Reaching the End
“Praying (yes, empiricists, I admit it) for the last few Pronghorn struggling to rejoin their herd divided by a barb-wire fence, and shedding tears of joy (yes, hard-core rationalists, I admit it) when the last one found a way under, and galloped off into the Bitterroot foothills with her family…”
We made it, friends! We traversed the Western Wildway: 5,000 miles with no major mishap or injury. If we can get a middle-aged, technologically challenged hiker with an ungodly appetite safely from Mexico to Canada, missing no public events and losing only 15 pounds, we can get a lineage of Gray Wolves or Grizzly Bears or Cougars the same distance. We can restore the Wild West for creatures from Jaguars to Polar Bears, from cacti to spruce trees, from birders to river-runners.
Not to be unduly sanguine, though, the trek was hard and the work ahead will be harder. Protecting and restoring wild habitat connections from the Sierra Madre through the Rocky Mountains and on beyond the Brooks Range will require a much stronger and larger conservation community than we have yet achieved.
As I rolled into the Elk River Valley, British Columbia, in early October, cold, wet, and spattered in mud, after 40 miles of riding in almost every form of weather BC can offer in autumn, I felt a welter of emotions. I felt thrilled to be completing a long trek for wildlife. I felt honored to be guided and then greeted here at the end by friends from Y2Y, Headwaters Montana, Wildsight, and Wildlands Network, with leaders from the many other groups involved in this trek sending greetings by phone or email. I felt sad that I could not call my mother, Mary Byrd Davis, a voice for old-growth forests, who would have turned 77 on the 30th day of September, 2013, had not cancer taken her life two years ago. I felt glad that I could call or write other family members and friends, many of whom had similarly inspired and supported me on these conservation voyages. I felt hopeful that our community’s dream of a connected Western Wildway is still achievable. I felt bolstered in my views here at the end when Y2Y President Karsten Heuer said, after we’d traversed a proposed extension of Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park: “unlike some other continental Wildways, the Western one is still largely intact and will not require an age of restoration (as may wildways in more badly fragmented parts of North America).
Most of all, I felt gratitude, to these conservation leaders and groups and more, and to the countless wild animals and plants and places I’d seen along the way. Vivid memories—mostly welcome, occasionally weary—were swimming through my head as I unpacked my wet gear in a Fernie hotel that caters to cold skiers and muddy hikers. I recalled:
*Guardians at Northern Jaguar Reserve pointing to tracks in the sand of all four native cats – Bobcat, Ocelot, Puma, Jaguar – as we strode and rode through Madrean foothills thorn-scrub;
*Restored populations of Bison and prairie dogs showing the glory of Chihuahua’s Janos Prairie, rejuvenating me after a rough bike ride over the Sierra Madre;
*Following tracks in the snow of Oso, Black Bear, in Sonora’s Ajos-Bavispe Reserve, up into montane oak/pine forests, only to be pulled elsewhere by tracks of Cougar, then Bobcat, then Javelina … CODEFF biologists explaining the biota as we walked;
*Staring with trepidation down a steep canyon from my perilous perch in a horse and mule train on a narrow disintegrating path east of Rio Bavispe, the sure-footed equids keeping any of us from falling into the rocks and thorns;
*Cuenca Los Ojos wildlands philanthropists showing us stretches of the US/Mexico border not yet barricaded but threatened by the huge metal walls that are blocking north-south carnivore and ungulate (but not human) movement;
*Just south of there, on San Bernadino Creek, holding fish of five imperiled species for the ichthyologist to count and measure, tiny treasures saved from extirpation by Cuenca Los Ojos restoration work;
*Sky Islands Alliance and Defenders of Wildlife leading me, while Cougar and Javelina tracks led them, through Davidson Canyon, key wildlife corridor across I-10 through the Sky Islands of southern Arizona;
*Nature polymath, Peter Warshall, in one of his last performances before cancer took him decades too soon, shaping ropes on the ground to model the several Spines of the Continent;
*Another wildways friend taken way too soon by cancer, Nancy Zierenberg, passing on to me—through her surviving husband Rod Mondt—a memento of the predators we are walking and talking for, a Lobo track to keep near always;
*Custom-made Peloncillo Mountains maps created by my guide Peter LaRue, and New Mexico Wilderness Alliance maps, interpreted by Greg Magee, who guided me safely into the Gila Middle Box, where I nearly got rim-rocked in my haste to head upstream, and nearly missed the pack of Coatimundis foraging through the Gila floodplain;
*Rewilding Institute leader, Dave Parsons, teaching me about wolves and other keystone species as he and others guided me into the majestic old-growth Ponderosa Pine forests of the Gila Wilderness;
