THIS IS THE FUTURE according to Kim Stanley Robinson. The events documented in fig. P-1 mark a major turning point in his space opera 2312 (Orbit, 2012). Although it occurs three centuries into our future, during the novel’s titular year, Robinson’s “reanimation” is informed by present efforts to create large-scale networks of protected wildlands that would ensure the free movement of wide-ranging or migratory megafauna. The following chapters investigate these contemporary projects with a twofold purpose.
First, we focus on the multifarious connections between lands occupied by humans and those designated “wild.” Easily overlooked in plans that span a continent, these sites are crucial for understanding how “wild interfaces” are not determined by the boundaries that we construct around or across the land. Instead, they represent ever changing thresholds within and between hybrid landscapes. Second, we attempt to identify a role for design—and, specifically, for landscape architecture—in a discourse that has been driven primarily by conservation biologists, policy makers, and other environmental advocates. This condition has, in turn, resulted in an almost singular focus on keystone species to the exclusion of the landscapes that these creatures inhabit and the changing cultural values that define them. Accordingly, while we address issues that have been central to these debates for decades, especially the parts played by public policy and wildlife management, we also focus on design competitions and National Park Service visitor centers as perhaps unexpected venues in which to encounter “wild interfaces.”
During May 2015, we traveled from southeastern Arizona to northwestern Wyoming to visually document these “wild interfaces.” A grant from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Penny White Project Fund supported the travel portion of our project. As we drove through the American West and interviewed individuals involved with a variety of conservation projects, we became increasingly confident that landscape architects had something vital to contribute to contemporary debates about conservation and connectivity. Given their relative absence to date, we find it necessary, like Robinson’s protagonists, to advocate for a “botanical element.”
A number of significant transformations occurred in environmental thought during the late twentieth century. One defining characteristic of these shifts was increasing concern over the plight of endangered species and the human destruction of their habitats. The publication of Peter Matthiessin’s Wildlife in America (1958) and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), the nearly unanimous passage of the federal Endangered Species Act by the United States Congress in 1973, or the increasing prominence of the field of conservation biology in the 1980s are often cited as origins for this newfound concern. And yet, awareness of the need to manage the interactions between humans and non-human animals, and the lands that they share, can be identified decades, if not centuries, earlier.
While first radio and then digital technologies have transformed our understanding of animal movement and issues such as climate change have added increasing urgency to calls for habitat protection and ecosystem restoration, these developments and the transformations they entail exist within a longer, complex history (see table 3-1). Perhaps the most significant and fraught aspect of that history is the peculiarly American understanding of nature and the relationship of humans to it. Many environmentalists define their cause through an understanding of nature, and specifically “wilderness,” outside the influence of human culture, while numerous others insist that wilderness is a culturally produced part of human history. That discrepancy need not be resolved to realize that the transformations described above, Kim Stanley Robinson’s “reanimation,” and our own “wild interfaces” are all part of a long-running and contentious debate about the place of nature in the American cultural imaginary.
THE FOREGOING "DEBATE" between Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First! and the Wildlands Project (now the Wildlands Network), and environmental historian William Cronon is indicative of the ongoing antagonisms among environmental advocates alluded to in the prologue. By inserting this project into that debate, we do not by any means seek to retrace all of its contours or resolve its tensions. Instead, we use it as a starting point from which to explore the potential held by those places where humans and wildlife encounter one another, the physical analogues to the rhetorical space in which Cronon’s “middle landscape” confronts Foreman’s “wilderness.” The complexities of this debate frustrate any attempt to locate a precise point of origin. Rather than try to identify one, we asked two of our subjects to recount the conservation movement’s history in order to better gauge their understandings of the relationship between past, present, and future efforts.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER with the Wildlands Network’s map served as our entry into this world. With its envisioned network of “wildways” sweeping across the North American continent like effortless brushstrokes, it remains one of the most compelling and puzzling things that we discovered. This is in no small part due to the problem of scale that it introduces. The transcontinental linkages are its ostensible focus, but there are immense scalar shifts hidden within its visual simplicity. These different scales are not arranged successively but are instead intertwined. Biogeographic characteristics, cultural associations, political boundaries, land-use designations, agency jurisdictions, conservation easements, organizational resources, and study parameters intersect each other, resulting in numerous, overlapping composites and contradictions. As such, those involved in these projects are required to think and act at the local and global simultaneously. While large-scale planning is essential, transcontinental networks will therefore be realized through innumerable small-scale projects. Wildlife crossings have therefore become major components of these corridor plans, providing the numerous small-scale connections through which large-scale connectivity is achieved.
While the ARC Design Competition was unique for its level of publicity and for landscape architects’ prominent involvement, the construction of wildlife bridges is increasingly widespread. We visited two ensembles of overpasses and underpasses at opposite ends of the trip.
ROBERT SMITHSON'S SPIRAL JETTY (1970) is located on the northern edge of the Great Salt Lake in a remote section of northern Utah. Our experience of it was otherworldly. The last leg of the drive to Smithson’s work is measured not in mile markers but in cattle guards. Standing at the center of the spiral, the horizon was shrouded in mist and rain, less a clearly defined line than an uneven gradient of blues, browns, and pinks. That experience could not have differed more from our pitstop at Promontory Summit on the way back to the interstate. The so-called “golden spike” was driven there on May 10, 1869, joining the Union and Central Pacific Railroads. The creation of the first transcontinental linkage is today memorialized with a National Park Service visitor center, replica locomotives, and reenactments of the "golden spike" ceremony.
