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BEACON Senior News

OPINION: Nature isn't a museum

May 19, 2023 12:27PM ● By Wyatt Verlen

Americans are increasingly approaching nature with a “look but don’t touch” mindset and losing a fundamental part of their national identity in the process.

Tourists are trekking to national parks in record numbers. In fact, some parks now require reservations to manage the number of visitors and protect sensitive ecosystems.

Yet while the number of people flocking to get a glimpse at wildlife is increasing, the share of Americans who hunt, fish and forage—who touch, rather than just look—has been declining for decades. Just 4.6% of Americans bought a hunting license in 2020, down from 7.7% in 1960. Only 8.8% bought a fishing license, down from 10.6% in 1960.

This slide is concerning, because an immersive relationship with nature has always been foundational to our national identity. George Washington relieved his stress from presiding over the Constitutional Convention by going fishing. Teddy Roosevelt, the father of the conservation movement, sought to preserve open spaces and thereby prevent America from turning into Europe, where hunting—and the primal connection with nature it offers—was a privilege reserved only for the rich.

Of course, in 100 years, there will still be forests and wildlife in the U.S., even if the population continues growing rapidly. 

But with a population anywhere from 500 million to a full billion (if open borders truly become a reality), it will be impossible for millions of hunters, fisherman and foragers to enjoy the same routine interactions with nature that they have today. A country so densely populated would need far more regulations on what can be used and what must be left “undisturbed” in natural settings.

Not long ago, I found a beautiful patch of Chanterelle mushrooms that spread as far as the eye could see. I was forbidden by the local forest department to take home a few to enjoy for supper.

I understand why the prohibition is in effect. If everyone did the same, there would be no more Chanterelles. But it’s a shame that simply gathering mushrooms—something that previous generations took for granted—is no longer an option for many Americans.

Many so-called “growthers” argue that population density is the solution to dealing with ongoing population growth. And it’s true that dense development is more environmentally friendly than uncontrolled urban sprawl. But it doesn’t solve anything in the long term. More natural resources are needed to support more people, and that means developing open spaces for food production, warehousing, transportation networks, waste disposal and designated “nature preserves,” where humans can look but not touch.

Nobody wants to see inhumane treatment of immigrants seeking a better life. But given that immigration is the driving cause of population growth, a firm, rational policy on the issue—one that cuts the number of people moving to the U.S. each year to a sustainable number—is necessary for future generations to enjoy our natural resources. Our current policy of de facto open borders is an ecological, economic and political catastrophe.

How many people can we sustainably admit each year into this country while maintaining open access to our resources? Americans who love the great outdoors have a right—and a duty—to start that conversation. 

Wyatt Verlen is a lifelong outdoorsman and passionate conservationist. This piece originally appeared in the Detroit News.