Carole King's Crusade To Protect The Rockies

Grammy-award winning singer Carole King has been raising her voice on the radio lately—not in song, this time, but in a plea for the Rocky Mountains. King hails from the mountains of Idaho; at the apex of her career, the Brooklyn native went looking for a place with fewer people and more space, and settled on a county in the center of the Gem State. She’s been active in the fight to preserve American northern wilderness ever since. Back in February of this year, King announced her support of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA, or H.R. 980), a new bill introduced by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY). In May, King testified before Congress on NREPA, and just last week she traveled again to Washington, to talk with several Representatives about the economic, cultural, and environmental impacts it could have.

NPR’s Rebecca Roberts reported of NREPA on Tuesday that, “if adopted, it would become the second largest wilderness expansion in US history.”

H.R. 980 would create 24 million acres of official wilderness in the Rockies (no more road-building or snowmobile-driving), link up natural biological corridors for wildlife migration as global warming drives grizzlies and other animals to greater (colder) elevations, create more than 2,300 jobs in ecosystem restoration, and eliminate subsidized development in new wilderness areas.

The incredible scope of the bill, which would protect an ecosystem spanning Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming, helps to explain why its gestation period has lagged on for so long. Conceived 20 years ago, the bill has already been introduced in several congresses, to no avail. King hasn’t lost hope. The woman who once sang “It’s too late baby now, it’s too late,” has changed her tune—she told Roberts that the red tape discourages her, but that “you just keep going. You put one foot in front of the other and try to be gentle in persuasion and be respectful of one another.” Ken Burns’ recently released documentary on America’s national parks also helps King keep her chin up—his film highlights the fact that it took over a century to make the parks a reality.

Detractors of the bill have called it “elite legislation,” but King insists it would “be an economic engine for generations.” The Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AWR), which has dubbed H.R. 980 “the wildest bill on the hill,” is also calling the bill a prudent choice when it comes to dollars and cents. The elimination of subsidized development on new wilderness areas alone, says AWR, would save taxpayers $245 million over a 10 year period.

And then, of course, there’s global warming. Preserving forests and wilderness is one of the easiest ways to combat climate change. Trees suck up CO2, as well as filter and clean our air. “This bill would preserve a large carbon sink, a place that would protect and sequester carbon, which by the way turns into money for the taxpayers,” King told NPR.

Visit King’s NREPA webpage for more information, and, for those who live in any of the five NREPA states, to send a little Rocky Mountain High encouragement to your Senators or Representatives.

Trivia: Idaho’s state motto is Esto Perpetua, Latin for "Let it be forever." Fitting, no?

Learn more about H.R. 980 at THOMAS, the Library of Congress website.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.