April 10, 2024 | By:

Big Steps Toward Rewilding North America

Wildway Rambles, Spring 2024

On various rambles east and west, and following conversations with some of Dave Foreman’s closest friends and family members, I’ve been pondering how to distill Dave’s landmark book, Rewilding North America, into a small number of distinct steps. These steps are drawn not only from Dave’s writing and speaking but also from the wildways trekking I’ve done, where I generally aimed to follow the regional and continental wildways Dave proposed. Here I will also relate some actions I’ve seen individuals and local and regional groups taking to implement wildways at all scales. We invite additions and improvements to the sweeping, continental rewilding measures proposed here.

1. Fully protect state, federal, and provincial public wildlands – for wildlife habitat, climate stabilization, and quiet recreation. This means phasing out commercial exploitation of public lands and providing generous compensation to ranchers who sell their grazing privileges and to others who may need to switch livelihoods as commodity extraction on public lands is replaced by conservation and restoration work. U.S. Department of Defense lands should secure natural heritage and be protected as wildlife habitat. Tribal lands are critical, too; and non-native conservationists should learn from First Nations on how to coexist with the full range of native wildlife.

Rewilding in action: The John Muir Project and Standing Trees have successfully challenged public lands timber “sales” (giveaways of public goods, really), and Western Watersheds’ and WildEarth Guardians’ actions have led to the retirement and restoration of grazing allotments.

2. Protect all sizable road-free (“roadless”) areas on public lands as Wilderness and close unneeded roads into the backcountry. Good old-fashioned Wilderness advocacy does not get the funding it deserves. If ever we see enlightenment in both the administrative and congressional branches of government, we should strive mightily to convince them to declare by fiat that all federal public lands shall henceforth be kept Forever Wild – as New York conservation leaders accomplished a century ago, against all odds, for state lands within Adirondack and Catskill Parks.

Rewilding in action: The Adirondack Council and Protect the Adirondacks are using historic lessons to inform their work for road-free areas today. The Alliance for the Wild Rockies, New Mexico Wild, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, California Wilderness Coalition, and Standing Trees are among the groups that are monitoring activities on roadless lands and pushing legislation to protect road-free areas as Wilderness.

Yosemite National Park, 1977 (c) Dave Foreman

Yosemite National Park, 1977 (c) Dave Foreman

3. Reform wildlife governance and public lands management so that the mission is protection and restoration of the full native biota – including apex predators, like Puma, Jaguar, and Wolf. The conservation community is long overdue to directly confront the basic challenge to rewilding proposals: Wildlife is primarily managed by states, and state wildlife management is dominated by hook and bullet interests. The management mindset is equally pernicious in public lands’ governance, and challenging this may require influencing schools (particularly land grant colleges) that train future land managers rather than land guardians.

Rewilding in action: The leading coalition dedicated to reforming wildlife governance state by state is Wildlife for All, which we should all join.

4. Require a tithe on public infrastructure projects to go toward building safe wildlife crossings. Conservationists should be pressuring federal and state departments of transportation to devote at least 10 percent of their budgets to making busy roads, culverts, bridges, and other infrastructure readily passable for wildlife. We can help build momentum for permeable and durable infrastructure with letters to our local papers and pressure on transportation officials.

Rewilding in action: Wildlands Network, Arc Solutions, Western Transportation Institute, and other connectivity groups have helped convince several states to pass wildlife crossing bills and the federal government to allot several hundred million dollars to wildlife underpasses and overpasses.

5. Create generous incentives for private landowners to conserve their lands and protect wildlife. Payments for ecosystem services, including carbon sequestration, should be generous and can be funded by carbon taxes. Even in the West, adequate protection of regional and continental wildways requires private lands conservation as well as public lands conservation. Very few groups are working on this systematically at more than a regional scale.

Rewilding in action: The Northeast Wilderness Trust has a wild carbon program that passes muster for ecological protection and climate stabilization. The Wild Farm Alliance fosters wildlife-friendly techniques for agricultural lands. Project Coyote teaches human communities to coexist with their wild neighbors. Northern Jaguar Project in Sonora, Mexico; Southern Plains Land Trust in eastern Colorado; American Prairie in Montana; and Western Landowners Alliance in the US West are effectively employing private lands conservation strategies.

Dawn light on Superstition Mountains Wilderness Area, AZ (c) Dave Foreman

Dawn light on Superstition Mountains Wilderness Area, AZ (c) Dave Foreman

6. Put a high price on carbon. Corporations and consumers should pay the full costs – ecological, climatic, and social – of extraction and emission of carbon, particularly from fossil fuels. Full-cost accounting would strongly favor frugality, conservation, and low fertility. Money raised from carbon taxes should go toward land protection, connectivity restoration, weatherization of homes for low- and medium-income households, and installation of home-scale and community-scale, decentralized solar and wind energy facilities in developed areas.

Rewilding in action: 350.org and Third Act are particularly effective in fighting carbon emissions. Population Media Center is among the few groups that show how both over-consumption and over-population are driving the extinction and climate crises, and many social crises as well.

7. Encourage small, close families. A societal ethic of having no more than two children would allow human population to stabilize and then slowly, compassionately decline – alleviating almost every major crisis in the world, from climate chaos to extinction. Of course, affluent people should be the first to embrace a small family ethic, as they have the biggest per capita ecological footprint.

Rewilding in action: We should all support our local Planned Parenthood for providing family planning services. The Population Media Center, Center for Biological Diversity, and Earth Overshoot show how peacefully reducing population and consumption numbers can make life better for everyone.

8. Widely and wildly buffer waterways wherever possible. The quickest ways toward a viable wildlands network for most areas in North America will be granting full protection to public lands and paying landowners to restore and buffer waterways. Public lands and waterways protection could get us to Half Earth goals quickly in North America.

Rewilding in action: The Waterkeeper Alliance and American Rivers are leaders in waterways protection and restoration. Biohabitats is the leading ecological restoration company in the U.S. and has great expertise in dam removal and floodplain restoration.

Arctic NWR Sunrise © Dave Foreman

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Sunrise © Dave Foreman

9. Create more parks, all across the land, from city green spaces to vast international peace parks. Only when everyone has access to parks and other green spaces can we expect to reconnect people with Nature.

Rewilding in action: RESTORE: The North Woods has a new National Parks campaign that should be guiding U.S. Department of the Interior priorities. RESTORE has identified hundreds of ecologically and scenically outstanding areas that deserve full protection as National Parks, open to all of us.

10. Dismantle deadbeat dams and liberate rivers everywhere. To that end, useful fieldwork can include paddling or walking streams, documenting man-made dams, and determining which still serve useful roles, might need retrofitting, or are derelict and should be removed. Representative Anne Custer of New Hampshire is champion of a bill that would go far in this direction, mandating a national inventory of dams with future steps needed to allow renewed fish and amphibian passage.

Rewilding in action: For inspiration in dam removal, see Patagonia’s film Dam Nation. Rewilding Earth contains stories of the liberation of the Eklutna River in southern Alaska and the Elwha River in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

One final step I’d urge is that in the course of all this protection and restoration work, we make it abundantly clear to all who are watching that we are having fun! Rewilding is exciting, gratifying, happy work – watching the most beautiful beings on Earth recover and prosper – and it will grow as a movement when we let others see how much better all our lives will be in a world that is mostly wild.

Spread Rewilding Around the Globe!
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Amy Mower
1 month ago

This is a great overview and summary of important Rewilding targets. Many thanks. Amy

kim a santell
1 month ago

I would like to know which states are the easiest/friendliest to buy property and rewild the property for animals? Whom and how do I contact which agencies to develop land in the state I choose?

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