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207 Melissa Savage Introduction Melissa Savage is a biogeographer who received her Ph.D. from the University of Colorado and thereafter joined the geography department faculty at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). After retiring from UCLA, she returned to her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and founded the Four Corners Institute, whose mission is to partner with local communities in the Southwest in the restoration of natural ecosystems. Its mission statement says, “The Four Corners Institute works to bring together the diverse voices of the Southwest, people with a stake in the health and integrity of the environment, to collaborate in their recovery. Current scientific knowledge can assist partners in making resource choices that restore and revive our natural places.” Melissa Savage has followed her imagination around the world, exploring the flow of Nature through myriad ecosystems. She always returns to the American Southwest, where she continues to devote her life to restoration of habitat, preservation of wildlife corridors, and vigorous defense of endangered species. She is deeply committed to her science and concurrently follows her evolved intuitions as she passes through the natural world that she loves. I interviewed Savage in 1999 as part of a project for the New Mexico Melissa Savage, photo by author 208 / Seeking the Path of Common Sense Wilderness Alliance. Herein she reveals her passion for wilderness preservation throughout the American West and beyond. Melissa Savage JL: One thing that many people don’t know yet is what biogeography is. MS: Well, it is a very broad term and an old discipline. Aristotle was a good biogeographer. It really means knowledge of all the natural communities on the face of the Earth, how they are organized, how they work. And geographers especially, unlike ecologists, have spent their whole careers looking at the way that people and human communities interact with natural communities. Natural communities are usually thought of as whole communities without the touch of people. But, in fact, the human influence goes back so far that there are no pristine landscapes. There are no communities that haven’t been touched, even well before the industrial age. Human use of fire goes back half a million years, and there is no more single powerful influence on the shape of the natural landscape than the use of fire. So that is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the practice of biogeography . Looking at what people do to natural environments. JL: Do you think that the word bioregion really does have currency, or do you think that there is a better word? MS: I think bioregion is a very useful idea. It is easy for people to understand what it means. You can always use better words. But bioregion speaks to people. Since human communities interact with natural communities so much, often people create a bioregion by what they do. Look at Europe. That kind of characteristic use of the landscape has produced a kind of large bioregion that would be different without people. So bioregions, yes, but in terms also of human uses of it. You can think of it Melissa Savage / 209 at different scales. You could think of the scale of Europe, for example, where the kind of use has been consistent across the whole landscape of the whole region of Europe. But you can also think of the bioregion of the Rhine Valley, for example, or the bioregion of your own community of people. Santa Fe is a bioregion, or the Santa Fe River bioregion, which is very small, but it is very easy for people to grasp what is going on in the places that they are most familiar with. So I don’t think that you need to belabor what the scale of the bioregion is. The term works at many levels. JL: I have a tendency not to think in terms of geopolitical boundaries , but within this particular context I [instead] think of New Mexico as a mosaic of bioregions. Does that ring true to you? MS: Well, yes. New Mexico is at the congruence of two or three natural bioregions. The plains, the southern deserts, the mountains, the Great Basin all meet here. JL: The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is working very hard to effect legislation that would preserve more than forty proposed areas as wilderness areas. How would you define a wilderness area within the context of today’s culture? MS: Wilderness is a place where the human touch has been very light...


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