*Road ecologists walking me safely through the wildlife underpasses along Rt. 260, on Arizona’s Mogollon Plateau, which are saving hundreds of Elk and motorists a year;
*Grand Canyon Wildlands Council guiding me down the Colorado River then across the Grand Canyon and the proposed Grand Canyon Watershed National Monument, oft in sight of Bighorn Sheep and California Condors, renaissance ecologist Larry Stevens ever-ready with his butterfly net;
*Wild Utah Project skillfully directing me to scrambles over surreally beautiful sandstone buttes in Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument, disclosing how the Paunsaugunt wildlife corridor links that new Monument with the proposed Grand Canyon Watersheds National Monument (valor replacing fear as I recollect remote solo climbs of slimy spill-overs and off-width chimneys!);
*Wildlife advocates and officials meeting to celebrate the installation of wildlife underpasses on Rt. 89 east of Kanab, Utah, which will save hundreds of Mule Deer and drivers a year;
*Slogging up the Dirty Devil River, getting myself cliffed out in Robbers Roost Canyon, then arriving on the wrong rim at dusk to find that Kim Crumbo and Jim Catlin had somehow figured out how to find me, a long raven’s flight from where I was supposed to emerge
*Paddling the Green River with a wild bunch of green heroes—from Wildlands Network, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, Western Wildlife Conservancy, Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity and more– conspiring around campfires late into the night on how to save and better connect the Grand Canyon Watershed and Greater Canyonlands National Monuments;
*In Labyrinth Canyon on the Green River, admiring my smitten friends Kenyon Fields and Mary Conover admiring a Great Blue Heron rookery arrayed beneath the massive redrock cliffs;
*Thereafter hearing Kenyon and Mary pronounce themselves engaged, a union solidified in wild fashion along this grandest tributary of the Colorado;
*Sauntering about some well-stewarded private lands in western Colorado, learning from Paul Vahldiek of High Lonesome Ranch and Mary Conover of Mountain Island Ranch about the challenges of private lands conservation;
*Mountain biking the proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument with a distracted Kenyon, he half elsewhere, me awed by the canyon grandeur, both alarmed by the rapid encroachment of oil & gas wells;
*Testing my wife Denise’s faith in me by stepping into Paria quicksand with all the food in my pack;
*She acing the test and staying close even up the trickiest Bull Creek Canyon spill-overs;
*Old Growth Forest Network and Great Old Broads for Wilderness drawing dozens of us into an ancient forest housing many of Colorado’s grandest conifers;
*Gazing in awe with Wilderness Workshop and Rocky Mountain Wild friends at once and future homes of Lynx and Wolverine—and if we do our work really well, Grizzly Bear and Gray Wolf–in the spectacular Colorado Rockies;
*Walking Wyoming’s splendid Snowy Range and learning from Biodiversity Conservation Alliance how it links Colorado and Wyoming mountains;
*Mountain biking, ever hot and thirsty, through Wyoming’s Red Desert, central to a Western Wildway, under imminent threat from energy development, but heroically defended by Biodiversity Conservation Alliance and Wyoming Wilderness Association;
*Solo hiking through Wind Rivers, Upper Green River Valley, and Gros Ventre, admiring Moose, Coyote, eagles, waterfowl … and finding my first Grizzly Bear scat of the trek;
*Walking a perilously narrow part of the Path of the Pronghorn with leaders of the groups protecting it, including Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, Jackson Hole Land Trust, Wildlife Conservation Society, Cougar Fund, and Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative;
*Humbly accepting belays up Wyoming’s Grand Teton from mountaineer Cindy Tolle every time the fall-out exceeded a hundred feet, while filmmaker extraordinaire Ed George—16 years my senior and shod in sandals—declined belays until near the top;
*The Craighead Institute leading the trek through the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in western Montana, along a trail decorated by Grizzly Bear scat and spore;
*The Center for Large Landscape Conservation introducing me to the Centennials, a critical east-west wildlife corridor housing countless waterfowl in the valley and potentially allowing Yellowstone Park bears and wolves to recolonize former habitats in the great Central Idaho wildlands complex;
*The Center’s Renee Callahan and Rob Ament fattening me with delicious meals before my next long solo hike, making sure I got more than half the food for our group of five;
*Stumbling hungrily along the Continental Divide Trail, underestimating again my own excessive caloric needs, because I naively assumed the trail was clearly marked and easy to follow, and because I did not account for delays and detours due to wildfires;
*Praying (yes, empiricists, I admit it) for the last few Pronghorn struggling to rejoin their herd divided by a barb-wire fence, and shedding tears of joy (yes, hard-core rationalists, I admit it) when the last one found a way under, and galloped off into the Bitterroot foothills with her family;
