Interview with Doug Peacock

Like many others who care about the wilderness, I find a lot of inspiration from Ed Abbey and the gang of folks he worked with. One of those folks is Doug Peacock — the man who has such a passionate, go-get-em attitude toward wilderness that he’s actually the inspiration for Ed Abbey’s character George Hayduke in The Monkeywrench Gang.

I recently got a chance to talk to Peacock about his projects and his thoughts on conservation, climate change, industry and many other issues. He brought up several topics that by the end of the discussion I really wished we had had more time to explore. (For example, does wilderness really mean “no people”? And what are the benefits and drawbacks of working with natives to build big wilderness areas?) But, also by the end of the discussion, I left inspired by Peacock’s strong affirmation, repeated several times: “Wilderness,” he says, “is still our best bet.” I don’t, of course, agree with Peacock about everything, but goddamn do I agree with him on that.


So the reason why I contacted you was because of your story about the grizzly bears, and as far as I understand, whenever you got back from Vietnam, the grizzly bears kind of renewed you spiritually and provided a sort of therapy. Could you explain the story?

Well it’s a long story and I wrote a whole book to tell it. The short version is when I came back from war, like many other veterans, I was really out of sorts. I couldn’t talk to anybody. Even the closest friends and family, I just was no good around people. And one place I’ve always been comfortable in my life since I was a little boy is in wild places and the wilderness. And so when I got back from Vietnam, I bought a jeep and I disappeared into the American West and into wild places. I camped out for a couple years. I scarcely had a conversation during those times. One late spring I waited for the snows to melt and then headed up to the Wind River Range to camp and explore and, after a malaria attack, which hit me on the east side of the Winds where the weather sucks, I eventually ended up in Yellowstone park.

Anyway, I wasn’t looking for grizzly bears. But in Yellowstone the bears were there, they were all around me, and within days they begin to dominate my attention. By the time the snow came, grizzlies had become the center of my psychic universe. And I kept coming back. I’d migrate down to the great desert wilderness of the southwest and then, in spring, the bears would come out of hibernation again, and I’d head north to the Northern Rockies.

To summarize the decade, as I wrote in Grizzly Years, “These bears saved my life.” And I think that was literally true. And in Vietnam, and other wars, there’s a notion of payback. It’s grunt language; it means when you receive a gift you find a way to pay it back, sooner or later. And in my case these bears had given me exactly what I needed, which was a way to get out of myself, a real enforced humility. When you’re living with great big grizzly bears, self-indulgence is literally impossible, and that’s a good thing.

So, I was hanging out with grizzlies both in Yellowstone and Glacier ecosystems, and I noticed that the grizzlies in Yellowstone were having a really hard time. The park service had just abruptly closed the garbage dumps, at which virtually all Yellowstone grizzlies fed, and as many as 270 grizzly bears were killed in the Yellowstone ecosystem in a five year period from 68 to 73. All that time, hidden back in the lodgepole, like the war-wounded animal that I was, I was there to watch it.

The grizzlies were having trouble and I went to war fighting for their welfare. I still am. It’s the least I could do. So today I’m fighting the delisting of the Yellowstone grizzlies by the federal government, by the Fish and Wildlife Service. And that’s one of the most important things that I’m doing right now. That effort by the feds to remove ESA protection from those grizzlies has been going on for over twenty years now. The bears certainly helped me out of a jam and this is what I had to do for them.

I really like that story. You know, my dad was in the military and he was deployed to Iraq a few times, along with some other places, Afghanistan and some other places. And my family, especially his mom, my grandmother, is worried that, even if he doesn’t say it, he’s been profoundly affected by the war. And I was wondering if you thought there was any potential for those soldiers to have a similar experience as you did with the wilderness and grizzlies.

Yes. The last two years I’ve spent about half my time working with vet groups, and in the current Sierra magazine there’s an article about part of that endeavor. I’m also getting Afghani vets to go over to Namibia and work with the local guards who are trying to protect rhinos from poachers. The black rhinos are being pushed into extinction. We’ll probably lose that battle, but we’re going to fight it. And all this started with meeting up with a bunch of vets at an event that was organized by Round River Conservation Studies and the Sierra Club, which has a veteran’s outreach program. We met up down in southern Utah. The Lakota and Navajo provided healing ceremonies and sweat lodges; the veterans — and they are both men and women — most of them have some kind of disability, and perhaps not physical. Physically, they’re tough, can climb the most challenging peak you ever saw, but we’re all wounded. They’re wounded warriors and in fact, that’s what war does to everyone. And it’s not just soldiers. It’s the families of the soldiers and most of all it’s the civilians that live in those countries.

