Essay by Kevin Hood, Wilderness Steward, USFS, Juneau Alaska
“Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” Thus remarked President Teddy Roosevelt as he beheld the Grand Canyon. He championed preserving this natural wonder and granted it a protected status to preserve its integrity. His voice reflected a blossoming sentiment in America: some areas should be set aside for us to appreciate in their natural state. By the time the President visited northern Arizona, civilization had expanded across much of the continent, exploiting, settling and cultivating lands that were once wilderness. Teddy Roosevelt was one of the first American leaders to safeguard the remaining wonders of nature. He recognized that it is vital to our well-being that some areas retain their original profundity. We need spaces where we can leave behind the complexities of civilization and the pressures of society, places where we can revere nature and live simply. It would seem blasphemous — a failure of our species — to line the walls of the Grand Canyon with condominiums, or, to make another example, to have a tram running up to a restaurant on Mt. Everest.
Yet there stretches a canyon that is four times deeper, five times wider and twenty times longer than the Grand Canyon that remains unprotected. There extends a mountain more than twice as high as Everest that is devoid of any special designation. Should bold entrepreneurs, real estate developers or resource extracting industries reach these places they may be forever altered by human design. Only the remoteness from human civilization – the de facto guardian of wilderness everywhere – has kept these areas pristine.
Mons Olympus looms 69,000 feet into the atmosphere and is the largest volcano known to exist anywhere. Valles Marineris gouges 3,000 miles of desert. They are prominent features of Mars. The red planet represents an unspoiled place where humanity will someday soon — for the second time ever — have a whole world before it. As increases in population, depletions of natural resources and advances in technology press once-distant regions of Earth such as the Amazonian rainforest and the Beaufort Sea, so are these pressures making Mars less and less remote. There are people living today who will see the first humans on Mars and who will witness the first impacts our civilization will impress upon the virgin environment.
Before we get to Mars we should establish protected areas on the planet. These Martian Preserves should not be limited to places characterized by extremes, such as the highest, the lowest, the biggest and the most unique. We should strive to protect regions exemplary of all ranges of the Martian environment in order to establish a holistic system of preserves rather than a piecemeal one. In fact it would be best to start out in the exact opposite manner as we have managed Earth: on Mars we should determine what areas should sustain the imprint of humanity and seek to preserve the integrity of the rest of the planet.
This does not mean that the majority of the red planet would be off-limits to humans. It means that we should focus our impactive activities in concentrated areas and seek to enact our expeditionary activities with the lightest hand on the land. Preserving pristine land can be balanced with development, cultivation and resource extraction.
When President Roosevelt marveled at the awesomeness of the Grand Canyon he was moved to protect it, but he was ahead of his time. Congress refused his attempts to designate it a National Park and he could only afford it the lesser status of a National Monument. Only years later did Congress come around to see the value of preserving the Grand Canyon and upgrade its designation. Now that we are on the verge of reaching an unspoiled planet, we must respect the whole of Mars as having a grandiosity equal to that of the Grand Canyon. We must exhibit President Roosevelt’s foresight and strive to preserve the work of the ages or else the hand of man may threaten to mar a grand canyon once more.