ONE RECURRING REFRAIN followed us from Arizona to Wyoming: the ability to introduce, revise, or otherwise influence environmental policy is understood to be the key to ensuring the long term success and viability of the conservation movement in general and large landscape connectivity in particular. The ability to legally designate lands as protected and regulate their management is an obvious focal point for environmental advocates. But, while the policy discussion strikes at the very core of conservation efforts, it also reveals the overwhelming complexity and sometimes limited efficacy of those efforts. Above all, it also reveals that “wild interfaces” are by no means always composed of physical barriers.
Fences and other visible boundary markers play a key role in differentiating land uses while also inhibiting or encouraging the movement of human and non-human animals. Yet, the often invisible demarcations between unprotected private land and conserved land held by private land trusts, inholdings within public lands, or variously protected local, state, and federal lands, administered by a constellation of agencies with divergent missions, are some of the most critical focal points of connection-oriented conservation. Moreover, if the fence is just one, visible component of a vast, imperceptible mosaic of land uses, the policy documents from which they derive are part of an infinitely more expansive discursive landscape.
OF ALL THE "WILD INTERFACES" WE ENCOUNTERED, perhaps the most intriguing and complex was the space surrounding Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser. A raised walkway partially encircles the geyser itself, set back approximately 100 yards, complete with rows of benches for the hundreds of spectators who flock to each regularly scheduled eruption. Large signs along the nearby paths and in the adjacent visitor center announce with relative accuracy the timing of each of Old Faithful’s “performances.” There were no wildlife present when we visited, but the fragile thermal ground that human visitors are warned against traversing was littered with a herd-sized amount of bison scat.
As we waited for the 11:30 eruption, we couldn’t help but consider the peculiar construction of this space in relation to the stories about bison gorings and other close encounters that made national news during the summer of 2015. In particular, we wondered whether the raised pathway, which clearly separates humans from wildlife, and the posted eruption times transform the unpredictable power of a geological force into a well-curated, seemingly controlled spectacle. And, in doing so, whether visitors were also inadvertently encouraged to perceive the wildlife that often populate the space as similarly domesticated participants in the spectacle. We therefore developed a broader interest in the history of wildlife management techniques.
Signs, posters, and visitor centers, especially in the National Parks, became a particular focus for the ways that they anticipate these encounters. We were especially interested in visitor centers not only because they are the few examples of designers’ hands being explicitly visible within otherwise apparently untouched landscapes. They also function as framing devices for relationships between human and natural history, distilling an impressive and nebulous set of ideas through a fairly consistent kit-of-curatorial-parts.
WE PERCEIVED AN IMPASSE between what the design world could potentially contribute to the issues outlined above and the predetermined scale and scope of its interventions. Because of the sometimes subtle, sometimes not, ways that we continue to delineate spaces for humans from spaces deemed “wild,” the contributions of architects and landscape architects remain confined to visitor centers and boutique infrastructural projects. If, however, we rethink the role of “wild interfaces,” then these discrete sites could unfold into the hybrid landscapes that they in many ways already occupy. Instead of lines drawn on a map, instead of barriers where the land’s diverse user groups—human and non-human—confront one another, we envision them as spaces where a complex mixture of social, cultural, political, and economic ideas materialize. Moreover, as climate change, exurban development, concepts like the Anthropocene, and other factors challenge age-old conservation ideals, reconceptualizing “wild interfaces” becomes more challenging, but all the more urgent. We see the design disciplines as platforms from which to meet those challenges. And, so, in the end, Kim Stanley Robinson’s future comes to mind again:
THIS LIST represents the eclectic body of literature that we drew from throughout the research, travel, and development stages of this project. It is by no means exhaustive. See also the texts cited in Table 3-1.
THIS PROJECT originated in a grant from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design’s Penny White Project Fund, which supported the initial ideas and travel portion of the project. Rosetta Elkin at Harvard and Etienne Benson at Penn were invaluable sources of academic support and intellectual encouragement before, during, and after that initial stage. We extend a special thanks to all of our interview subjects for their time and willingness to speak with us. Our project is richer because of their input. Christopher Watson and Taryn Mudge supplied the camping gear and supplies we used. Our Toyota Corolla rental ably withstood more off-road driving than its engineers could have possibly foreseen. Finally, without Claire Craven there would have been no one to narrate the future.
Thank you, friends.
MARY CATHERINE MILLER is a Master of Landscape Architecture candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. She is currently at work on a thesis project that derives from the research supported by the Penny White grant, focusing on issues of land management and human/wild interfaces in and around horse management areas in western Colorado. Trained as an architect at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Mary has also practiced as an architect in Philadelphia.
JOSEPH M. WATSON is a Ph.D. candidate in the History and Theory of Architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. His dissertation studies the urban landscapes of the early-twentieth century United States and the variety of cultural texts that informed their transformations. He received an MA in Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York and also studied architecture at the University of Tennessee. He has worked as an architect in Knoxville and Manhattan.