But that whole formula of going back into the wilderness to heal your wounds, it works. It’s amazing. Hemingway in his Nick Adams stories…after the war, Nick fishes his way towards the swamps of the Big Two Hearted River to save his sanity — it’s the same story. The wilderness is a great place to go to do your healing. And there are a lot of groups that do this. There’s a bunch of them that take veterans, according to their abilities, and they go backpacking, camp out and stuff like that. And, particularly down in Utah, the vets I met wanted to go beyond fly fishing. They don’t want to just to go in to climb and fly fish and then hope the wounds are healed. They actually want to help to save that same wilderness that was so great to them, a place for them to sort out what was happening to them. So we do a lot of conservation. The Namibia rhino poaching project is a good example.

I didn’t know the Sierra Club had a veteran’s program.

Yeah, and I’ll tell you what, this veteran’s outreach is one of the best thing they ever did. I mean I’ve really got some faith in the Sierra Club again. A guy that started it, a guy named Stacey, he’s about seven feet tall and he goes at about one hundred and twenty mph all the time, up and down mountains. He and a veteran named Joshua ran that program. I met them and their buddies and they’re some of the most talented warriors I’ve ever met. Over in Namibia the locals need help with the massive poaching problem, and the vets are going to go over and assess the situation, assist the native guards as best they can and find out what’s really needed. Like I said, I think it’s probably a battle we will lose. I don’t think we can stop the poaching, but we’re going to try, and it’s better to try and fail than to sit back and have done nothing.

That is true. The Wildernist works as part of a network of groups called The Wildist Network and we talk a lot about a no-compromise approach for wilderness and against industry. And we are often faced with the criticism that we might lose, but there’s kind of a — almost a moral imperative to do something even if there’s only a small probability of winning.

You bet your ass. That’s all you can do and it’s battle to the death now. The beast of our time is global warming and that affects all species everywhere. And everything that survives must change radically. Humans have never seen this kind of change, a demand for a rate of evolution of which we are not capable. Some authorities think the earth has never seen such climate change before, because we are dumping more carbon into the atmosphere than the time of the Great Dying about 250 million years ago, when nearly all earthly life was driven to extinction. But the most important thing I think any conservation group can do is save wilderness. Save the habitat. Because everything is going to have to move, species have to move North, move up the mountain. It’s at least the 6th great extinction and survivors need wild habitats.

And we should expect Homo sapiens, ourselves, to hit a bottleneck, because global warming is already baking agriculture out of Africa, along with all the attendant problems of displacement of people, wars and atrocities. And the droughts, sea-rise and warming will happen to Asia too. Billions starving to death: The Chinese will try to go to Siberia, where food still grows, competition and conflict will breed war and maybe they’ll nuke it out with the Russians. Meanwhile, and probably soon, one of the gigantic Antarctic ice sheets — the Ross, the Larsens, and or the Western ice sheets — will fall into the ocean, that’s 12, 15 feet of sea rise in a week, and then you’ve got a billion people in Bangladesh looking for a place to live. So, we should look at this from a standpoint of also saving ourselves, and we’re not going to succeed in saving many of our own kind by doing what we’ve been doing, and the notion of endless progress, economic or otherwise, in a world of finite resources is utter madness. Ed Abbey pointed out that particular insanity back in 1968 in Desert Solitaire. We’re killing ourselves and our children and our grandchildren. I bring the issue of climate change to any battle I take on now, in a way that thinks about saving and fighting for wilderness. I think wilderness is still the most important thing.

You asked about Earth First! and other groups. The most important thing Earth First! did was identify wilderness as the prime issue. Preserving, saving, defending wilderness was its most important mission. And it’s still true today, though our old vision has been shaded and sometimes eclipsed by global warming. Talking about putting elephants on the Great Plains, when it looks like we’re not going to have any elephants left in Africa, seems like a misplaced, idle conversation. We might note that the Vietnamese and Chinese megabucks with their appetite for ivory, horn and bush-meat, have likely doomed rhinos and elephants, on top of the very real threats of African climate change.

