August 16, 2023 | By:

New Report Offers Road(less) Map to Continental Wildlands Network

Wildlands in New England: Past, Present, and Future - Cover

The release of Wildlands in New England (WiNE) in May marks a major advance in efforts to transform our region’s conversation about seeking equitable ways to meet human needs while preserving biological diversity and reversing alarming trends associated with anthropogenic climate change. It is the first study in the U.S. to inventory and map all conserved lands in one region that intentionally allow natural processes to unfold without the intervention of active management.

Harvard Forest (Harvard University), Highstead Foundation, and Northeast Wilderness Trust collaborated with over one hundred conservation organizations and municipal, state, and federal agencies to perform the research on behalf of the Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities (WWF&C) initiative, which calls for at least 70 percent of the region to be protected forest; Wildlands to occupy at least 10 percent of the land; and all existing farmland to be permanently conserved.

WiNE makes a compelling case for the value of Wildlands as a key ingredient in a healthy society, a healthy economy, and a flourishing democracy that nurtures social and environmental justice for all.

  • Wild forests significantly lower atmospheric carbon levels via photosynthesis, and store it long-term.
  • As wild forests age and mature, they develop complex habitats and are capable of storing more water, thereby diminishing the threat of flooding during high rainfall events that are increasingly common due to climate change.
  • Wild forests serve as baselines, controls, and reference points to guide us in developing ecological approaches to forest management and conservation. They are essential for assessing the impacts of various forest management practices and developing lower impact forestry practices with lower carbon footprints.
  • They provide quiet places for reflection that benefit the mental and physical health of humans. During COVID, millions of people realized that easy access to green spaces is essential to their well-being. No community, especially in inner cities, should ever be more than a fifteen-minute walk from a safe, permanently preserved park or greenway. This is a natural right and an essential component of environmental justice for all.
  • Wildlands are indispensable guides for successful conservation policies, and they advance us closer to global goals for nature conservation, such as 30×30.
  • Wildlands and the species that call them home have value in their own right, regardless of any value humans might place upon them. They challenge humans to accept limits upon our aspirations and material demands that may compromise the quality of life of other species and future generations.


Wildlands Inventory and Map

To establish a regional—or continental—Wildlands Network we need to know where the wildlands are—and are not. The authors of Wildlands in New England discovered that conservation lands of all types—managed forests with conservation easements, lands devoted primarily to recreation, and wilderness—are all lumped together. They found there was no clear set of criteria for evaluating whether or not a particular parcel qualifies as truly wild and free from human constraints.

The authors of WiNE developed a comprehensive, succinct definition of Wildlands:

‘Wildlands’ are tracts of any size and current condition, permanently protected from development, in which management is explicitly intended to allow natural processes to prevail with ‘free will’ and minimal human interference. Humans have been part of nature for millennia and can coexist within and with Wildlands without intentionally altering their structure, composition, or function.

They established a set of criteria qualified Wildlands properties must meet.

  1. Wildland Intent: There must be clear documentation of intent, and the controlling entity must have the authority and ability to enforce it.
  2. Management for an Untrammeled Condition: The property is allowed to develop freely under environmental conditions and natural processes, including climate change, natural disturbance, and the arrival of new species.
  3. Permanent Protection: The authors wrote: the quality of wildness is defined not by the land’s history or its current condition but by its freedom to operate untrammeled today and in the future. Thus, a recent clear-cut, securely protected from human manipulation, will qualify as a Wildland if that intent is in place and is enduring. In contrast, an adjoining old-growth forest that is not fully secured from future manipulation or conversion is not yet a Wildland.

The Wildlands in New England project evaluated 652 properties suggested to them by more than 125 conservation and agency professionals, and concluded that 426 properties met all three criteria, although degrees of protection ranged from strong legal documents, such as designated Wilderness and “forever wild” easements, to weaker protections such as agency policy without the force of law.


