and Big Sur. In 1997, approximately five percent of those forests remain. Outside of state and federal parks, the largest single stand of ancient redwood forest is the less than four thousand acres within Headwaters Forest.

While there has been a steady drawdown of the historic biomass of the region, invasive species have been simultaneously introduced by human activities and have encroached on the habitat of endemic and native species. Forty years ago, coho salmon runs in the Klamath-Trinity and other river systems of this bioregion had as many as one million fish returning. In 1997, only an estimated 10,000 coho are returning to our rivers.

Human culture within the region has suffered from drawdown as well. Native American ceremonies, rituals and the regional sense of sacredness have been depleted. As Chris Peters, Executive Director of the Seventh Generation Fund and member of the Yurok Tribe says, “Don’t rely on Indians to save the integrity of the cultural system. Indians are clinging to life in this bioregion. Many traditional rituals have been lost. The elders are dying off. There are very few native language speakers.”

In reaction to the forces of industrial capitalism and in affirmation of the sacredness of the bioregion, the natural conservation movement has been active for the past fifty years in an attempt to “save some of the pieces” of this bioregion. According to ecologist Raymond Dasmann, “saving the pieces” means providing legal protection for landscapes containing significant refugia for endemic biodiversity and for the natural progression of landscape processes, including floods and naturally occurring fires.

In many aspects this bioregion has been a colony of national and increasingly globalized economies over the past 150 years. It is an open question whether regional political and cultural autonomy can be maintained in the face of the forces of globalization. What is certain is that human activity needs to be regulated and directed, allowing the natural processes of the bioregion the chance to recover some of their power over the next century. A new pattern of behavior must be implemented that encourages a level playing field, rather than one in which corporations and state and federal regulatory agencies are able to weaken the enforcement of regulations. There are increasing contradictions between those who advocate free market, local autonomy approaches to regulating human activities, and those who advocate the rule of law.

Over the past generation, bioregional culture has succeeded in developing some social institutions in response to a growing awareness of the interrelationship between the intrinsic value of nature, the quality of human culture and the importance of upholding the bioregion. The restoration of fisheries, wildlife habitat, soils, forest processes, and changing attitudes toward wildfires, are major themes of this emerging bioregional culture.

Watershed associations, native plant associations, and many enterprises devoted to organic gardening and “living in place” located throughout the bioregion, are indicators that the seeds of social change have sprouted. Social change is also evident through an increase of non-violent civil disobedience. On September 15, 1996, approximately one thousand people were arrested at the Fisher Road gate of PALCO (Pacific Lumber Co.), distinguishing the event by having the highest number of arrests in favor of the protection of ancient redwoods in American history. The demonstration affirmed a strong commitment toward preserving the well-being of the remaining ancient forests in this bioregion.

The principles and practices of eco-forestry, fisheries restoration, wildlands protection, enforcement of state and federal regulations to protect wildlife habitat, and community-building efforts are being articulated throughout the bioregion in effective ways. Hopefully, a commitment toward these various ecosophies will form a basis for cultural transformation, resulting in a restorative community that exists in a healthy bioregion.

-- Excerpted from a talk by Bill Devall. Appears here in edited form.