Two years ago, NASA created a composite satellite photograph of a clear night sky all over the earth. You can see the single, haunting image posted on the Internet: quiet night darkness above the polar ice and the boreal forests of Siberia and Canada, above the Amazon and Patagonia, the Himalayas, the Sahara, the Australian Outback. And you can see, in one look, all the lights of urban civilization. Dots of light form strings across India, Indonesia and urban China. The lights saturate Europe and the eastern United States, appearing painfully bright in the most densely settled first world areas – in Paris, London, New York, the California coast, most of Japan.
The lights signify civilization; they map human history, trace settlement patterns over coastlines and rivers and the great overland trade routes. They also map broken plant and animal habitat and the accelerating loss of species. Where we settle or build roads or run power lines or dam rivers, we destroy habitat that sustains the full richness of life and the natural processes that support and nourish that life.
We are in the midst of what most biologists have agreed to call a "sixth extinction crisis." Plants and animals that have survived for thousands and millions of years are now dying out at about a hundred times their natural rate. Biologists forecast the extinction of 20 percent of known species during the next 30 years – mostly of plants and birds, but also of many primates.
Habitat loss is the primary cause of the sixth extinction crisis. Where the lights shine we have to do what we can, piecemeal, to stem habitat loss by preserving critical open land. Where there is still night sky, we can do much more: rededicate large patches of the earth to nature and allow her to settle in and go about her work of restoring ecosystems to health and balance. Only in a healthy, functioning ecosystem can the full diversity of native plants and animals thrive. And to be whole and healthy, an ecosystem needs a vital core where human presence does not linger.
In the United States, the movement to save ecosystems began with John Muir over a hundred years ago, accelerated in the 1920s with a broad-based philanthropic movement to expand the national park system, and achieved a major breakthrough with the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. Formed a decade ago, the bold and visionary Wildlands Project has advanced conservation a critical step by imagining wilderness not simply as remote scenery or playgrounds for outdoor enthusiasts but as nurseries for life in its full variety and magnificence. A dozen vigorous, local ecosystem-conservation campaigns are now underway in the Americas, from A2A (Algonquins to Adirondacks) to Y2Y (Yellowstone to Yukon), from the Maine Woods National Park proposal to the Patagonia Land Trust's ambitious efforts in Argentina.
Each wildlands campaign has a regional base and scope, and each shares a common strategy: to connect large wilderness cores by wildlife corridors and to create buffer zones near settled areas to lessen human impact. Beyond these basics, strategies to acquire and preserve land vary according to need and circumstances.
In North America, the West and North hold numerous, sizable publicly owned reserves of wild land or nearly wild land, protected in various degrees from roads and power lines and from drilling, mining and logging. Many core wild areas can be expanded later but are linked now by corridors to allow wildlife to pass. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, not yet fully protected, stands alone as a truly wild ecosystem with no nearby settlement. In the Maine Woods, where new trees take time to grow and logging is no longer competitive, or in Patagonia, where sheep grazing no longer pays, large tracts of uninhabited or sparsely inhabited land can be purchased and restored – either with public money, as in Maine, or with private help, as in Argentina.
All these efforts will take human ingenuity, capital, and stamina. And time. But the human role must be limited. We're neither smart nor wise enough to know how to reverse or stem the extinction crisis. We can, however, grant nature a few oases, where she can regain her true shape, grow wild, and reconnect. She has the wisdom to do the work. Let's allow her the strength.