*Y2Y’s Wendy Francis leading film-maker Ed George and me into Montana’s great Bob Marshall Wilderness, then they branching off and hearing wolves southward, and I trudging north to find wolf and bear tracks and scat and to see my first flesh & blood Grizzly Bear of the trek along the South Fork of Two Medicine River;
*Bev Magley and Ed George, in their 60s, leaving a Montana National Guard squad in the dust as they led me through Glacier National Park, on-looking Bighorn Sheep and Mountain Goats perhaps bemused as we old backpackers outpaced the burly day-hikers charged with upholding Montana’s statehood;
*Y2Y and Headwaters Montana abetting the TrekWest filming by preventing Ed George from succumbing to hypothermia, as we four wilderness veterans climbed over snowy passes and waded through wet alders in our cold traverse of the North Fork of the Flathead River, proposed and worthy addition to Waterton/Glacier International Peace Park
*Receiving generous, unbidden material support from family and friends, old and new
*Sporting with pride my new donated gear, from green shops and outdoor retailers like Leep-off Cycles, Scat! Bars, Patagonia, Black Diamond, Osprey, Western Mountaineering, Minus 33, and deeply thankful for the financial resources that made TrekWest possible, provided by High Lonesome Ranch, Wilburforce Foundation, San Diego Zoo, Pinpoint, and Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, not to mention by each and every one of the Western Wildway Network organizations. Further, there could have been no TrekWest without the on-ground assistance and support from more than 80 conservation collaborators who aided me in my journey. Finally, I cannot ignore the importance of those 3,000-plus corridor connection-minded folks who signed our on-line petitions (at Y2Y.net) to say YES! To Protecting Wildlife Habitat Corridors in the Western Wildway.
*Speaking with hundreds of fellow wildlife-lovers, from Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico, to Fernie, British Columbia, Canada—never once facing anyone who doubts the value of protecting and restoring North America’s great natural heritage;
*Listening around campfires and on trails to some of the conservation community’s great mentors and teachers, including Dave Foreman, Michael Soule, Peter Warshall & Diana Hadley, Valer & Josiah Austin, Juan Carlos Bravo, Oscar Moctezuma, Rurik List, Kim Vacariu, Paul Hirt, Rod Mondt, Craig Miller, Matt Clark, Dave Parsons, Billie Hughes, Kelly Burke, Kim Crumbo, Larry Stevens, Jim Catlin, Katherine Eagleson, Jan-Willem Jansens, Peter Callen, Tim Castner, Paula Mackay & Robert Long, Kirk Robinson, Roderick Nash, Greg Costello, the Craighead brothers, Rob Ament, Doug Peacock, Louisa Wilcox & Dave Matteson, Wendy Francis, John and Charlie Russell, and Karsten Heuer.
The Western Wildway Reality
Through the final miles, I felt again, as I had after TrekEast, a renewed sense of hope, such as wild places provide best. Powerful forces are working against us, I won’t deny; but I was convinced by TrekEast that an Eastern Wildway is still possible; and I’m even more convinced by TrekWest that a Western Wildway is still possible (though I must tell you, next time we’re around a campfire, my Western friends, that your advantages west of the Plains may not be so great as you suppose: the wildest parts of the East are nearly as wild as the wildest parts of the West—livestock in the East are generally on private lands; and wetter climes may recover faster from past grazing damage; and climate chaos may hit the arid West especially hard …)
The Western Wildway, or the Spine of the Continent Conservation Corridor, then, is much more than a distant dream. It is not terribly far from being a reality now, thanks to our public lands heritage and to establishment of Wilderness Areas and National Parks and other conservation areas in many key places. Roads and other major barriers currently prevent the dream from coming true, but we can overcome these barriers if we broaden and strengthen the community of folks who care about and speak up for wild places and creatures.
Work Left to Do
More concretely, in the short run, I would propose we, the conservation community, give extra attention to these needs:
Draft a Top Twenty list of Western Wildway Habitat Corridors, from Mexico to Canada, and redouble efforts, including personal adoption of local corridors in need of protection, and signing of pledges to secure these wildlife cores and corridors for posterity. The Western Wildway Network will issue such a list soon, based in part on TrekWest scouting. It will likely encompass such stepping stones and corridors as the Northern Jaguar Reserve, Sonora; Janos Prairie, Chihuahua; trans-boundary Sky Islands; Galisteo Basin, New Mexico; Mogollon Plateau, Arizona; proposed Grand Canyon Watersheds National Monument, AZ; proposed Greater Canyonlands National Monument, Utah; Vail Pass, Colorado; Thompson Divide, CO; Red Desert, Wyoming; Centennial Mountains & Valley, Montana and Idaho; Rocky Mountain Front, Montana and Alberta; Flathead Valley, Montana and Alberta; and some places farther south and north that friends have identified but we did not traverse during TrekWest.