New England encompasses 40.2 million acres, with 32.6 million acres (81%) forested. The Inventory identified 1,321,878 acres of lands in 426 parcels that met the three criteria for Wildlands. This represents 3.3% of New England’s land area, or 14.5% of the region’s 9.1 million acres of conservation lands. Three-quarters of the wildlands acreage are owned by the public. States own 39% and the federal government owns 36%. Land trusts own over 140 properties, covering 312,641 acres. Educational institutions and private landowners own the remainder.

The interactive Wildlands map developed by the authors of WiNE reveals several important findings:

  • There are nowhere near enough Wildlands in New England. To reach Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities’ goal of “at least 10 percent Wildlands, we need a tripling of the current 1.3 million acres. I belong to the camp that believes the science and our ethical obligations to other species challenges us to aim much, much higher.
  • The geographical distribution of wildlands across New England is uneven. WiNE reports: “[Wildlands] are largely confined to a band across rural New England that arcs from northern and westernmost Connecticut northward across Vermont, through western and north-central New Hampshire, and on through north-central Maine where it terminates around Baxter State Park. A prominent collection of Wildlands ranges southward from Baxter State Park to the coast east of Penobscot Bay and over towards Maine’s border with New Brunswick. This distributional pattern leaves large blank spaces across much of Connecticut and Rhode Island, through the eastern half of Massachusetts, and extending up through southeastern New Hampshire to the southern quarter of Maine, which supports few conservation areas in general.”
  • “Wildlands are strongly skewed towards northern, elevated, rural areas lying distant from larger populations.”
  • As a result of this uneven distribution, most wildlands are composed of higher elevation northern hardwoods, spruce-fir, and aspen-birch forests, with significantly less oak-hickory and pine forests. Lower elevation northern hardwoods, spruce-fir, and aspen-birch forests, which provide vital wildlife habitat and have the potential to store much more carbon, are also under-represented.

The Wildlands Inventory and Map are the first of their kind for any North American region. The Map and Inventory will be continuously updated to reflect the current status of Wildlands in New England. I hope the WiNE report serves as a catalyst to the production of a continental-wide Wildlands inventory and map that boosts efforts to connect green spaces in densely populated communities with the most remote and largest Wildlands.

The Wildlands Inventory and Map are the first of their kind for any North American region. I hope the Wildlands in New England report serves as a catalyst to the production of a continental-wide Wildlands inventory and map that boosts efforts to connect green spaces in densely populated communities with the most remote and largest Wildlands.

An Integrated Approach to a Regional Wildlands Network

Wildlands are an integral part of the Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities initiative. WWF&C advocates for a low carbon economy that provides a substantial portion of our food needs and produces high value products from trees grown in New England forests that are managed as if the future matters. WWF&C has made a strong commitment to assure that all citizens of New England, from urban to the remotest rural communities, enjoy relatively easy access to wildlands.

Wildlands in New England has provided us with an excellent road(less) map to develop a New England Wildlands Network, and the narrative to increase already growing public support for accomplishing this work with all due speed. Four key elements are:

Strengthen Existing Wildlands

  • WiNE found “inadequate buffering from incompatible and intensive land-use activity… for many smaller Wildlands and Wildland corridors associated with streams and rivers that have long boundaries relative to their acreages.” Smaller Wildlands require buffering, and linkages to other Wildlands.
  • Owners of many, if not most, of the 226 candidate properties that failed to meet all three Wildlands criteria are encouraged to bring those lands into compliance with the criteria.
  • All future Wildlands should enjoy the strongest protections.

Develop a Network of Parks, Greenways, and Wildlands in Urban and Suburban Communities

It is a basic human right to live within a 10-15 minute walk of safe, unmanaged green spaces. The WiNE map identified large areas where there are few or no Wildlands at present. The Report asserts that all people should enjoy the opportunity “to experience natural processes and forests that are or will become old-growth even in small reserves in highly humanized landscapes.”

