A National Corridors Campaign for Restoring America the Beautiful
By Michael E. Soulé
Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul. — Ed Abbey
Critics often state that the American Era is finished, that America can no longer claim to be a “shining city on a hill,” a beacon for those seeking opportunity, adventure, or even seeking a compelling story to tell family and friends back home in New Jersey, France, or South Africa. Critics of America also proclaim the demise of the American dream. Such speculation is premature. We believe that hope still springs from the land in rural towns from Montana to New Mexico, from Utah to Colorado, from Oregon to Georgia. The concept of a National Corridors Campaign (NCC), proposed here for discussion, is an expression of American optimism.
Please note that the emphasis in this draft paper is on the Spine of the Continent (Western Wildway) corridor because it is the most iconic and least disturbed of the continental wildways, and it is where many conservation groups have begun networking in the last decade. A National Corridors Campaign, if successful, however, will protect connected wildlife habitats and recreational greenways through the Southeast Coastal Plain and Appalachian Mountains (Eastern Wildway) and through the Pacific Coast Ranges and undeveloped shores (Pacific Wildway), and eventually also reconnect Nature and people through the Great Plains, along the Gulf Coast, around the Great Lakes, across the Boreal Forest, and in other realms, east-west as well as north-south, aquatic as well as terrestrial, where biodiversity restoration and wilderness recreation is still possible.
The conservation movement in the US has succeeded in protecting much biodiversity in the last half-century. We’ve helped establish millions of acres of parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges. Sadly, however, we’ve lost more ground than we’ve gained. On average, we lose 1.6 million acres of private land a year to development and fragmentation; and similarly large amounts of public land are degraded by industrial resource extraction and motorized off-road recreation. Even in the grandest part of the continent, the Rocky Mountains, nature reserves are too small and isolated, and unprotected areas face a growing list of threats, which include population growth and exurban sprawl on private lands; industrial recreation and energy extraction on public lands; and the ideology of infinite economic growth that helps fuel these harmful trends
So, what would constitute conservation success in the US? Many conservation biologists would define success as the protection of inter-connected lands and waters that provide sufficient habitat and security for vigorous and well-distributed populations of all native species and the restoration of ecological functions provided by them, including:
- seed and pollen dispersal
- the dispersal of (mostly young) animals necessary to maintain both genetic and demographic vigor and optimum geographic distribution of populations
- the seasonal migrations of animals, either via traditional routes or new, pioneer routes necessitated by habitat disruption and climate change
- the natural control of both (1) mesopredators such as house cats, raccoons, skunks, some corvid birds and (2) the population sizes of some ungulates such as deer, elk, moose
- the maintenance of habitat diversity by grazing and browsing herbivores such as bison, prairie dogs, and beaver
- the capacity of species to shift their geographic distributions when and where necessitated by climate change.
2. Launching a National Conservation and Recreation Corridors Campaign
Dozens of conservation organizations champion the restoration and protection of landscape permeability. These organizations are already engaged in multiyear campaigns to conserve connectivity along the Spine of the Continent and beyond. In the West, these regional initiatives include the construction of fencing and safe passage structures for wildlife across highways; implementation of connectivity-based National Monuments in the Grand Canyon region; creation of a Northern Jaguar Reserve in the Sonoran Desert Wildway, and formation of a Western Landowner’s Alliance.
In the East, the initiatives include Staying Connected in the Northern Appalachians, which partnership seeks to increase conservation in eight critical linkages in the US and Canada; collaboration with the Vermont Agency of Transportation to reduce the effects of roads on wildlife; and strategic acquisitions by land trusts like the Northeast Wilderness Trust in local wildways. In the Southeast Coastal Plain, the Wildlands Network is leading the development of a regional conservation plan to connect and expand existing nature reserves in this hotspot of North American biodiversity.
The Rocky Mountains, running south-north through much of western North America, and including big parts of Mexico, the United States, and Canada, are where a national and international conservation corridor can most quickly be achieved. Some of the green infrastructure of such a continental corridor is in place, and mapping is ongoing to establish the route. The work has gained momentum since completion of TrekWest in 2013 (subject of the film Born to Rewild), and since publication of two eloquent books on conservation in the Rockies: Mary Ellen Hannibal’s The Spine of the Continent; and Cristina Eisenberg’s The Carnivore Way.
3. Adapting to the new (political/economic) normal
A basic goal of a national conservation and recreation corridors campaign is connectivity – for wildlife, for human-powered recreation, and for ecological resilience in the face of change. Such an outcome is only achievable by welcoming a wide range of partners to the corridors team, including partners with goals that benefit diverse social, economic, and environmental interests.
