IN northern New Mexico's beautiful Chama River Valley a cooperative of sheepherders and artisans is looking for new pasture for its sheep. Last year, they moved the animals - upon which the survival of their community depends - onto state preserves without permission from the State Game Commission. A continent and an ocean away, in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Berber tribespeople move daily throughout the Mt. Toubkal National Park, illegally cutting wood and grazing goats.
Worlds apart, yet treading the same pathway, these Moroccans and New Mexicans symbolize a crossroads for mankind, a point of no return: the end of nature as we have known it.
Everywhere, there is evidence that mankind's impact - much of it destructive - on the Earth and its atmosphere has reached a point of irreversibility. There is today nowhere, not even in the hottest or coldest of climes, where one can go that someone has not already been and others will not soon follow.
In both industrialized and nonindustrialized nations people are urgently asking: ``What can be done to ensure that our children and our children's children will not be doomed to a world of concrete and tar?''
Never before has there been greater need for mankind to shape a new vision of ``nature,'' with itself as an interdependent entity that stewards rather than uses the Earth's resources. In a few isolated instances communities, out of desperation, have adopted such a view. They are practicing sustainable use of their resources.
Hundreds of miles north of Mr. Toubkal, in the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco, plant and animal experts and sociologists from the nation's premier agriculture institute are helping Berber tribesmen reclaim land lost to overgrazing. For decades the tribes have been moving from one site to another as firewood and grasslands were depleted. Nearby lie vast moonscapes - remains of one of the world's largest cedar forests.
The new range management approach works because it is based on collective responsibility. The people themselves restrict grazing patterns for the sheep. The tribesmen police their own activities for the good of the community and its future.
And in the rain forests of Brazil, a few communities recently gained a solid footing in stewarding their resources. With the help of US and European private and nonprofit concerns interested in rain forest products (and in halting the forests' destruction), these small communities are extracting materials and selling them abroad. The extraction is done at levels that ensure replenishment, protecting forests and indigenous people in a way that governments have been unable or unwilling to do.
The cooperative in northern New Mexico insists it is capable of undertaking similar collective responsibility - managing its animals on the state preserves without permanent harm to vegetation and wildlife. So far, the State Game Commission says, ``No way.'' Perhaps it should reconsider. In the end, survival of the wilderness will depend on the people just beyond its frontiers.
The question as to whether ``nature'' can be best preserved by setting it aside and prohibiting man from using it, or by teaching man to properly steward it, is hardly a new one. Early in this century two of the United States's first conservationists, John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, debated it.
Historically, the US has adopted a watered-down mixture of both approaches - setting aside conservation areas where human use is strictly limited and establishing national parks and forests that Americans enjoy with few restrictions. And the US government is promoting these approaches in other nations.
But these systems do not transfer easily to other countries, especially poor and less industrialized ones. In these nations, resources needed just to sustain human life are often scarce, and there is not enough money or manpower to protect plants and animals. Moroccan authorities will never be able to keep the villagers out of the Mt. Toubkal National Park, just as Kenyan rangers have not been able to stop the slaughter of elephants.
Even in the Western world, however, current ``reserve'' and ``conservation'' systems will fail in the end. Demographics - simply meeting needs of the Earth's growing population - dictate that, once resources outside the reserves are depleted, people will head inside looking for cropland, pasture, firewood, minerals. More communities like the one in northern New Mexico will begin fighting for the right to use resources in their areas.
Failures to protect and conserve are already not peculiar to land-starved peasants uneducated in the issues of ``deforestation'' or ``global warming.'' It is well known that the King of Morocco regularly goes on hunting jaunts, during which he kills more animals in one day than he and his whole lineage could eat in a year. And recently it was brought to the attention of the US Congress that at least 14 of the nation's wild reserves or conservation areas are being used for purposes inconsistent with their restrictions.
Undocumented misuse of parks and preserves is rampant around the globe, and it won't be stopped by added fencing and policing.
The main reason these approaches don't work was best summed up by a fresh-faced US Peace Corps volunteer I met last year in Morocco. Wise beyond his years after 24 months working on the Mt. Toubkal National Park effort, he said, ``The problem with reserves is that they send a wrong message to people. They say: `While you are in the park, you must act a certain way - with respect toward the plants and creatures. Once you leave, it does not matter how you act.'''
We are brought up to believe that our respect for the Earth can be stored like some people garner their respect for God - not to be shown until we enter a special sanctuary. Outside that sanctum we are free to plunder and pollute.
The conflict between man and nature is not inevitable. Man can be, indeed is, part of an ecosystem. Blinded by greed and ignorance, however, he has lost sight of his role. The United Nations development agencies and numerous environmental groups have models of multiuse parks and preserves to offer. And research has given us insight into societies past that managed to use and steward the Earth's resources. The answers are at hand; we need only be willing to put them into practice.