Searching for a Past That Never WasrnThe Strange Story of Ecosystem Preservationrnby Alston ChasernIn January 1995, residents of the small t(5wn of Libby, Montana,rnreceived a surprising invitation. Proffered by federalrnauthorities, it announced that meetings would be held on thern28th, simultaneously at Libby and 28 other locations throughoutrnMontana and Idaho, to discuss something called the InteriorrnColumbia Basin Ecosystem Management Project. Its purpose,rnthey were told, was to establish, in President Clinton’srnwords, “an ecosystem-based strategy” for managing “eastsidernforests”—i.e., those federal lands lying east of the CascadernMountains crest in Oregon and Washington—along with landsrnof the Upper Columbia River Basin in Idaho, Montana,rnWyoming, Utah, and Nevada. The citizens of Libby werernlearning what people in Washington already knew: thatrn”ecosystems management” is the most popular buzz-phrase inrnpolitics today. Taking the capitol by storm, it serves as the foundationrnfor all environmental law and policy and captivates thernimagination of Republicans and Democrats alike.rnDuring the last six years, the Bush and Clinton administrationsrnhave made “ecosystems management” the guiding policyrnfor a dozen federal agencies. In 1990, as part of its “New Perspectives”rnprogram, the National Forest Service adoptedrnecosystems management. In 1992, the Bush White Housernannounced it would follow an “ecosystem approach,” when administeringrnthe Endangered Species Act. In 1994, the U.S.rnFish and Wildlife Service announced “an ecosystem approachrnto fish and wildlife conservation” that included organizing thernAlston Chase is the author of Playing God in Yellowstone: ThernDestruction of America’s First National Park and, most recently.rnIn a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the RisingrnTyranny of Ecology (Houghton Mifflin).rncountry into 52 separate “ecosystem units.” Shordy after, thernBureau of Land Management embraced ecosystems managementrnas well. Today, it forms an integral part of Vice PresidentrnAl Core’s effort to “reinvent government.”rnClearly, this notion has captured the imagination of America’srnpolitical leaders and is changing the shape of government.rnBut what does it mean? And what are its implications?rnCombining two simple notions—the unity and balance ofrnnature—the concept presupposes that nature is composed ofrninterconnected parts that interact to keep everything in or nearrnequilibrium. So long as these systems retain all their membersrn(i.e., sustain their biological diversity), they remain healthy.rnBut if they lose enough parts (i.e., species), their capacity forrnself-regulation fails and they become unstable.rnThis hypothesis is popular because it seems to explain whatrnhas gone wrong with the environment and how to fix it: environmentalrnhealth requires ecosystems to remain in balance,rnwhich in turn demands that they retain their biodiversity. Andrnthe best way to ensure these conditions is to leave ecosystemsrnalone. Ecosystems management, in essence, means keepingrnhumans away from nature.rnBut this doctrine is not what it seems. Rather than new science,rnit is old philosophy, whose history raises some disturbingrnquestions about the future of preservation. Its central tenets—rnthat nature is constant and harmonious—are ancient beliefs,rnlong predating the advent of Western civilization. They werernrecurring themes in eariy Greek myths, and served as foundationsrnof classical Hellenistic science. The Pythagoreansrnclaimed to hear musical harmony in the universe, and Greekrnphysicians believed in the balance of “humors” and emphasizedrnthe ability of nature to heal.rnJUNE 1996/17rnrnrn