Around Every Bend
Let there be wild surprises. We’ve surely met some, ranging from bittersweet to challenging to happy, at The Rewilding Institute in recent months. We’ve lost some elders. We’ve gathered in wild places to celebrate them, finding rare flowers, formidable beasts, and old friends along the way.
Good people live long past their numbered days, especially if they have protected wild places. Dave Foreman, Nancy Morton, Kim Crumbo, Jim Eaton, Jerry Mander, Tim Barnett, and Michael Soulé — among the recently passed wildlands heroes Rewilding friends celebrated this spring — all will live on for many decades, through the lands and wildlife they protected and the people they taught and inspired.
With our founders passing, some of us at The Rewilding Institute have been tempted to say, we’ve succeeded in mainstreaming rewilding — succeeded at getting the conservation community to embrace Wilderness recovery, helping Nature heal, giving the land back to wildlife and wildlife back to the land — so maybe we can finally rest. Far-seeing members of our team countered, however, that with the extinction and climate crises deepening, our founders would want us to strive still harder for wild Earth. In addition to our ongoing local and regional rewilding projects, they urged, we need to give the rewilding movement a center, a clearinghouse of ideas and information, a source of inspiration. Hence, we are doing as our forebears would want and redoubling our efforts to protect and restore big wild places with full ranges of native species, including top carnivores.
Indeed, the deaths of several early Rewilding leaders seem to be drawing old wilderness colleagues back together and solidifying the rewilding movement. In mid-May, a wild bunch of Mogollon Wildway explorers, led by Wild Arizona executive director Kelly Burke and Springs Stewardship Council biologist Larry Stevens, gathered on the Mogollon Rim to take next steps toward piecing together a Lobo National Scenic Trail and making it a trunk from which protected areas can branch. (See here in Rewilding Earth one of Michael Soulé’s last articles, “A National Corridors Campaign for America the Beautiful,” for insights on how wildlife corridors can be restored along National Scenic Trails.) In late May, a dozen wild friends hiked into New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, southeast anchor of our proposed Mogollon Wildway, to spread some of Dave Foreman & Nancy Morton’s ashes in their favorite Ponderosa Pine forest, and also to remember others of our late great friends. Days later, a hundred of us (many of whom had not seen each other since old Earth First! days, more than three decades ago) spontaneously gathered at a group campground in Bandelier National Monument to extoll (almost Round River Rendezvous style) the great lives who have laid the bedrock on which the rewilding movement is growing. (See recollections on these gatherings from Dave Parsons and Jack Humphrey coming soon in Rewilding Earth.)
The community of folks dedicated to protecting and restoring wild Nature has been meeting eastward, as well. The Adirondack Council, for instance (with whom I work to help make Adirondack Park a model for rewilding) drew over two hundred people to its annual meeting, July 15, despite climate chaos felling the event tent and half flooding the venue. Among other moving talks there was an acceptance speech by Assembly-member Michaelle Solages, Chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus — winner of Adirondack Council’s Conservationist of the Year Award — and a powerful extemporaneous speech by New York state senator Zellnor Myrie, who had all of us ready to march in the streets if necessary to uphold New York’s Forever Wild constitutional amendment which protects Forest Preserve lands.
Then, of course, many of us who live for wild things headed far out for respite from the madness and noise of the modern, motorized, digitized world. I was especially fortunate this summer to be included on a wilderness route in southern Alaska with esteemed friends and colleagues. Rewilding Leadership Council member Brad Meiklejohn charted and led the ten-day pack-raft trip with his partner Margaret Williams, who worked with World Wildlife Fund on Russian protected areas until Putin’s war scuttled that vital work. Kahtoola (hence Microspikes!) founder, backcountry explorer, and Rewilding supporter Danny Giovale and his partner Myriam Bishop, an international wilderness guide, represented the Southwest US (and safe traction!) in our rambling but strategic discussions. Northeast Wilderness Trust executive director Jon Leibowitz and I represented the US Northeast. Four-time Alaska Wilderness Classic winner Gordy Vernon joined Brad and Margaret and scores of bears in representing Alaska — which great land seemed to literally present us with a wild surprise around every bend in the river, as spawning salmon brought a veritable parade of wildlife with them.
Our discussions wandered as much as we did, but often centered around several basic rewilding points:
To secure not just the diversity of life but also the abundance, big wild connected wilderness areas really are essential. Thanks to the hard work and keen foresight of Alaskan and national conservation leaders, more than 100 million acres in Alaska — or roughly one-fourth the state, closest state in the US to 30×30 and Half Earth goals — is protected in parks and refuges and wilderness and wild rivers. Hence, despite Alaska having a state wildlife agency desperately in need of reform (so that it strives to protect and restore all native wildlife, not to maximize “game” numbers), Alaska still has nearly all its post-Pleistocene fauna and flora, and most of these species are thriving. We saw in the course of our 150 miles of hiking and paddling scores of wildflower species; at least 60 bird species, including countless Bald Eagles; Caribou, Moose, Red Foxes, and Arctic Ground Squirrels; River Otter and Harbor Seal (near the coast); thousands of Sockeye Salmon; and nearly 150 Brown Bears hunting those salmon (so contentedly, most of them were oblivious to our quiet presence).
