Here’s a quick multiple choice quiz. You are a program officer in charge of a foundation’s environmental giving. An applicant comes into your office with a project aiming to set aside some 40 percent of the North American continent as “wildland” in order to foster biological diversity. Do you: a) quietly contact building security? b) file and forget? c) encourage the applicant to submit a somewhat less ambitious plan? d) welcome the chance to support what is obviously just the sort of “next big idea” you’ve been looking for?
If you work for the Turner Foundation, Patagonia, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, or more than 200 other foundations and individual donors, the correct answer is apparently “d.” All have supported the Wildlands Project or its many cooperating organizations in their efforts to create a system of “reserve networks” that would, in the name of biodiversity and the equality of all life, create new restrictions on the human use of the natural landscape.
Wildlands backers believe that large (and preferably continuous) reserves, on the order of 100,000 to more than 10 million acres apiece, are necessary to buffer species from threatening human activities and to let natural processes work to protect them. (As a point of comparison, Yellowstone National Park is about two million acres, and the United States already has about 100 million acres in its National Wilderness Preservation System.) Harvey Locke, president of the Wildlands Project board, sums up the challenge this way: “The history of the last 100 years has been an unraveling of nature in North America, and that is not an acceptable outcome if you care about protection of life on earth. The question is how do we do things differently, not putting fingers in the dike, but making sure that nature flourishes along with humanity.”
The Wildlands Project has been “doing things differently” since its founding in 1991 by a group of conservation activists and biologists. “The core of our work,” says executive director Leanne Klyza Linck, “is figuring out the methodology for creating wildlands networks, and what kind of research needs to be involved to make the plans scientifically impeccable.” At the moment, a full time staff of five working out of the Wildlands’ Tucson, Arizona office cooperates with over 30 local organizations on developing plans for “rewilding” in nearly half the states in the U.S.
Christine B. Shelton, executive director of the Town Creek Foundation, a Wildlands supporter, points out that what makes the project “interesting is that it looks across political and ownership boundaries, looking at species protection as pure science.” The Wildlands Project sees “continental conservation” as a kind of three-tiered zoning.
Core areas would allow little human use; they are to be roadless or have low road density (compare recent initiatives from the Clinton administration that move in this direction, and Vice President Gore’s promise to expand on them). Mechanized equipment would be banned along with “sounds and constructions of modern civilization.” According to Wildlands ecologist Dr. Barbara Dugelby, Wildlands plans always try to take advantage of existing national parks, forests and wilderness areas when drawing up the cores. “But what we ask for depends on the needs of the ecosystem,” and current reserves do not adequately respond to those needs. Wildlands envisions massive efforts to restore “core” ecosystems to their pre-Columbian state.
Buffer zones, or compatible use areas, would be created around these cores. This land could be privately owned, but could still have only limited human use and would have to be managed with biodiversity in mind. Cores and buffers would be connected by corridors or landscape linkages generally following rivers, valleys, or migration routes. These corridors could be a mix of public and private land, but would be managed in such a way as not to impede their use by wildlife.
In practice, it’s not quite this neat. A recent map of the Wildlands’ proposal for a Sky Islands Wildlands Network in Southeastern Arizona and Southwestern New Mexico covers an area of some 10.4 million acres—significantly larger than the state of Maine. It shows a complex patchwork where the core wild area is about half the total, with the remainder consisting of proposed and existing wilderness areas and parks, low- and moderate-use public lands, study areas, wildlife linkage and dispersal areas, and private lands.
The Wildlands Project proposal for rewilding is stunningly ambitious, with profound implications for current patterns of land use, especially in the more crowded eastern United States. But Wildlands’ restoration and sequestration are not likely to be accomplished quickly. “We are thinking in the long term—well over 100 years” says Linck.
That long-term outlook is attractive to another of Wildlands’ funders, Ted M. Smith, executive director of the Henry P. Kendall Foundation, who sees it as an antidote to a tendency of some donors to focus too much on immediate concerns. He grants, though, that the project is experimental: “Experimentation is part of what the human condition needs to provide for, and so to test out new conservation strategies is part of what a foundation should be doing.”
Making the Case
When an experiment is proposed on the scale that Wildlands is working toward, it should have both a firm basis in science and a vision that is broadly acceptable. Wildlands, not surprisingly, is controversial on both grounds.
The conservation biologists whose work supports Wildlands argue that the more a species is restricted in its range, the more vulnerable it is to extinction due to natural or man-made causes. While the amount of U.S. land area given over to parks and preserves of one sort or another has already been growing, these reserves tend to be scattered and discontinuous, and likely to be more related to things that we value (like fishing or hiking) than what would be useful for maintaining the integrity of ecosystems (like restoring certain animal species). Top predators such as wolves, bears and large cats—the restoration of which Wildlands advocates take to be a central part of their efforts—require large expanses of territory on which to hunt and roam. Hence the need for large-scale and more or less continuous landscape preservation.
Conservation biologists sympathetic to the cause of Wildlands admit that there is little evidence that the corridor system would create the connectivity that is intended. The assumption that ecosystem well being is particularly related to top predators is likewise just that—an assumption, albeit an old one. Says Wildlands’ Dr. Dugelby, “It is still considered a hypothesis by the scientific community, but one that is rapidly gaining documented support in most natural systems. The question is how much evidence you need to say that we are beyond the hypothesis stage.”
In addition to such scientifically-styled arguments, some activists make a moral case. Among its founders, Dave Foreman of EarthFirst! fame and conservation biologist Dr. Michael Soul