I always liked John Denver’s music. His songs celebrated nature in all its forms and all its beauty. Come to the mountains, he sang, and soothe your soul. The environmental movement blossomed along with his songs’ popularity — or maybe it was the other way around.
I was in high school when the first Earth Day was held. My fellow students and I organized teach-ins about the environment during study halls. We were convinced we could change the world.
Within a few years, we had an Environmental Protection Agency, banned DDT and reduced car pollution. Environmentalists were winning the big battles, making the world a better, safer and healthier place.
Within a decade, however, things began to change. I attended a lecture on stopping logging while I was a graduate student in the early 1980s. The speaker advocated tree spiking, in which activists hammered metal spikes into trees. He didn’t care that a logger could be seriously injured or killed by shrapnel if a chainsaw hit one of the spikes. I didn’t support logging, but I was shocked at the speaker’s callousness and utter disregard for human life.
While this speaker represented the fringe of the environmental movement at the time, it wasn’t long before his fanaticism grew more mainstream. Somehow, over time, many environmentalists became similarly mean.
Where environmentalists once supported getting as many people as possible to visit nature, many in San Francisco now argue that our urban national recreation areas should be managed so a select few — mostly themselves — can have a “solitary visitor experience.”
Where environmentalists once celebrated nature in all its diversity, many in San Francisco now argue that some plants are “better” than others and that it’s OK, even desirable, to kill the rest. In particular, they prefer “native” plants to all others.
It doesn’t matter that native plants, adapted to life 250 years ago (before European colonization), are no longer well-suited to today’s changed and changing climate. The idea that it’s desirable, let alone possible, to freeze nature at one point in time is laughable — if it weren’t causing so much harm to entire ecosystems.
In the East Bay, for example, land managers plan to cut down more than 400,000 trees, mostly eucalypts, Monterey pines and acacias. There’s no mention of replanting the areas with trees. Ostensibly, the rationale is to reduce the risk of wildfires, but that doesn’t make sense. The plans will replace forests of non-native trees that do not catch fire easily with native grasses and scrub that burn fast and furious.
The real reason, it seems, is that the trees are not native to the East Bay. They’ve been there for “only” 150 years. Local environmental groups have been fixated on getting rid of eucalypts for years, using a number of different arguments, most recently that they present a fire risk. All their arguments have been debunked, however, including the fire myth.
Healthy mature trees sequester carbon and help fight climate change. Yet the local Sierra Club chapter not only supports the East Bay clear-cutting, but also, in fact, has sued because the land managers aren’t cutting down enough trees. They want every single non-native tree gone. They also support spraying thousands of gallons of toxic herbicides in the open space to keep the non-natives from resprouting.
How did it become acceptable for an environmental group to advocate for clear-cutting and for the use of large amounts of poisonous herbicides in our open spaces?
As we face major crises such as climate change and sea level rise, we need John Denver’s optimistic environmentalism now more than ever, not the local Sierra Club’s nativism and exclusion. In Denver’s music, nature was inclusive and positive. That way of viewing nature changed the world.