March 29, 2023 | By:

Connecting at All Scales: Following Scientists and Activists

A Rambler’s Look at Wildways, from Local to Global

Since the death this past autumn of The Rewilding Institute’s founder Dave Foreman – to many of us in the wilderness community, a great teacher and friend – rewilding advocates have been pondering his lessons.  Thinking really big, truly wild, and broadly connected, of course, is what Dave urged.  More tangibly, what might this mean in the context of the growing Half Earth movement, and in the United States, the America the Beautiful Initiative?  Here I try to imagine what Dave might be telling us if we were once again sitting around a campfire in some wild place after a lively day of paddling a wilderness river. I believe he’d repeat several times (as we passed around the Botanist Gin) that conservation biologists and grassroots activists need to work together and learn from each other.

Dave might begin his campfire pontification by crediting his conservation biologist friends, particularly Michael Soulé and Reed Noss.  Partly due to the good work of Michael and Reed and close colleagues a couple of decades ago, science-driven conservation area designs began to influence good old-fashioned grassroots campaigns for parks and wilderness. Protected area work became as much the province of conservation biologists as of wilderness activists.

Dave Foreman was both instrumental in and concerned about the increasing sophistication of conservation area models.  Unique in having been both an Earth First! co-founder and a charter member of the Society for Conservation Biology, Dave grew concerned that we might forget the importance of on-the-ground activism.  Speaking with authority after decades of hard and often successful conservation work, Dave urged activists and scientists to work together and to let science and computer models inform, but not limit, protected area work.  He argued that nifty GIS maps and sophisticated modeling of species area requirements can be helpful but must not supplant the good work of the advocates and naturalists who know the ground.

Bobcat in Split Rock Wildway

Bobcat in Split Rock Wildway

If my dim college-age memories still serve, some earlier notable intellectual (my vague recollections suggest German philosopher Immanuel Kant, but it’s just as plausible it was our late friend Ed Abbey) said that we must not deny in our philosophies what we know in our hearts to be true.  Trying now to recall Dave’s campfire sermons, I suggest this could be said as well of conservation advocacy: we should not omit from our maps (our conservation area designs) what we know from the ground to be true.  If you know wild animals are using an area of connected habitat, yet it does not appear on GIS maps, that may well mean the GIS mappers need to broaden their criteria.

I share these old recollections partly to honor Dave Foreman but also to make a few points about the importance of working to protect wildways at all scales, from local to global, and listening to activists and naturalists as well as scientists and GIS mappers – even if some of the activists’ proposed wildlife corridors do not meet all the criteria that computer mappers choose to employ.  In the region I call home, to use a familiar example, the Northern Appalachian & Adirondack Mountains and surrounding valleys, habitat connectivity proponents have done a good job of advocating for regional scale habitat links but have tended to overlook local and continental connections.

Northeast wildways vision from Wildlands Network

Northeast wildways vision from Wildlands Network

Split Rock Wildway, for instance, a wildlife corridor linking Lake Champlain with the Adirondack High Peaks to the west, via the West Champlain Hills, seldom shows on maps of connectivity proponents.  This local-to-regional habitat link often goes unacknowledged, despite several notable attributes:  Split Rock Wildway is closer to completion than the habitat links that are shown; arguably, at least, it has the fullest altitudinal gradient of any habitat corridor in the Northeast US (from roughly 100’ above sea level at Lake Champlain to 5400’ above sea level atop Mt. Marcy, in a space of less than 50 linear miles), and it has the richest upland plant communities in Adirondack Park (particularly the dry-rich Oak-Hickory-Hophornbeam forest described by Jerry Jenkins in his Northern Forest Atlas Project publications).  Why connectivity advocates give more attention to habitat links that have barely begun to gain protections instead of one that is already halfway done deserves discussion.

At a larger scale is another wildway in the Northeast that is oft overlooked:  The Adirondack to Algonquin axis (A2A) is of continental importance – being the safest way for wildlife to move north across the mighty Saint Lawrence River, and connecting New York’s and southern Ontario’s greatest wildlands complexes – yet it, too, tends to be overlooked by GIS mappers.  Until recently, A2A did not show on maps of the major consortium of northeastern US/southeastern Canada connectivity planners, the Staying Connected Initiative; and Split Rock Wildway seldom if ever shows on their maps.

A2A map, courtesy of A2A Conservation Collaborative

A2A map, courtesy of A2A Conservation Collaborative

Perhaps part of why wildways on the smaller and larger ends of the scale tend to be overlooked is because we conservationists tend to think in middling terms.  We know we must expand protections many-fold, but thinking at continental scales does not come easily.  Moreover, local connections, like Split Rock Wildway, may be less important than regional ones, like the Southern Lake Champlain Valley, for genetic diversity within populations. Split Rock Wildway is likely to be more important for an individual Black Bear or Fisher, say, than will be SLCV or the Adirondack to Tug Hill connection, but less important for genetic diversity.

