In 1978, I was just beginning my career with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). I worked in the southern Sierra Nevada range as the Assistant Forest Manager at Mountain Home State Forest, a 4800 acre state forest surround by national land. Mountain Home’s northern and eastern boundaries abutted the newly designated 304,000 acre Golden Trout Wilderness Area (GTWA).

Our neighbor, the federally managed 1.2 million acre Sequoia National Forest of the United States Forest Service, was struggling to transform the Golden Trout Wilderness Area from primitive to pristine.

 This picture if of a Golden Trout fro...
A golden trout from French Creek in the French Canyon. Located within the John Muir Wilderness in California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Wilderness Act of 1964 required that the GTWA would be “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammelled by man.” Well, many thought that man had pretty well trammeled the area. Quite a few high country lakes and streams had been “coffee can stocked” with rainbow, brook, and brown trout. The native golden trout had crossed with many of the rainbow (golden trout is a sub-species of rainbow) to produce a hybrid trout that looked just like a golden until you drilled down to the chromosomal level.

The question was, then, how to make the wilderness into WILDERNESS, to resemble a time before man changed it. Drumroll please....

The answer was to destroy the fish population, using the poisonous insecticide rotenone, to “save” it.

The strategy was, and is, to “chemically treat the headwaters of drainages with rotenone above fish barriers to remove non-native trout species that compete or hybridize with native trout,” a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brochure [PDF here] notes, “After that, native trout are reintroduced to the reclaimed habitats.” Many of the high country lakes were left sterile since the agency experts decided that was their natural state before European contact or even Native American occupation.

Some of the Forest Service’s people thought that was a crazy idea, saying, “If it looks like a golden trout, why not call it a golden trout?” After all, golden trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss aguabonita) is a sub-species of rainbow trout (O. mykiss).

Higher ups overruled their objections.

So why destroy a diverse and vibrant fish population? In her book, Rambunctious Garden, Emma Marris explains, “For many conservationists, restoration to a pre-human or a pre-European baseline is seen as healing a wounded or sick nature. For others, it is an ethical duty. We broke it; therefore we must fix it.” The pre-human or pre-European state thus becomes “the one correct state.”The irony, of course, is that pristine areas are illusions; people have to work hard to make them to look how people think “pristine” ought to look.

Peter Kareiva, the chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, along with his two co-authors, argues that the great lengths we go to “removing unwanted species while supporting more desirable species,” such as drilling wells to provide wildlife with water and manipulating the land through “fire management that mixes control with prescribed burns,” we “create parks that are no less human constructions than Disneyland.”

So, oddly, the more wild and natural we want a place to look, the less hands-off and more human management it needs.

Further Reading: