Speaking Freedom to Roam

by Rick Ridgeway
Heart of Winter 2010

Three years ago, on a cool and clear January morning, I found myself sitting on a bus next to Jane Goodall, as we were whisked through Paris by a police escort with sirens blaring. About 300 of us arrived at the Élysée Palace – ministers and presidents from myriad countries, executive directors from the world’s leading NGOs, CEOs from large multinationals – and were escorted to an 18th-century ballroom. Jacques Chirac, then president of France, welcomed us to the celebration of what was a frightening landmark: the report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

That morning we heard dire predictions of sea-level rise, declining snowpack, desertification, food shortages, population displacement. Many of the persons who spoke either stumbled in French, or apologized for having to speak in English. Except Jane Goodall. Chirac invited her to speak last, and after she looked calmly around the room she said, “I don’t speak French,” and then added, “and I’m not going to apologize.” She wasn’t being rude; it was her way of saying the topic at hand was far more important than what language it was spoken in. Jane reminded everyone that the most damning change of all to our planet was the predicted loss of biodiversity due to climate change. The report we were handed told us that if temperatures go up 1.5-2 degrees Celsius, and if nothing were done to adapt to that rise, 20-30 percent of the wildlife assessed would likely be at increased risk of extinction by the end of the 21st century. If the temperature rose by 3.5 degrees – well within what is now the predicted range – 40-70 percent of all species assessed would be gone. It would be, she said, the sixth mass extinction on earth.

Jane concluded her short speech with her celebrated chimpanzee hoot, ending in a howl that rang through the palace like a primordial call from a forgotten ancestral time. She got a standing ovation.

Next morning at a sidewalk café with the requisite café au lait and Herald Tribune, I read that every paper in most major European cities had front-page articles on the event and the attendant IPCC report, and I paused to consider what that meant. For those of us who spend good parts of our lives in the wild, we’ve seen the changes with our own eyes: the glaciers we crossed 20 years ago now gone, the forests where once we built our campfires now kindle-dry from pine-beetle kill. In my own mountain backyard in California, I’ve learned to see change over time: not as many native red ants so not as many horned toads that feed on them; not as many loggerhead shrikes but more and more starlings.

But here, awareness of the looming extinction crises was moving out of the wilds – and beyond the outdoor enthusiasts who can already see what’s coming – and into the cities where the urbanites, maybe for the first time, were making the connection that they too belong to a species that is intimately interconnected to all other species.

So I started to wonder if maybe there was a new window of opportunity. It had only been a few months since we at Patagonia had hatched the idea to launch a Freedom to Roam campaign. Back then our idea was to start a campaign about landscape connectivity so people would understand better what wildlife corridors were, and why, in the face of habitat fragmentation from human development, coupled with habitat shift from climate change, they were the last best hope to prevent mass extinction. In that nascent stage we had also opened discussions with many of the large environmental NGOs, inviting them to join a Freedom to Roam coalition. But after returning from Paris, my colleagues and I started to realize we had an opening to vastly broaden the coalition. Taken together, the people in the room that morning in Paris were enormously influential. What if we could get these “new constituencies” to sit at the same table? Was the fear of extinction sufficient motivation that different people, speaking different languages, if you will, would work together toward a common solution?

Assisted by a grant from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Patagonia spun off the Freedom to Roam Coalition, as its own NGO. In the year that followed, the coalition broadened to include representatives from large corporations, government agencies and environmental NGOs; all were committed to figuring out how to go about our business as human beings in ways that will leave wildlife the room they need to prevail through this century and into the next.

Freedom to Roam had a significant success last year when I was invited to testify to the House subcommittee on National Parks, Forest and Public Lands, giving them a multimedia presentation on the need for wildlife corridors. The result? Funding for corridors research made it into the Cap & Trade bill that passed the House last year.

In addition to this strategy, Freedom to Roam is now part of a new initiative called Witness for Wildlife – that launches this spring and summer. We will be calling on citizen-naturalists to go into wildlife corridor hotspots across the United States and Canada, to do wildlife inventory work and to bring back multimedia reports on what they find, and upload them onto a Web site. These volunteers will bring grassroots support to get wildlife corridor protection laws in place.

None of this is easy. But we can do this. That was in essence the message that was in Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee howl. And it’s what Jacques Chirac told his audience after her ovation. But, he reminded us, it will only happen if we work together. All of us: those who speak French, those who speak English, and those who most comfortably speak in chimpanzee on behalf of all animals everywhere.

About the Author

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