We live in an era when fewer and fewer people venture outdoors, and a diminishing percentage love nature for its own sake. Kids, especially, spend much more time on computers and television than they do exploring nearby woods and streams – in part because the nearby woods and streams have been paved over. The natural world is receding farther and farther from where people live and work.
An analysis of charitable giving in the US shows a shocking absence of caring about the outdoors. The preferred beneficiaries of charity today are religious institutions (about 45% of donations). Next come public health and cultural institutions. Less than one percent goes to nature and wildlife! This means that any campaign must appeal to a mainstream audience with diverse concerns.
Marketers and conservationists agree that any campaign must inspire hope. In the current economy, “hope” must include jobs and recreation. Though many of us love wildlife for its own sake, we must broaden the base of support for conservation.
We must, as well, restore the excitement and vigor of the conservation movement. We conservationists are an aging community. Young folks these days who want to make the world a better place are heading for economic and social justice solutions. We must re-engage young people with the joys of natural areas. We need to get the young people engaged in outdoor sports, like climbing and skiing, to become spokespeople for national conservation and recreation corridors.
4. Partners in a “bigger tent?”
It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. . . . [the majority] do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it. – from “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli
The distinguishing quality of a national conservation and recreation corridors campaign is its inclusiveness. The theme of the corridors campaign should be straightforwardly nonpartisan and economically mainstream, but with real standards of land health. When many sectors and institutions perceive that a corridors campaign will benefit them, they will board the train. The passengers ought to include
- Conservation-minded land-owners, who could profit from more campers, anglers, and others interested in adventure
- Rural communities, including business leaders, county commissioners, Rotarians, and chambers of commerce
- For-profit ecological restoration companies because many riparian areas, grasslands, streams, and derelict farmlands will require rehabilitation
- Publishers such as Island Press and the National Geographic Society
- Manufacturers and retailers of outdoor gear, such as Patagonia and Black Diamond
- Recreation-oriented non-profits such as the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, trails groups, wildflower societies, birding clubs …
- Advocates of non-motorized backcountry recreation and adventure sports including paddlers, considerate mountain bikers, and hikers
- Education organizations and leaders, particularly those promoting outdoor, experiential, and science education, such as Outward Bound, National Outdoor Leadership School, and the hundreds of related college academic programs
- Students of all ages from across the country who would benefit from outdoor experiences (particularly inner city kids who have never seen a dark sky or heard a coyote howl)
- Climate justice advocates, led by 350.org, who are demanding cuts in carbon emissions
- Angling interests including Trout Unlimited
- State and Federal politicians promoting enterprise and job creation in the West.
National corridors will increase the prosperity of communities in the West and in the nation. For example, jobs would be gestated in the service sector and tourism industry, in ecological restoration, and in the construction industry by the building of infrastructure, including wildlife crossings on roads, trails, hut systems, campgrounds, outdoor educational facilities, and lodges at guest-oriented ranches.
Finally and not least, the campaign is key to maintaining any semblance of extensive wildness and ecological integrity in the Rockies and elsewhere. Lacking biogeographic connectivity, America’s globally unique diversity of ecosystems and plant and animal species will be vastly diminished by the end of this century. The good news is that nature needs only a little help to heal itself. The help is straightforward:
- unfragmented wildlife/ecological link (conservation corridor, or wildway) from Mexico to Canada allowing unhindered movement of flora and fauna, including wide-ranging carnivores
- designated parks, wilderness, and other natural areas for the security of foraging, migrating, and dispersing wildlife, and for hikers, naturalists, and other recreationists
- safe wildlife crossings on major roads and other infrastructure retrofits to accommodate wildlife movement
CONCLUSION: . Many cultures and religions counsel humility in our actions toward other lifeforms, gratitude for nature’s beauty, and an ethic of responsibility to future generations of all beings. These values, along with the sheer beauty and wonder of the natural world and the joys of exploring it, should guide our weaving back together the web of life in North America. A step in this direction is to reconnect severed landscape arteries in order to restore vigor to wildlife and generous opportunities for human-powered recreation across the West and beyond. We invite readers to share their ideas on how to launch this movement.
Michael Soule is a co-founder of the Society for Conservation Biology, Wildlands Network, and other leading conservation groups. He is the author of numerous books and scientific papers. These include the landmark Wild Earth (fall 1998) article he co-authored with Reed Noss, “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Continental Conservation”, which established the scientific case for rewilding. Michael is a charter member of our Rewilding Leadership Council.