WWF&C partners support the establishment of a network of smaller parks, greenways, and Wildlands that can, if adequately buffered and connected, provide habitat for biodiversity, help mitigate climate change, and provide easy access to green spaces to all communities. Many urban green spaces will be relatively small. The authors of WiNE intentionally refrained from setting a limit on the size of a parcel under consideration for Wildlands designation because of the importance of smaller Wildlands to urban communities. Existing and new urban-oriented land trusts can work with municipal governments to turn this dream into reality.

A Landscape Scale Wildlands Network

WiNE describes how today’s forests differ from pre-settlement forests: “Many features of thriving old-growth landscapes that were common four hundred years ago are rare, including immense old trees; large, downed trees that add complexity to the ground, streams, and lake shores; and deep, spongy soils occasionally churned into mounds and pits by immense windthrows.” It requires centuries of non-management to recover old growth qualities. While many species, including black bear, moose, deer, beaver, bobcat, wild turkey, bald eagle, and osprey, have returned, wolves and cougars have not.

Wildlands in New England determined that 92% of New England’s Wildlands are highly climate resilient areas important to plant and animal movement across the region, as compared with 67% of “other protected lands” and 47% of “unprotected lands.” It also found that 82% of Wildlands have high confirmed biological diversity value, whereas only 38% of other protected lands and 18% of unprotected lands provide high biodiversity value.

Wildlands in New England draws attention to the undeveloped, largely uninhabited former paper company lands in northern New England, covering over 8 million acres, that “offer an unparalleled opportunity for rewilding vast expanses of land.” They can support “the full range of natural disturbances and mosaics of ecosystems and could sustain the reestablishment of breeding populations of the region’s largest native predators.” They could serve as a “migration corridor” for climate-stressed species. The young forests, if allowed to mature into old growth will quickly become major carbon sinks for centuries to come.

WiNE cites several earlier proposals for landscape wildlands, including a 3.2 million-acre Maine Woods National Park, the inspiration for the 87,000 acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument established by President Obama’s proclamation in 2016, and my 1995 Northern Forest Headwaters Wildland Reserve System proposal for an 8.7 million acre wildlands complex composed of lands owned by paper companies and heirs of 19th century timber barons across northern Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.

To keep wood prices and labor costs low, the paper mills thwarted the development of local, high value-adding manufacturing opportunities. Transforming the former industrial forest into an Acadian Wildland would enable small woodlot owners to escape low-paying commodity pulp and chip markets, practice low impact forestry, and benefit from high-paying sawlog markets.

Public and Private Landowning Entities & Wildlands Philanthropists Can and Must Buy Land to Establish Wildlands Reserves Throughout New England

Land trusts should consider the ecological, economic, and social benefits of forever wild easements. State and Federal land agencies should recapture the spirit of the Weeks Act, passed in 1911, that established the eastern national parks. The only large addition to the federal land base in New England since 2000 was Katahdin Woods and Waters, which owes its existence to the generosity of Roxanne Quimby, founder of Burt’s Bees.

The Northern Forest Lands Study warned in 1990: “The public’s inability to respond to the sale of land that might be suitable for public ownership in a timely fashion . . . means that an important potential owner of the Northern Forest is largely excluded from the market.”

Photo © Natalia Boltukhova. Image appears on page 29 of Wildlands in New England.

Photo © Natalia Boltukhova. Image appears on page 29 of Wildlands in New England.

In recent decades, support for Wildland conservation has surged. In this time of urgent need to preserve biodiversity, reverse trends in climate change, and address threats to human well-being, we need to build and sustain a healing conversation amongst all citizens and the denizens of our wild forest, montane, and aquatic communities. With the release of Wildlands in New England, our region, for centuries a leader in de-wilding, has an opportunity to become a leader in re-wilding New England and North America.

Disclaimer: Jamie Sayen is one of 18 co-authors of WiNE. The views expressed in this article are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his fellow co-authors or Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities partners. This fall, Yale University Press will release his Children of the Northern Forest: Wild New England’s History from Glaciers to Global Warming, and Brandeis University Press will release the 2nd Edition of  You Had a Job for Life: Story of a Company Town.

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