By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
To Suckling, Cronon‘s ideas seemed outdated, hopelessly pre-postmodern. “This is where I take issue with Cronon and Nash [Roderick Nash, author of Wilderness and the American Mind],” says Suckling. “Because Cronon and Nash want to write a biography of wilderness, they have to come up with a concept of wilderness.
”In fact,“ Suckling contends, ”wilderness is antithetical to concept itself. It’s where you go to get rid of your concepts. That‘s what I mean when I say wilderness deconstructs us. It’s comforting because you realize you don‘t need to be in control.“
Today, Suckling runs an organization of 30 employees, raises a multimillion-dollar budget, cuts deals with Bush’s Interior secretary, Gale Norton, and defends the environmental position on CNN‘s Crossfire. He also puts up with occasional hostility from the media -- The Wall Street Journal editorial page in particular. He’s not afraid to show that under the Lamborghini brain is a nice Irish Catholic boy from Massachusetts. He still refutes Cronon, for lack of a better opponent. But his argument is subtly different. At 37, he talks less about philosophical ambiguity and more about morality.
”Nature isn‘t moral,“ says Suckling. ”It’s our relationship to nature that‘s moral. A human’s engagement with the world is always moral, religious and aesthetic. Heidegger talks about wissen and kennen as words for knowledge: wife and husband. This is more a notion of a caring spouse. A rabbi, Emmanuel Levinas, defines it as the experience of meeting the face. It‘s the face that says to you, ’Thou shalt not kill.‘ It’s the relationship.“
When the Center began its spectacular run of lawsuits, suit-and-tie environmentalists worried that a take-no-prisoners assault would give the congressional Republicans an excuse to gut the Endangered Species Act. Those concerns are perhaps elevated now with Republicans owning the House and Senate. Michael Bean, of the Washington, D.C.--based Environmental Defense, which works with corporations to find common ground, is one who believes the Center‘s aggressive stance could inspire equally aggressive retaliation from opponents.
”They’ve been successful in getting a lot of species on the endangered-species list,“ says Bean. ”I think that, by itself, doesn‘t ensure a result that will endure. My view is that lasting solutions to environmental problems require some substantial degree of buy-in from the people who are affected by those decisions. There are just too many ways for disaffected people to undo a particular environmental result.“
The Jesuit steel in Suckling, though, remains fired by his absolute conviction that the unprepossessing scrap of habitat for an endangered rat near a highway is as important as a million-acre national forest of cathedral trees. He understood what the professional environmentalists didn’t. It‘s fairly simple, really: People like animals.
Northern California is better-known for its groovy environmental ethic, but Southern California’s roller-coaster landscape of high mountains and sun-blasted valleys, combined with a forgiving Mediterranean climate, has created a near-perfect petri dish for evolution and natural diversity. That‘s why Mark Gold, of Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, calls Southern California ”the endangered-species capital of the nation.“
The hitch is that Southern California’s population, now 19 million, is expected to rise 49 percent over the next 30 years. The population of San Bernardino and Riverside counties, the edge habitat between the mountains and the city, is expected to grow even more dramatically, doubling to 6 million by 2025.
”It‘s a pretty volatile situation,“ said the NRDC’s Lawrence. ”I‘d draw a parallel between the situation in Southern California and the fight over the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest 15 years ago.“
The Newhall Land and Farming Company intends to do its part to make sure California’s population growth comes in on schedule. The company calls the nearly 22,000-home, 60,000-resident city it plans to build Newhall Ranch. Like so many of those evocative names given to nouveau suburbia, this one has a checkered past. A San Francisco auctioneer, some would say carpetbagger, named Henry Mayo Newhall bought the land at bargain-basement prices when its Californio owners ran into tax troubles. The 143,000-acre Del Valle land grant became Newhall Ranch in the 1870s.
Newhall Land is a local behemoth. Aside from the proposed Newhall Ranch development, it controls more than 50,000 acres in the state, including L.A. County‘s largest industrial park, the 4,500-acre Gateway Center. The company, which started the town of Valencia, develops master-planned communities, which it then sells off piecemeal to real estate developers, so the actual landholdings have diminished over time. Company spokeswoman Marlee Lauffer downplays the company’s influence, saying Newhall Land only owns 25 percent of the town of Valencia, ”but we‘ve generated 70 percent of the jobs and sales tax.“ Everybody else in town readily admits that Newhall has ruled over this part of Los Angeles County for a century, in much the same way as the Spanish hacendados who preceded it.
What’s striking is how much rural character remains where Newhall Land wants to develop. Once you leave Valencia, you enter an earlier time, California‘s past as limned by California historian Kevin Starr. The old, elegant Rancho Camulos, once the home of the Del Valles and reputedly the inspiration for Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1885 novel Ramona, is now a museum sheltered beneath an imposing mountain range. It is as if a time machine threatens to fast-forward from the 1800s to the 21st century, landing this shard of Old California smack in the middle of a Disney theme park Levittown. Only with this machine, there is no going back.
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