Waterways are as important to the biota as are lands. Brad wisely noted that rivers should be seen as flowing both ways, in terms of nutrients. The salmon running up free-flowing Alaskan rivers are transporting nutrients from sea to land, as bears, wolves, wolverines, otters, eagles, gulls, and others feast on spawning salmon and their carcasses. In less wild parts of our country, removal of deadbeat dams that block fish movement is an ecological imperative, for aquatic and terrestrial wildlife. After our wilderness sojourn, Brad & Margaret took us to a site on the Eklutna River, north of Anchorage, where conservationists worked with the Eklutna tribe to successfully remove a dam that was blocking five salmon species from reaching their spawning grounds.
Let the matrix be wild (and thus full of surprises!). Alaska works for wildlife — again, despite a benighted state wildlife agency and a population very divided on conservation issues — because it is wildland punctuated with villages rather than developed areas lightly sprinkled with wild remnants. Decades ago, environmental historian Roderick Nash wrote an essay for Wild Earth called “Island Civilization,” in which he essentially called for the Alaska model: islands of civilization in a sea of wildness. Likewise, Rewilding Earth contributor Paula MacKay, at the founding of Wild Farm Alliance, spoke a vision of big wilderness and small gardens. More recently, Brad explored in his beautiful book The Wild Trails how Alaska works for wildlife because of its wild matrix.
Obviously, in much of the world, such a wild state is far away, yet (as Dave Foreman and Michael Soulé oft reminded us) we must imagine a better, wilder world if we are to achieve it; and Alaska provides a model (painfully far from perfect — witness the state periodically sanctioning the aerial gunning of wolves and bears). So does my home region of Adirondack Park, a wild part of an otherwise densely populated state, New York. The Alaska model and the Adirondack model each provide largely successful though incomplete examples that might inspire rewilding gains elsewhere: Alaska showing how conservation can be done in sparsely settled areas; Adirondack Park showing a way for crowded states.
Jon Leibowitz eloquently captured our thoughts after our Alaska ramble by paraphrasing Thoreau: In Rewilding is the Hope for the world.
Adirondack Park will be a more successful rewilding model when its biological connections northwest to Ontario’s Algonquin Park — the A2A axis — are bolstered and widened. A2A partners are exploring these connections this summer and autumn; and conservation biologists are doing roadkill and track & sign surveys to determine where safe wildlife crossings are most needed on busy roads, so that surprises are not of the unhappy sort where cars and wild animals collide.
Another area that can serve as a model in the making is the Mogollon Wildway, linking the Gila/Blue wildlands complex in southwest New Mexico with the Grand Canyon wildlands complex in northern Arizona (an area I’ve had the pleasure of exploring with Danny & Myriam). We got the thrilling news as we were completing these recent updates that the Biden Administration is declaring a new Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument, encompassing nearly a million acres, which our partners at Wild Arizona have been championing along with native tribes.
The Rewilding Institute board and staff will keep exploring these wildways, sharing lessons from them, and advocating for their protection and restoration. Please follow us for news of work for these wild wonderful places and rewilding rendezvous in them.
To close by borrowing from Dave Foreman yet again, but also from European rewilding leader George Monbiot, whose marvelous book Feral explores this theme of wild wonder and excitement, we live for the day when you or I or our parents or a mother bear and her cubs or an otter and her kits or a spawning salmon or a slogging Hellbender or a coursing Arctic Tern may meet a wild surprise (animal, vegetable, or mineral, not mechanical) around every bend in the river or over every rise in the hills. Ever and anew, The Rewilding Institute invites you to join us in serving our wild neighbors, their brave defenders, and the wild Earth to which these beautiful beings add such wonder.
—John Davis, back in Split Rock Wildway after our Alaska adventure, August 2023
John Davis is executive director of The Rewilding Institute and editor of Rewilding Earth. For Rewilding, he serves as a wildways scout, editor, interviewer, and writer. He rounds out his living with conservation field work, particularly within New York’s Adirondack Park, where he lives. John serves on boards of RESTORE: The North Woods, Eddy Foundation, Champlain Area Trails, Cougar Rewilding Foundation, and Algonquin to Adirondack Conservation Collaborative.
John served as editor of Wild Earth journal from 1991-96, when he went to work for the Foundation for Deep Ecology, overseeing their Biodiversity and Wildness grants program from 1997-2002. He then joined the Eddy Foundation as a board member and continues to serve as volunteer land steward for that foundation in its work to conserve lands in Split Rock Wildway. This wildlife corridor links New York’s Champlain Valley with the Adirondack High Peaks via the West Champlain Hills. John served as conservation director of the Adirondack Council from 2005 to 2010.
In 2011, John completed TrekEast, a 7600-mile muscle-powered exploration of wilder parts of the eastern United States and southeastern Canada—sponsored by Wildlands Network and following lines suggested in Dave Foreman’s book Rewilding North America—to promote restoration and protection of an Eastern Wildway. In 2012, John wrote a book about that adventure, Big, Wild, and Connected: Scouting an Eastern Wildway from Florida to Quebec, published by Island Press.
In 2013, John trekked from Sonora, Mexico, north along the Spine of the Continent as far as southern British Columbia, Canada, again ground-truthing Rewilding North America and promoting habitat connections, big wild cores, and apex predators—all of which would be well served by fuller protection of the Western Wildway he explored. John continues to work with many conservation groups to protect and reconnect wild habitats regionally and continentally.
John is available to give public talks on rewilding, conservation exploration, and continental wildways, as well as to write and edit on these subjects. He is also available for contract field work, particularly monitoring conservation easements, documenting threats to wildlands, and marking conservation boundaries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com (for his land-care work).