What about The Wildlands Network, Yellowstone to Yukon, and these other organizations that are working hard to build big, connected wilderness? You think the organizations could be more effective?

I’m concerned with the modern conservation movement, especially the big ones that you’re talking about. Twenty-five years ago I cofounded Round River Conservation Studies. Round River works with Native people around the world to create homelands that are wilderness, total wilderness, no roads, no mines, no logging. And, working together, they’re up to 25 million acres, with eight million more in progress: About 6 million up on the north slope of the Yukon working with the Invialuit to expand Ivvaik National Park eastward and about two million more down in southern Utah where the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni could end up with a National Monument. Now this is the kind of work that I am really proud of having been a part of.

And my criticism of the older movement is simply that it appears to have gotten a bit esoteric; let’s not just have another meeting to talk about the Anthropocene, for Christ’s sake! Talk is cheap, and all of this has gotten a little too academic. A guy I love is Michael Soulé, so I’m not separate from this at all. And Michael knows how I feel. It’s just that I think we’ve had enough talk, enough meetings, and it’s great to talk about “Does wilderness exist?” but you’ll never create a large area like Yellowstone to Yukon if you can’t first hook up Yellowstone to northern Montana ecosystems. Yellowstone is an ecological island, it’s stranded, it’s mired out there in the middle of no place with no connectivity or linkages to the Bitterroot, the Bob or the Crazy Mountains. And it’s time to really do something about linkages. Those chunks of wilderness need to be connected, and we have the biology and the engineering to get under and over freeways. That’s important stuff, fighting that hideous Mexican border wall that’s such a barrier to all wildlife, for example. We need these linkages.

I am sympathetic to what you’re saying, but you also brought up climate change a while earlier and it seems like wilderness will cease to be a thing that even exists if climate change continues to get worse and worse.

It’s definitely going to get worse and worse, but I think you’re wrong. If your definition of wilderness has something to do with a lack of human beings, we’re going to end up with a lot of wilderness and not very many human beings. Homo sapiens are going to go through a population bottleneck, the timetable is arguable, but I tend to prefer to think in decades, not centuries. People like Guy McPherson or James Lovelock think we’re going to lose probably 90% of the population — that the bottleneck is going to get at least that narrow. A study of combat units in World War II found that when combat units suffered 75% plus casualties, there was a collective, paralytic psychosis that descended upon the survivors. And we might think about that in terms of our species. We are not in charge anymore. We are not in control of our own fates. We would love to save the earth, the wilderness and animals, but that’s counterbalanced by the madness of endless growth and economic progress, and it’s clear we are not going to cut down on greenhouse gases in time to curtail global warming, and there’s going to be catastrophic consequences. We are not exempt. Humans are not exempt, and all our clever technology — geoengineering or bioengineering — will not bail us out at this point. We’ve brought it upon ourselves. We may end up with a planet — who knows what it’ll look like — with not many people on it. And I don’t know what you want to call that, but that’ll be some kind of wilderness.

This question of greenhouse gasses and climate change and wilderness has led me and some others to the conclusion that one of the only ways that, uh, one of the best ways that wilderness can continue surviving and thriving is for industry itself to end. With the very high likelihood of industry becoming unstable in years to come — in decades to come — there’s some potential for an organized movement to make a dent or aid that end to industry. What are your thoughts on this?

Well I think it’s late in the game, mostly. If we can shut down industry tomorrow, we should do everything we can towards that end. But it’s really late in the game, and what we’ve already put out there is already too much, and we’re going to hit a tipping point, you know, it’s going to be four or five degrees Fahrenheit and then you’ll really see consequences. Also, if you shut down that industry abruptly, the sulfate particles from coal, which reflect sunlight and artificially cool the planet, will fall out. James Hanson believed this would rapidly warm the earth another 2.5 degrees F. I know this is bummer information and it makes me wish it were otherwise.

One of the reasons working in the Yukon is important is that it’s a great window on global warming. Things are happening fast up there; we may see the disappearance of arctic summer sea ice for the first time in human history this year, polar bears fleeing southward, eating snow geese, competing and breeding with grizzly bears who are moving north. That’s another feedback loop, and there are many of them. The disappearing sea ice means less solar radiation is reflected, which melts the permafrost, releasing methane (a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide in the short run), melting more sea ice, etc. Maybe the best good news from the Yukon Beaufort coast is that the Inuit may prohibit the construction of the hundreds of seaports and oil station industry has planned for the fragile arctic.

