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Landscapes and Broken Windows

Nature loses integrity, resilience, and beauty when someone breaks its window

The house had stood longer than most people could remember. Solid it was, built with care, attention to detail, and pleasing to the eye. Saskatoon bushes rubbed up against one wall, and the intensity of the wind was muted with a buffer of spruce and aspens. Grouse sheltered under the spruce canopy, swallows nested under the eves, and a robin took possession of an alcove over one of the doors. Moose occasionally browsed the saskatoons.

Inside the house was shelter—by design, it was comfortable and efficient. From the fit and finish, you could tell how the place was integrated, complex but coordinated, every piece having purpose and adding to the overall design.

Visibility from a new well site road attracted people to the place, some with less than honourable intentions. The first indignity was a broken window, then two, and finally, all of them. With gaping holes where once windows had signalled occupancy and care, a trend started. Doors were wrenched open, slamming in the breeze. 

Dust, debris, empty beer cans, and garbage from trespassing partiers accumulated. Campfires led to random chainsaws cutting up many of the surrounding trees for firewood. Saskatoon branches were stripped for roasting wieners. Someone saw valuable board feet in the old spruce trees, and off they went to become dimensional lumber instead of remaining as shelter and wildlife habitat.

Without an intact windbreak, winds swept through with a fury that ripped off shingles. Rain and snowmelt leaked into the interior, adding to rot and mould.

Instead of native grasses and wildflowers, weeds began to take over in the ruts created by motorized mischief. Someone tried to drive their truck through the front door in a testosterone-induced, perhaps alcohol-fueled incident. With the porch damaged and rain rotting the structural pieces, parts of the house started to sag.

People began to burn parts of the house for campfires. One got out of control and scorched one exterior wall, further weakening the structure. Pigeons began to roost inside, covering the interior with their droppings.

Finally, the authorities, tired of the vandalism, parties, and wildfire risk, knocked the place down and burned the remainder. What was left of the woodlot was cleared and added to a canola field.

Occasionally someone would drive by, wondering what had happened to that grand old house. No one remembered the birdsong, shade, and Saskatoon fruit. The disappearance of the place and all its virtues started with that first broken window.

In criminology, the mischief the house went through is called “broken windows theory.” Visible signs of crime, vandalism, and anti-social behaviour create a situation that encourages more bad behaviours. Social psychologists and police officers agree that if a window in a building is broken and left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. One unrepaired broken window signals that no one cares so breaking more windows has little risk. Window breaking leads to further vandalism.  

Nature and watersheds can also be broken, like the house. How nature loses integrity, resilience, and beauty starts when someone breaks one of the landscape windows, it isn’t repaired, and the downward spiral begins.

Breaking nature’s windows can start with a random campsite beside a trout stream— a small tent spot, a single fire ring, and a bit of firewood gleaned from deadfall. Then the trail to the site is “improved” so that trailers and bigger recreational vehicles can access the site. The small beachhead becomes a destination for off-highway vehicle users, too many of them at any given time, muddy trails spiral out, spiderweb-like over the watershed, more trees fall from DIY chainsaws, litter builds up, the stream is muddy after every rain storm, and users think this is the way it has always been. No one sees the broken windows.

Window breaking can be “authorized” where land uses, individually approved, accumulate out of control with no guidance from a landscape plan. It happens when no ecological thresholds are set or there’s no reclamation or restoration of the human footprint. It can start with one resource road built to access one well site or logging clearcut. Like the house, the deterioration begins once that first window is broken.

That one road., within a short time–often a decade or less–leads to more roads, seismic trails, well sites, pipelines, powerlines, gravel pits, and coal strip mines. Soon we’ve broken all the windows in that landscape. Soon no one remembers what it was like before that first resource road. The human land use footprint then expands into yet another watershed with no sense of cumulative effects, limits, or other landscape values.

Seemingly random acts that started small, almost innocuously, add up to a series of developments that no one initially anticipated, recognized, or registered as a concern. We take for granted that we can have it all—the full suite of virtues and values of intact landscapes and a full cart of developments. Somewhere along the line, we forget about the former as we are overwhelmed by the latter.

Can we avoid the propensity to break landscape windows, starting a tsunami of change that seems unrelenting? 

If we could get over the fun aspect of breaking windows and the profitability of breaking them all, there might be a chance.

It will require us to recognize the first broken windows in our landscape house, care enough to ensure they are fixed quickly and respond better with timely, evidence-based land use plans to avoid the cumulative effects of breaking all the windows. 

Lorne Fitch is a Professional Biologist, a retired Fish and Wildlife Biologist and a past Adjunct Professor with the University of Calgary.

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