#31 Around the Campfire; “Steps to Rewild the Appalachians”
From an earlier “Campfire,” Rewilding the East:
Early landscape architect and regional planner Benton MacKaye, who also was a founder of The Wilderness Society in 1935, called for a foot-trail along the highline of the Appalachians in the early 1920s. After reading an article by Aldo Leopold with his thoughts on Wilderness Areas in the West, MacKaye rethought his Appalachian Trail as a string linking Wilderness Area “pearls.”
With the making of The Appalachian Trail and with Wilderness Areas along the AT at last being set aside by the 1975 Eastern Wilderness Areas Act, much of MacKaye’s dream has been brought to life. But there is more to do, foremost rewilding and getting more and bigger Wilderness Area pearls set aside along the AT and bringing home at long last the American lion to its matchless haunt of the Appalachians.
MacKaye first wrote about his dream of an Appalachian Trail in 1921. I bid that we mark the One Hundredth Anniversary of his great dream by meeting some key steps for rewilding the Appalachians by 2021, foremost bringing home the cougar to at least three landscapes in the Appalachians: northern (Adirondacks State Park), middle (Monongahela National Forest), and southern (Great Smoky Mountains National Park). The other key markers to be met by 2021 should come out of the steps I bring in below.
What follows in this column is nuts and bolts. These are the nuts and bolts that will build an Appalachian Wildlands Network from Canada to Georgia. But before that let’s quickly look at what I think are the two underlying goals of such a Network. Goal One should be to have a healthy and hearty cougar clan from the Gaspe Peninsula to northern Georgia that is healthy and hearty enough to be ecologically effective. Goal Two is to rewild the Appalachians on the ground and in agency management plans so that they become an even better and more-out-of-harm’s-way neighborhood for this clan of cougars by making the Appalachians a linkage of big and smaller roadless areas its whole length. What I am laying out here is not wholly science, but it is much more workable and straightforward than the more scientific wildlands network visions I worked on in the Southwest ten years ago. The kind of Appalachian Wildlands Network I offer here is a conservation plan to keep and rebuild wild things along this great, old, ecologically tangled, long row of mountains.
For any rewilding east of the Rockies and maybe even more so for the Appalachian Range, one step is needed above all others. And that step is to bring cougars home to wild neighborhoods in the old cougar-prowling grounds. Given what we now know about cougar behavior, I think there is a lot of good cougar homeland in the Appalachians (and in many landscapes elsewhere in the East ). Cougars need food—and the too-many white-tailed deer of the East fill that bill of fare. Cougars also need wild neighborhoods where they can hide out and be unseen by Man—the way black bears have spread in the last fifty years tells us that there is much of that kind of wildland. And—as I wrote in my earlier Campfire on rewilding the East—thanks to more meat by the acre than in the West, big cats don’t need as big homelands.
Once a wrangle, the ecological theory of top-down regulation is now widely trusted. The Great Eastern Deciduous Forest, coming-back piney woods, swamps, bottomlands, and other kinds of land and water cannot be hale and hearty without the foremost top-down regulator, which in the East is the big cat: puma, cougar, mountain lion, panther, painter, catamount. Dave Maehr, whose friendship I liked as much as anyone’s, knew cats and knew eastern U.S. ecology, and he told me that the cougar was bigger than the wolf as the top-down regulator for the Appalachians and much of the East. I am sorry as hell that we lost him way too soon, but at least he went out doing what he loved to do.
For an Appalachian Wildlands Network to work we need linked breeding clans of cougars all along the ridges, “hollers,” hills, and dells from Nova Scotia and the Gaspe Peninsula south to northern Georgia and Alabama. Bringing the big cat back to her rightful home and work in the East is so much of a key step that I’ll write about it in an upcoming Campfire on the cougar. For now, let’s look at the other big steps we need to take to rewild an Appalachian Wildlands Network of big (big as we can get them) clusters of core Wilderness Areas and other kinds of wild havens linked together by Wildways big and little.
Appalachian Rewilding Steps
Please click on the attachment below to read the entire “Campfire” which includes an introduction and the twelve key steps to Rewilding the Appalachians.