But I think that what you’re proposing to do is the right thing to do. The sooner we can slow things down, the more species have a chance to survive — still a bad show. Human beings, with all their resources, will probably find a way to survive, at least a pocket of them. The evil is that we will drag down most all of our large mammals with us, along with countless other species, millions and millions other species. The sixth greatest extinction, as some call it. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The potential is just terrifying.

One of the editors of this magazine, Atticus Grey, she loves large creatures like gorillas and elephants. And I’m sure that she would be sad like I am to hear that you think most of them will die off, regardless.

I love them too. Watching gorillas or elephants or grizzlies is an ecology of thinking. These large mammals are at great risk even if you exclude climate change — here I am ranting about it — because of simple human greed. They are killed by humans for the ivory, for aphrodisiacs and for art items, trinkets. The rhinos are really going fast. I don’t think anybody can stop that. I’ve been helping to raise money to send veterans over there for the last three or four months and now the vets are on their way. Round River has student programs in Namibia and Botswana. The game counts in places like Botswana and Namibia are down about 80%. And where are the animals going? Well, they’re being killed off for bush meat to feed Chinese gold mine workers. That is atrocious and unforgivable. It’s going to take all the work, every one of us, to set it straight or at least try to give them a chance.

I know that you’re the inspiration for Edward Abbey’s Hayduke. When you were talking with Ed Abbey in these early days, maybe even before the monkeywrench gang, did you two know at the time that things would get this bad or could get this bad, and did you have any hopes on stopping it? And what do you think Abbey would say now, if he saw the situation?

I’m kind of glad he’s dead [for his sake], because he’d be rolling over in his grave, that’s for damn sure. Abbey and I had a cranky friendship — he could be a cantankerous son of a bitch and I was a complete asshole at times — but the reason that friendship survived was our mutual belief in wilderness and the need to defend it. Ed and I did see an apocalypse coming.[1] And, at that time, we really weren’t talking about greenhouse gases and shit like that. We were just looking at our own culture and its rapacious drive to domesticate the earth, a premise that still lives on today. Progress is insanity. It’s impossible on a finite earth. Ed compared it to the ideology of the cancer cell.

So, Abbey’s still quite relevant. There really isn’t a need for another Ed to come along and fill his big, toothy, lecherous boots, because, quite frankly, his books still hold up really well.

Yeah, I agree. I just gave a presentation not too long ago to some other really young people who were involved in a clean water action organization, and they were all familiar with Abbey. They loved him, too.

Besides it being a hoot to read, the message of The Monkey Wrench Gang is do what you can. People ask me, “What can I do?” and I usually say “Start in your own backyard.” Start small, and in the old days if you needed to literally or figuratively monkeywrench a bulldozer, you did it, but also have this larger vision. We always knew that we were going to lose a lot of battles and the ones that we did win are going to be transient. That doesn’t matter. It’s still worth doing, it’s the only thing we can do. It’s a fight to save the earth, but also a fight to save ourselves. And wilderness is still our best bet.

I agree, and on that note of what we can do, starting in your backyard is easier for some people in the US, especially because here there’s a concept of wilderness. But a lot of cultures, like Spain, where a lot of my friends are, don’t even have a concept of wilderness. Do you have any ideas on how that idea can be brought internationally and fought for?

I think we need not to be so pedantic and academic and strict about what we consider wilderness. It’s whatever in undisturbed nature that can stir the innate wild in men and women. Wildness lives in all of us; wilderness is whatever it takes to wake it up. And some people can get it watching birds and squirrels in their backyard, and other people are like me, they need endless hunks of tundra with big bears and jaguars, tigers, polar bears.

I went out to Rockford, Illinois to give a talk. They have a 369 acre — not very big by Western standards — nature preserve along a river, called Severson Dells. Man, does that magical place transform not just the character of that country, but it’s an inspiration to countless people who go there, canoe, walk around and connect with nature. That kind of experience can be had in Europe where civilization has been marching along with whatever Pleistocene remnants, even if the areas are not very big, and animals like wolves and brown bears that live there are few, people draw inspiration from their survival. That’s a source of hope.

There’s one last topic I’d like to talk a little bit about and it’s, we’ve already mentioned it, it’s Earth First!. Could you tell me a little bit about what you did with Earth First!, if anything.

