At first glance, the Bitterroot Valley appears to be something exceptional. That rare part of America only graced by man, a patch of natural beauty in a country rife with development. But if one delves a bit deeper, they may be shocked to find that the valley’s pristine appearance is merely a facade, a mask thinly veiling the many issues that plague its ecosystem. Invasive species, salinization, the diminishing quality and quantity of potable water, erosion, and wildfires are just a few examples of how preservation of Bitterroots’ natural state has fallen to the wayside. Reading Diamond’s excerpt from “Collapse”, it is abundantly clear that these issues all have historical roots, at least partly. A particularly interesting case is that of wildfires. On some level, one can separate the cause of wildfires from human beings. After all, lightning has been igniting infernos long before humans existed. Occasional fires are actually healthy for forests because they destroy diseased trees and act as a trigger for species with serontonous cones. That is to say, cones that require certain conditions to release their seeds, such as extreme heat. Some native species, such as the Ponderosa pine, have even evolved to be fire-resistant by developing thicker bark. Despite fire being a natural feature of Montana’s ecosystem, its destructive tendencies have been exacerbated by human activity. For example, take the aforementioned Ponderosa pine. Its fire-resistant qualities make it a perfect buffer against a raging inferno. The Ponderosa pine naturally grows alongside the Douglas fir, a tree on the opposite end of the flammability scale. With both these trees in place, fire can certainly spread, but thanks to the Ponderosa pine, the flames cannot spiral out of control. Unfortunately, loggers of the Bitterroot valley placed their value on the Douglas fir instead, leading to many Ponderosa pines being eradicated. An overabundance of Douglas firs soon emerged, the end result being wildfires that are now too rampant and expensive to adequately handle. What we can draw from this is an environmental issue that stems not from something entirely natural or entirely historical, but rather a combination of the two.
The Bitterroot Valley provides great insight into a multitude of environmental issues. Primarily, it helps us understand how shortsighted progress can be, and how failing to regard these actions long term can affect our ecosystem. We are told from childhood that we must think before we act, but looking at the state of the Bitterroot valley and the world as a whole, we can see how often this advice is disregarded. We may benefit for a period of time, but if care isn’t taken to amend these problems, the ends eventually cease to justify the means. For all its beauty and diversity, life is surprisingly delicate. Even the smallest change to an ecosystem, such as removing a native species like the Ponderosa pine, can have an overwhelmingly negative impact. To avoid sounding overly misanthropic, I find it important to detach the word “evil” when it comes to humanity’s treatment of nature. It seems all too common that we attribute the destruction of the environment purely to faceless companies and greedy businessmen. They certainly contribute, but it is a gross oversimplification to place the blame squarely upon their shoulders. Accepting that we are all in some way responsible, myself included, provides a more realistic lens to view environmental problems with, and by that extent, allows us to deal with said problems in a realistic manner. Going back to the loggers, I highly doubt these men were rubbing their hands together at the thought of clear cutting a forest. In reality, they were just human beings like the rest of us, wanting to make a living for themselves and their families. And who could blame them? Many locals of the Bitterroot Valley live below the poverty line. Their children move away to find better opportunities, and those that stay behind aren’t exactly in it for the money. As it is, money is a major deciding factor in environmental issues. There’s only so much the government can spend on extinguishing a wildfire without tapping out. Looking at the bigger picture, could this also be the reason that poorer nations tend to have more prominent issues with deforestation, poaching, pollution, drought, flooding, erosion, and the like? I don’t believe there is a simple answer, but knowing how these problems emerge is a step in the right direction.