Paths to Survival

by Rick Ridgeway
Heart of Winter 2008

For many wild animals, to roam means to survive. Seasonal migration between habitats is a pattern passed from generation to generation of eagles, waterfowl, elk and hundreds of other species. To locate a new place to survive and breed, the young of many species must roam far and wide. And freedom to roam often determines whether or not wild creatures can adapt to change. Even for species that do not seasonally migrate, the ability to find new mates in new places protects genetic health and diversity.

What happens when habitats are isolated by cities and highways, or fragmented by fences and fields? Since the 1960s, conservation biologists have been able to measure with increasing accuracy the minimum sizes of protected areas needed to ensure the long-term survival of all the species in a given ecozone. No surprise: Big animals need big spaces. If territories are balkanized by highways, energy development and housing, the long-term survival of large mammals – as well as the multitude of smaller creatures connected to them – is jeopardized. Imagine it this way: As writer David Quammen has noted, if you cut a beautiful, handwoven Turkish rug into 36 pieces, you don’t end up with 36 Turkish rugs. You have instead 36 worthless remnants.

That’s the first problem. The second one has come into focus only in the last few years: What happens when habitats change because of global warming? What happens when species are marooned in isolated islands of shifting habitat? Many of us followed last year’s reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – the most exhaustive and authoritative studies to date on the likely effects of global warming. If animals remain trapped in their habitats, the IPCC predicted, one-quarter of the earth’s plants and animals could disappear by the end of this century. Nothing like that has happened on this planet since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It can be argued convincingly that nothing of this magnitude has challenged our own species in our relatively short history on this planet.

What to do? In the 1980s, Michael Soulé, a leading conservation
biologist, and Arne Naess, a leading environmental thinker, were discussing the problem of fragmented habitats over breakfast in Soulé’s kitchen. This was before Bill McKibben wrote his seminal
work The End of Nature, the first sounding of the tocsin on global
warming, but after E. O. Wilson, Tom Lovejoy and others had defined the minimal size of protected areas needed for all wildlife in a region to survive. Soulé was staring out the window of his Santa Cruz home when an idea popped into his head: Corridors, he thought to himself.

“Reconnect the isolated patches of wildlands throughout North America,” he told Naess, “so animals can freely move and ecological fluxes are restored.”

Naess’s eyes lit up and a eureka smile crossed his face. The effort to create corridors up and down North America was launched, and at Patagonia, we picked up the theme as our annual environmental campaign in 2002-2003. For 12 months, we ran articles in our catalogs and put up displays in our stores to increase awareness for landscapes that were “Big, Wild & Connected.” Now, with global warming compressing the timetable for planetary change, we return to our earlier effort. Freedom to Roam, however, is more than a campaign – more than a one- or two-year effort to bring awareness to an important and complex environmental challenge, as we have done with issues like genetic engineering, the plight of salmon and, most recently, the plight of the oceans. Freedom to Roam is an initiative to use our resources and our communication skills, not only to bring awareness to this challenge, but to bring together environmentalists, recreationalists, ranchers, hunters and anglers, urban folk and rural folk in a commitment to the wild and to future generations who love the wild.

Our first goal is to educate all of us regarding the three great north-south corridors – “wildways” that connect existing protected areas along the Pacific Crest, the Continental Divide and the Atlantic Spine. These three wildways, in turn, connect to The Big Wild, that great arc of boreal forest north of the Trans-Canadian Highway. Second, we hope to coordinate groups already working to protect parcels within the three wildways so that, united, their voices will have more volume and influence in the governments of countries on the North American continent. (This includes ranchers and those in rural communities who live within the wildways. Without accommodating the needs and wisdom of rural residents, this initiative will not succeed.) Third, we want to inspire a broad and deep grassroots awareness of this challenge and mobilize thousands of people to venture into the wildways, to hike and climb and paddle and camp, to bear witness to the wonders of the wildlands and the wildlife within them. Finally, we plan to entreat, implore, cajole, embarrass – whatever it takes – to persuade our lawmakers to pass legislation and to allocate the resources needed to establish the corridors.

If we fail? Biologists are calling this the Sixth Mass Extinction; there have been five other such events in the last 250 million years. As with these past events, it is unlikely there will be a complete collapse of life on earth. But what will be left? Recall the “wildlife” you see in cities and suburbs: pigeons, crows, rats, cockroaches. Very adaptable species that will likely fill the vacancies left by meadowlarks, lynx, wolverine, panther, grizzly. What is left will be (again to quote Quammen) the “weed species.” It comes down to whether or not you want to live on a planet of weeds.

About the Author

Rick Ridgeway has been part of the Patagonia family since the company started in the early ‘70s. Currently, he is Patagonia’s VP of Environmental Initiatives.