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Recently I learned through the magic of the internet that there is a sizable herd of wild elk in northern Pennsylvania in the aptly named Elk County. Upon gaining this knowledge, I was immediately gripped by a desire to see these magnificent creatures and to photograph them. It was well worth the trip, though in the past, a journey of such length would hardly have been necessary to see animals such as elk in Pennsylvania as they roamed throughout the state. Greed, that root of all that is evil, brought about the extirpation or extinction of many species that lived in what is now the Eastern United States, elk amongst them. Because history is so little valued in this country and is often distorted for nationalist, narrow minded reasons we are now continuing the sad tradition of spending our natural capital for profit and are in the midst of a mass extinction event. Rather than learn about important societal issues like land use, conservation, labor rights, and other social history we’re taught about rich people, politicians, and wars fought to advance the interests of rich people and as a result as a society we are repeating the mistakes of the past.
Elk habitat was lost due to clear cutting the old growth forests in Pennsylvania and other habitat disturbances such as coal mining. Exacerbating this habitat loss was over hunting to satisfy the appetites of wealthy people in large cities who ate elk in fancy restaurants. Elk disappeared from Pennsylvania the way the eastern buffalo herd did, the beaver, the passenger pigeon and who knows what else. The herd that is now roaming the Allegheny Mountains near Benezette, PA has grown from 50 animals brought in from Colorado in the early 20th century. Habitat has been reclaimed and nurtured on land once strip mined for coal. This success however belies the perfidious activities of extractive industries currently doing their best to make large swaths of Pennsylvania uninhabitable for elk and perhaps human beings as fracking continues unabated despite knowledge that hydraulic fracturing uses enormous amounts of water and then poisons it with toxic chemicals as has been shown in Bradford County, PA.
Another lesson unlearned from history is what happens when the boom times end. Chesapeake Energy, and other companies of their ilk practice a type of neo-colonialism by coming in making promises of prosperity for all while really only serving themselves. Most of the jobs go to people from out of the state as do most of the profits. Meanwhile politicians sit idly by doing nothing but kow-towing to industry execs proclaiming that the rape of the Earth is good for the economy while smiling smarmy smiles and laughing all the way to the bank. Chesapeake Energy literally buys the goodwill of locals by giving token amounts of money to local environmental causes such as the Keystone Elk Country Alliance. Yet as soon as their profits dwindle these companies will leave without a thought for the horrific ecological and economic mess they leave behind with natural capital spent and unaccounted for in their business accounting. Residents are then left to pick up the pieces in economically depressed towns and cities while the companies look elsewhere for people, places, and ecosystems to exploit. Rinse, lather, repeat.
If people (including corporate executives) could see past short term dollar signs our rivers would be clean and teeming with aquatic life, our forests filled with old growth trees, groundwater suitable for drinking or irrigation, and soil thriving rather than inert chemical laced dirt. In short, natural capital would invariably trump the fiction that is monetary capital. How long will the Pennsylvania Wilds be wild? How long will these elk last? How long will the trout streams remain clean enough for trout as fracking chemicals continue to pollute? How long will citizens sit on their hands or just shake their heads proclaiming “that’s the price of progress?” If destroying the systems that promote life is progress, then I say, “Fuck progress.”
One of the reasons I enjoy taking and sharing photographs is because I want to inspire people to connect with the natural world and work to protect, conserve, and treasure it. Observe, interact, and ACT! One home is all we have. One home is all the elk have.