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Rewilding Paradoxes

Wildway Rambles Winter 2021
By John Davis, TRI Executive Director

What the late Congressman Tip O’Neill said about politics—All politics is local—might without much greater exaggeration be said about conservation: Most conservation is local.  Trouble is, for conservation of biological diversity to succeed, it must be practiced at regional, continental, and even global scales, as well as at the local level.

A great challenge for The Rewilding Institute and our sibling organization Wildlands Network through the years has been that we are calling for continental-scale protection and restoration, while most people think at local to state scales and act primarily at town and county levels. Very few groups actively campaign for the Atlantic/Appalachian, Spine of the Continent, Pacific Crest & Coast, or other continental wildways, as identified by Dave Foreman in his landmark book Rewilding North America.  Thinking at that scale is difficult; acting at that scale is harder still.  Viewing conservation from watershed perspectives broadens our outlook, but even that falls short of the scale of rewilding needed.

Moreover, the common tools of the trade in conservation do not lend themselves to action at continental, much less global, scales:  Land acquisition is rarely feasible at more than a local level. Litigation sometimes concerns national laws and rules, but seldom continental; and environmental and conservation laws and rules are usually applied primarily at local and state levels.  Lobbying is all about politics, and remember what Tip O’Neill said about that. Civil disobedience, especially, attaches itself to specific places or species or issues to which strong-minded individuals have bonded.  Advocacy—which might be viewed as goal-oriented education—is perhaps the one tool we rewilders commonly wield that works at all scales.

So, recognizing that we must protect and restore habitat connectivity and wildlife movement at all scales, from local to global, The Rewilding Institute uses the tool of advocacy—blunt as it may be—more than we use the other basic tools of conservation, vital though they are.  Another paradox then quickly asserts itself, because in conservation grant-making and gift-giving, basic advocacy does not tend to fare as well as actions that lead quickly to tangible results.

For good reasons, much funding in our community goes toward the other tools, particularly land acquisition and litigation. After all, we are at the crux of a biodiversity extinction and ecosystem health crisis that demands immediate action to save and restore wild places and species.  Isn’t it, then, a bit late for education?  Shouldn’t we throw all our resources into buying private imperiled wildlands, suing the corporations plundering wild places, lobbying for new parks and wilderness and other protected areas, petitioning for endangered species, and throwing our bodies in front of bulldozers?

Very possibly, Yes. So, at The Rewilding Institute, everyone on our small core team employs at least two of these other basic conservation tools, by working with local land trusts, regional wilderness advocacy groups, and grassroots restoration groups.  As an organization, moreover, we do occasionally sign onto or inform lawsuits; we often advise land trusts and other conservation buyers on lands needing protection; and we even—carefully within restrictions for 501(C)3 non-profit organizations—educate elected officials on wildlands and wildlife matters.

We also, though, hold out hope that long-term positive change is possible.  We keep providing the knowledge and the inspiration to reconnect continental wildways and rewild places at all scales.  We may not yet know how to implement rewilding principles in grand continental fell swoops, as is really needed, but we do know how to implement rewilding steps locally and regionally, and then connect them together to achieve continental scales.

As Dave Foreman said in Born to Rewild, the film on our TrekWest traverse of the Spine of the Continent Wildway in 2013, the days of enacting grand conservation measures wholesale—as was perhaps most successfully done with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected more than 100 million acres with a stroke of President Jimmy Carter’s pen—are probably done, at least until conservation is recognized as a non-partisan issue again.

The grand staircase toward rewilding North America, toward enacting a Nature Needs Half vision on this continent quickly, would be for federal, provincial, and state governments in Canada, the United States, and Mexico to all declare that public lands shall be conserved in perpetuity as wildlife habitats and climate stabilizers—ending commercial exploitation of the hundreds of millions of acres of public lands in Canada and the US, and the much smaller but more species-rich public lands in Mexico.  With such a sweeping swoop, our suddenly, miraculously enlightened elected officials could protect most of Canada, more than a third of the US, and some of Mexico’s biologically richest sites.  We could achieve the widely accepted 30X30 goal: fully protecting at least 30% of each country’s lands and waters by 2030, on the way to at least 50% by 2050.

The second most sweeping measure toward rewilding North America might be to reward private landowners for conserving their lands as wildlife habitat.  This could be done relatively directly through government payments for “ecosystem services” (a concept insulting to the wild world, which we should be serving, more than the other way around; but gains on the ground are more important than ideological purity…); less directly by taxing not land itself but extraction of resources therefrom; and perhaps least directly but most effectively by putting a high price on carbon.  The carbon tax should apply at both source and sink: as fossil fuels are extracted and trees felled and as carbon dioxide and methane are emitted into the atmosphere.

Of course, powerful economic interests oppose even the smaller steps of phasing out subsidies for commercial exploitation of public lands and permanent protection of all remaining road-free areas on public lands.  They’d probably also oppose—though perhaps less vigorously—providing strong economic incentives for conserving private lands.  So we have to somehow overcome those greedy interests, which brings us back to advocacy.  Directly or indirectly, The Rewilding Institute employs all the basic tools of conservation.  The tool we wield most commonly, though, is educational advocacy—informing and inspiring a movement to restore wild Earth.

All of us at The Rewilding Institute want to thank you, our colleagues in this rewilding movement, and particularly the many of you who have answered our calls to action, our call for rewilding projects, our annual fund appeal, and our many other efforts to help Nature heal far and wide.  Your extraordinary generosity at a time when we feared the pandemic might force us to scale back our continental and global ambitions is heartening and gives us the means to continue growing into a force for rewilding North America and beyond.

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