I'm always astonished when people justify some action that hurts another species or its habitat by saying something like, "If we don't do this, people will suffer. We can't save every species, after all." Why not? Life, as it turns out, is not all about humans. It's not even mostly about humans. It's a community effort involving more species than we even know exist. It's the relationships and interactions between all of those species - not just the ones we bother to conserve - that keeps ecosystems healthy, that buffers fluctuations in climate and weather (until things get out of control, as they have with rising levels of greenhouse gases), and that keeps Earth a green and habitable place for us all. But we consistently don't get that point. You'd think we were the only species that mattered.
"Saving Fens" read the headline on the front page of my small-town newspaper, the Mountain Mail, recently. A fen is a cold-water, high-mountain bog or marsh, in other words, a wetland at high altitude. Here in the arid West, the species that depend on our scarce and unevenly distributed water supplies have evolved all sorts of ways to take advantage of the liquid stuff wherever it occurs, and fens are no exception. These mucky, marshy swales in high valleys where summer - the time from thaw to freeze-up - may last two months or less, are incredibly diverse places, richer in species than any other habitat around them. They are home to a host of lives unique and common, from tiny primroses, rare scarlet wood lilies, and dwarf willows to mountain plover, an endangered grassland-dwelling cousin to common killdeer, and speed-demon pronghorn antelope. Fens are high-altitude sponges, storing water that, released slowly over the summer, evens out fluctuations in streamflow, keeping aquatic insects and trout alive.
So saving fens seems like a good idea. But that's not actually what's happening, as a closer reading reveals. The City of Aurora, Denver's thirstiest suburb, and the Pueblo water utility, are looking for support for an effort to legitimize destroying fens, by drowning them under high-mountain reservoirs. Their plan: pick the chunks of the bog with heavy earth-moving equipment and move it elsewhere. Why? Not because they like fens: because the presence of fens has already derailed a reservoir project proposed by Pueblo and prevented Aurora from submitting an application for another.
Most of your high mountain valleys are going to have fens and that's the same area you are going to look at for development, said Gerry Knapp of the City of Aurora.
Currently there are no mitigation tools out there if you impact a fen. . . . We are trying to develop and show a method of mitigation.
Mitigation, for those who aren't familiar with that multi-syllabic jargon, means "recreating destroyed habitat somewhere else." Sounds reasonable on the surface. But it's very difficult to "recreate" a wetland, especially a high-mountain fen, where growth is slow because of the short summers - the thick layers of peat soil that form the spongy and nutrient-rich base of these wetlands may take centuries or millennia to accumulate. And the standards for what constitutes "recreation" are not all that stringent. So what these water entities are proposing is basically to be allowed to destroy wetlands assuming they can demonstrate some standard of "mitigation." But if you can't tell for centuries to come whether you've been successful in recreating the wetland, what happens if you've fails, and the original wetland has long since been drowned under a reservoir? You lose a wetland, a sponge that assures streamflow, habitat for mountain plovers and deer flies and technicolor wood lilies, a unique piece of life on Earth, that's what.
And for what? This is not about humans' survival or even their great inconvenience. It's about preservation of lawns. The reservoirs that Aurora and Pueblo would like to build will largely go to supply residential water use, some 60 percent of which will irrigate home landscapes, that is, lawns. Neither city emphasizes water conservation, which studies show could supply their water needs for the near future. Instead of devoting resources to supplying water through conservation, they're devoting resources to evading the regulations that prevent them from drowning high-mountain valleys, and the marshes that are the richest and most diverse places around. That's as smart as cutting down the rainforest, the lungs of the planet, so we can have cheaper hamburger. Destroying fens to store water for people's lawns and toilets is just wrong.
Not just wrong, it's immoral. And I'm not alone in thinking that way. No less than the editorial board of the New York Times has come out for green morals. In "Evangelical Environmentalism," the paper's editorial board emphatically stands up for our moral responsibility to this rare blue planet:
. . . It is antiquated to limit the definition of morality to the way humans behave among humans. Those days have been over ever since it became apparent that humans - busy thinking about only their lives - had the power to destroy huge numbers of species, whole landscapes of habitat, and in fact, the balance of life on earth. The greatest moral issue of our time is our responsibility to the planet and to all its inhabitants.From a hot and windy March day in a valley in the arid West, where our winter snowpack has already given way to powder-dry soils, I say, Hear, Hear! And blessings on us all, for we're all in this together.