Green-line the proposed Spine of the Continent Conservation Corridor (as Dave Foreman has done in his path-making book Rewilding North America), or Western Wildway, and build a grassroots community and international campaign to keep it forever wild and free.
Within that continental wildway and beyond, provide financial and social incentives for private land-owners to practice good, wildlife-friendly, stewardship. Fully fund the US Land and Water Conservation Fund, and work for similar land procurement programs in Mexico and Canada. Support local and regional land trusts, and encourage private land-owners to consider protecting their properties with conservation easements.
Explore new measures to encourage wildlife-friendly land-ownership practices in Mexico, where most rural lands are privately owned and wildlands philanthropy is not yet well established as a cultural tradition.
Expand and link existing protected areas, including Reserves, National Parks, and Wilderness Areas.
Find where animals are trying to cross the major roads bisecting the Western Wildway, especially Route 2 in Mexico just south of the border and US Interstate Highways 10, 17, 25, 40, 70, 80, and 90, and Route 3 and Highway 1 in Canada north of the border; and install safe wildlife crossings on these roads. Dissuade officials from building new roads, a pressing issue in some “undeveloped\” parts of Mexico’s Sierra Madre and Canada’s Northern Rockies;
Restore the Jaguar, Ocelot, Gray Wolf, Grizzly Bear, Lynx, Wolverine, Bison, Beaver, Black-footed Ferret, prairie dogs, trout and other missing members of the biotic community wherever feasible.
Conduct thorough inventories and ecological assessments of back-country roads, dams, culverts, and fences. Close and remove infrastructure no longer serving vital human needs yet fragmenting wildlife habitat. Retrofit the still-useful built environment with safe wildlife crossings on roads and dams, and wildlife-friendly modifications of fences and culverts. Such systemic enhancement of landscape permeability could constitute major jobs creation programs for North American nations.
Again, modify or remove fences that block wildlife movement.
Reinforce fences that keep livestock out of riparian areas and direct wildlife to safe road crossings. Back-country fence should easily allow Pronghorn to crawl under, and Elk and deer to jump over.
Reform wildlife management at state and provincial levels to favor natural community conservation over habitat manipulation to maximize “game\” numbers.
Reform public lands management at federal, state, and provincial levels to place highest value on wildlife habitat conservation, watershed protection, and quiet recreation. Protect all remaining roadless areas.
Strengthen ties with non-traditional partners: outdoor recreation groups, sporting groups, natural history associations, animal welfare proponents, environmental educators, conservation biologists, naturalists, wildlife-watchers, and others who would benefit from protection and restoration of a Spine of the Continent Conservation Corridor – as wide and wild as possible.
A Humble and Urgent Request
Of course, the aforementioned conservation leaders have been discussing many of these overarching ideas for years (though NONE should be blamed for any errant views I espouse), and we TrekWest hikers had been verifying them on the ground over the last eight months. By the time we reached Fernie, such vague ideas had been bluntly reinforced for me countless times: staring at the US/Mexico border wall, wondering however would a Jaguar or Coues White-tail Deer get over this; watching the isolated Pronghorns struggle to cross a barb-wire fence on public land in the Bitterroot Range; finding riparian areas on public lands trampled by livestock, so much in some places that wildlife and clean water were scarce; seeing denudation spread like cancer wherever fossil fuel extraction is being allowed on public lands; finding exotic species creeping into the back-country along roads and power-lines; passing road-kill every time I got on a bike to speed the pace; noticing that Grizzly Bear sign stopped west of the Sheep Experiment Station in the Centennial Mountains; and feeling a diminishment of wildness and biodiversity in heavily logged lands outside of National Parks and Wilderness Areas.
TrekWest wanderings suggested that most Mexicans, Americans, and Canadians support protecting our natural heritage; but few are presently active in helping to protect and reconnect it. Our rambles assure us that we’re on a good path, but we need to coax many others onto this soft path, if we are to realize our dream of continuous wild habitat from the Yucatan to the Yukon and beyond.
I invite you, my TrekWest companions, followers and Wildlands Network partners to share any thoughts about the Western Wildway or your experience with TrekWest. Our journey and conversations are far from over.
For the Wild,
John Davis, heading East after eight great months in the West
ONCE AGAIN… Thank you, SPONSORS!