I didn’t do anything significant with Earth First!. Other than give talks at a Rendezvous or EF! fundraisers, I did little. Ed Abbey, our small children and myself would go over to the Earth First! mailing-parties and put the stickers on the newsletters and little things like that. EF! was the direct descendant of the MWG [The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey], but I was a decade or two older than the boys who started Earth First![2] When the FBI busted Dave [Foreman] and the Prescott folk, they also showed up at my place in Tucson. However, I was lost in Wyoming and once they believed Gerry Spence would be my lawyer, the FBI never bothered me again about that. But I was of no importance to them.

Do you think that there’s any organization that exists now that broadens a dialogue in the way that Earth First! did? And if not do you think that the environmentalist and conservation movements would benefit from one?

You can’t be too radical these days about the importance and value of wild things, because they’re so under threat, because things are changing so fast. I think there really is a great need for action, for working outside the corrupt system and I don’t see anybody really doing it. Round River has saved a lot of big wilderness. That means working with native peoples because if you look at the globe for a blank spot on the map, you usually find traditional people live there.

That’s a good track record, more so because Round River doesn’t blow its horn loudly. Since EF!, [evolutionary] biology, big funders, abstract modeling and academic squabbling — arguably — have influenced the conservation movement, both positively and negatively. There remains a real need for broadening that dialogue, just like you put it. A flaw, I believe, is that people are left with the impression that big, powerful, rich organizations are going to go out there and save the world for us instead of asking, “What can you do?” This is sidetracking people when it should be empowering them. There is a sniff of privilege and elitism. We need someone to tell us that we need everyone to fight for the fate of the world. I think Earth First! tried to do this. Beware of the corporate lawyer, inside approach; paper monkeywrenching is not going to affect real change. The system is now the enemy and all that’s a sideshow, like genetic engineering to resurrect extinct species is a sideshow to the real battle of combating global warming. Am I saying: Go out and make yourself a spear and sharpen it over the fire? Possibly. I think activists need to know the wild, get out into it as much as feasible. Much of our job is still to go out and save a bear or a prairie dog or a bird or a goddamn forest.

I know you can’t see me, but I was smiling there for a large portion of that. It reminds me of, uh…well I don’t know, it’s just very inspiring. I think the ideas of megalinkages and wildlife corridors — the ideas of rewilding — are very useful and basically correct. But this whole strategy of getting millionaires[3] to do it, while helpful, just can’t be the whole strategy.

Alright, one last thing. We talked a little about Earth First!, and we’ve talked a little bit about global warming, and all of these other things. Earth First! fell apart at one point because of a division between kind of the social justice, left-wing faction and then…

Ah yes, a very public squabble, as I recall. But even today, we could achieve social justice on earth and not have a planet to practice it on. So what comes first? When it comes down to social needs versus ecological reserves, I’m going to bet on the planet every time. Like Ed Abbey once said, “I’d sooner kill a man than a rattlesnake.” And it’s going to happen with or without us. Nobody’s going to make it if we don’t save mother earth and the few wild landscape remnants that our whole species evolved on. We didn’t evolve on farms or in cities: We evolved in habitats — savanna, tundra, forests, grasslands and mountains — whose remnants today are called wilderness. And that is our homeland, not well-run refugee camps or any other artifact of culture.

As Abbey so often queried, “What to do? What to do?” Live your life, however hurried or brief, but live it well.

Doug Peacock is a long-time conservationist and the author of several books, including Grizzly Years and the new In Shadow of the Sabertooth. Learn more about him at www.dougpeacock.net.

Notes

  1. See Earth First!: Environmental Apocalypse by Martha Lee for more on the ways early Earth First! was built around an apocalyptic and millenarian belief system. Note also that in our interview with him, Dave Foreman restated a similar conviction: “My point is the system is going to come down, one way or another way, on its own. My task is keeping all the building blocks of future evolution that we can.” — Ed.
  2. For founders’ accounts of Earth First!, see Confessions of an Eco-Warrior by Dave Foreman and “Earth First!: A Founder’s Story” by Howie Wolke. — Ed.
  3. This is a reference to the work of millionaires and billionaires who are buying up great pieces of land to help create wildlife corridors and megalinkages. See “Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?” by Tony Hiss. — Ed.