The Wildlands Project

by Michael Soulé
Spring 2003

Fifty years ago, the earth's human population was half of today's six billion. Large tracts of roadless tropical and temperate forests and savannas still survived, as did unspoiled coastlines and estuaries, unexploited fisheries and healthy populations of gorillas, rhinos, lemurs, sea turtles and frogs. Now, the explosion of our numbers, commercial globalization and the invention of new technologies for land clearing, agriculture and fishing have changed all this, with dire consequences for nature and wildlife.

In the more productive and biologically rich parts of the planet, development has cleaved nature into isolated remnants – forest reserves, national parks or remaining but vulnerable wildlands. But most of these fragments are degraded, overhunted and laced with roads that accelerate further exploitation and destruction. The rarest animals are among the first to disappear in these island-like fragments. Some of these species, such as jaguars or wolves, are critical ecological actors, or what are called keystone species. Where keystone carnivores disappear, entire ecosystems can collapse. Those species that survive this collapse may not persist for long if their populations are small. Small populations are vulnerable to random events like hurricanes, droughts and inbreeding. Over time, more and more species disappear, until there is little left but a lonely silence.

Fortunately, conservation biologists know how to arrest and even reverse this kind of ecological disintegration. First, restore the severed connections between the isolated bits of nature at both local and continental scales; second, repatriate the keystone species; third, enlarge and rehabilitate the most pristine areas so that they contain all of the original habitats, including free-flowing rivers, unpolluted lakes and the full range of species interactions. All this is what we call "rewilding." Fourth, control the most damaging exotic species. Simple, but not easy. Is such a bold, ambitious project realistic at a continental scale?

In 1991, a group of activists and scientists founded the Wildlands Project. The goal was to link up wildlands from Mexico to the Yukon, from Florida to Newfoundland, from Baja California to the Brooks Range and the Bering Sea. Connections to the North Woods, the Great Plains and great northern boreal forest would also be re-created.

People called the vision "delusional," a hallucination of romantics. Ten years later, however, the basic concepts are mainstream. The idea of rewilding continents, by restoring the keystone species and healing other wounds to our lands and waters, has been widely adopted by the conservation community because it is the only realistic prescription for preserving entire faunas and floras. Internationally, partners such as The Wilderness Society (of Australia) are adapting the vision to other continents.

The volume Continental Conservation: Scientific Foundations of Regional Reserve Networks (1999, Island Press) sped the adoption of the rewilding vision by summarizing the critical role of keystone species and arguing for the restoration of landscape linkages that had been severed by poor land-use practices.

Next, Wildlands Project cofounder Dave Foreman, along with others, completed the "Sky Islands Wildlands Network Conservation Plan," a rigorous and inspiring blueprint based on rewilding principles; it shows how to protect the island mountain ranges of the Southwest. Over the coming decades, as the new wilderness areas identified in the plan are designated, and as wildlife movement linkages are secured, the region's extraordinary wildness will recover. Wolves, jaguars, Apache trout, the Chiricahua leopard frog and many other species will once again thrive in the borderlands.

In northern Sonora, the Wildlands Project, in partnership with Mexican scientists and organizations (Pronatura, Naturalia, Ejido Cebadillas) is protecting thick-billed parrot habitat. Nearby, on the Janos Prairie in Chihuahua, we assisted in the return of the endangered black-footed ferret to the largest prairie dog complex remaining in North America.

The Sky Islands region, however, is just one piece of a continental jigsaw puzzle. The Wildlands Project and its partners plan to help create extensive networks of wildlands – megalinkages – across the continent: northern New England and southeastern Canada, the southern Rockies, Yellowstone to Yukon, the Sierra Madre of Sonora and Chihuahua, the Sierra Nevada, the southern Appalachians and elsewhere. In each of these regions, teams of local conservationists, biologists, naturalists, modelers, mappers and other experts are working to draft a blueprint for landscape health. The price tag for planning each region – each piece of the continental puzzle – is $200,000. To map and plan the continent will require about $6 million.

By 2008, if we have the resources, we can complete the alternative land-use plan for all of North America. This blueprint, including the steps for on-the-ground land restoration, would be the first of its kind for an entire continent. Do such plans energize activists and agencies? Our experience in the Southwest leaves no doubt: These compelling plans inspire activists, planners and professionals alike.

People love the wild, and they explore wild places to find solace and solitude, to rediscover their own connections to the wholeness of creation. The Wildlands Project endorses wilderness recreation and other sensitive uses of wildlands, including responsible hunting and fishing, backpacking, skiing, camping, river kayaking and rafting and mountain climbing. We know that those who experience the wild become its natural defenders.

But time is running out. Most of the ancient, diverse and beautiful ecosystems of the earth are being converted to plantations, intensive agriculture, degraded pastures, golf courses, theme parks, roads, reservoirs, suburbia and landfills. Whole ecosystems are quickly liquidated, their wild plants and animals converted into paper, cardboard, protein meal and home furnishings. The lands are torn apart for their natural gas, coal, oil, minerals and water. The 21st century is a watershed moment for Earth, the end game for creation: Now is the time for networks of people to protect networks of land, to become a powerful constituency for the redemption of nature.

About the Author

Michael Soulé is a biologist, writer, conservationist and a founder of the Society for Conservation Biology and the Wildlands Project. He has written extensively on ecology, genetics, conservation biology and the social context of contemporary conservation. He was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Archie Carr Medal and the National Wildlife Federation's National Conservation Achievement Award for Science. In 1998, Audubon Magazine named Soulé one of the 100 Champions of Conservation of the 20th Century.