At any scale, though, and especially in the US East, where most land is privately owned and heavily parcelized, protecting wildways will necessarily include land trusts securing small and medium, as well as large, parcels in valleys and along waterways.  Most potential eastern wildways remain largely unprotected, partly because assembling them involves many pieces.  It takes nearly as much work to secure 50 acres as it takes to secure 500 acres, so land trusts often do not want to bother with the small deals. If some land trusts are not willing to spend time on small parcels, however, eastern wildways will not be completed.

Coyote on Sprig Brook Split Rock Wildway

Coyote on Sprig Brook Split Rock Wildway

Moving west now, with similar concerns, some natural wildlife corridors show on most conservation area designs yet have few vocal advocates. An example is the Mogollon Wildlife Corridor, or Mogollon Wildway, linking the Gila/Blue wildlands complex in southwest New Mexico and southeast Arizona with the Grand Canyon wildlands complex in northern Arizona via the Mogollon Plateau.  This habitat link stands out – even from satellite images – as much as almost any in the West, yet as a whole, it gets scant attention from conservationists.  Many groups do good conservation work within the Mogollon Wildway, but their efforts are usually piecemeal and few of them promote the wildlife link as a whole.

Perhaps comparable is the urgency of protecting the Centennial Mountains link between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and central Idaho wildlands complex.  This regional-scale wildway is one of the most important in the US West – for Grizzly Bears, Wolves, and other wide-ranging species – yet when last did you hear of it, and how is it treated in the America the Beautiful (30×30) initiative?

The reasons for wildways, some of us like to simplify, are at least five-fold: Food, Cover, Sex, Genes, and Change; and collectively, these needs require connections at all scales.

  • Food needs are likely met at local and regional scales – except for migratory birds and a few migratory insects and bats that track food sources at continental scales.
  • Cover, as provided in much of eastern North America by forest, likely matters for most individual animals at local and regional scales; but may be needed for species recolonizations or range shifts at continental-scale also.
  • Sex, we’ll go any distance to find, but most animals (not so hapless than male humans!) probably find it locally.
  • Genes, though related to sex, need connections at regional and even continental scales, for the prosperity of populations and species.
  • Change, likewise, necessitates regional and continental connections, as well as local connections across altitudinal gradients.

A challenge with continental and global wildways is that most people don’t think, much less act, at these scales.  We evolved to worry about our family and our neighborhood, not much beyond that.  The concept of continental wildways (or “mega-linkages” as Dave Foreman called them, till too many readers thought he was talking about large tubular meat products) is especially hard to convey, as those go far beyond most people’s circles of concern.  Birders concerned about migratory birds may come closest to thinking at the scale needed for achieving global wildways and Half Earth goals.  Marine biologists, too, increasingly recognize the need for global scale connections.  Some shark and other fish and whale species travel across whole oceans in their seasonal or life journeys, and they need secure habitat throughout.  Marine wildways now sometimes take the name ‘swimways’ and should be a major part of protected areas work in coming decades, again at all scales.

Kim Crumbo in old-growth Ponderosa Pine, North Rim Grand Canyon

Kim Crumbo in old-growth Ponderosa Pine, North Rim Grand Canyon

In the end, then, my plea is for rewilding at all scales, being informed but not limited by technical mapping, and aiming for more.  Yes, initially we should aim to fully protect 30% of Earth’s lands and waters by 2030 and 50% by 2050 – basing our proposals both on advocates’ place-based knowledge and on GIS analyses.  Ultimately, though, most of the world should be wild, should be free of human domination (whatever computers may tell us).  Achievable steps in that wilder healthier direction include following the lead of grass-roots and tree-roots and coral-roots activists, as well as scientists and GIS mappers, and striving to protect and expand all the critical connections and cores they have identified.

–John Davis, The Rewilding Institute Executive Director & Wildways Scout

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1 year ago

John, this is such a powerful piece, especially the inclusion of the eastern wildlands. I grew up gong to a cabin on a tiny lake in the Adirondacks with ,y parents. That land is a treasure trove of beauty and diversity. It must be protected. Especially from gentrifying vacationers. .

Jeff Hoffman
1 year ago

“Ultimately, though, most of the world should be wild, should be free of human domination (whatever computers may tell us).”

I would say that the whole Earth should be wild. If humans were to return to living naturally as hunter-gatherers (admittedly not possible for probably thousands of years; we need to get started moving in that direction now!) and greatly lower our population, we could live in the wilderness without degrading or otherwise harming it, so long as we only take what we need. We shouldn’t need to protect anything, because we shouldn’t be harming anything to begin with.

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