nature wars cover

For a balanced, fair, and at times surprising look at the clash between humans, wildlife, and forests, Nature Wars by Jim Sterba provides a thoughtful and fascinating history of North American forests.

Sterba takes readers on a grand tour of attitudes, both historical and contemporary, toward the wild and its beasts: from a time when clearing trees meant progress and the idea of preserving them was unintelligible, to the establishment of National Parks, to the political climate after the first Earth Day, and up to today’s tension between cat lovers, bird lovers, locavores, environmentalists, farmers, hunters, animal rights activists, suburbanites, city planners, forest researchers, and other groups.

Striking about this narrative is the way American forests and wildlife not only disappeared, but also came back, with little notice. As we’ve become further disconnected from hands-on experiences in nature, while simultaneously increasingly concerned about the environment, a “hands off” approach seems intuitive. However, this may be an oversimplified ideology and “a misplaced feeling of virtue for doing [our] bit to help the planet.”

Efforts of the environmental movement have yielded important victories, and we still have dire issues to address. But what is to be done with restored abundance of — an invasive species, a renewable resource, or a reforestation? Nature Wars challenges notions of scarcity and beliefs that nature is best left alone before we muck things up even worse. Sterba makes a compelling argument for local stewardship and the responsible management of land and wildlife.

Generations of Americans have grown up with the narrative of environmental loss,” Sterba comments. “… Helping modern Americans understand and accept the need for human oversight isn’t an easy task.” He acknowledges the reality and seriousness of global environment degradation, shrinking biodiversity, and resource mismanagement such as fisheries. But he also sharply critiques that “our battles over critters and trees are mainly about how to deal with excess, and while they are being fought we tolerate enormous cost and waste — because we can afford to.” Sterba’s reporting lets the facts speak for themselves, but they are surely stacked up to make us consider the overall health of an ecosystem…which includes human influence, whether we like it or not.

Now that we find them in our backyards (or now that they find us in the forests), we are clashing with critters like deer, beavers, coyotes, and ferrel cats in unexpected ways. A “hands off” approach doesn’t work when our cities are already built inside forests where we feed the wildlife. Nature Wars examines an overlooked weight on the environmental balance beam: after a great loss, how do we manage a great comeback?

Crown Publishers, $26 @