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Can We Rewild Nature without Rewilding Ourselves?

It’s 5 o’clock in the morning. That’s dawn in the Pacific Northwest on a spring day just a few weeks short of the summer solstice. The still waters of Puget Sound’s Rich Passage reflect the varied grays of an overcast sky, rippled only by ferries moving commuters to and fro between Bremerton and Seattle.

Most mornings, I take this time to enjoy a “Maxwell Moment” (for those readers too young to appreciate the reference, it’s a peaceful-cup-of-coffee thing). But today, a gnawing feeling draws me to my keyboard, demanding that I try to put down in words some of the thoughts that interrupt my sleep these days.

A person not shown in the photo, with a book in his lap, holds the paw of a brown and white dog who is looking at the camera.
Greg’s early morning reading companion, Jack. Photo: Greg Costello

I worry. I worry about the future for my son, just 25 years old and well aware of the ecological mess my generation and those before me have created, and that his generation will now inherit. This worry also extends to his friends, to my brave and optimistic young colleagues who bring children into the world, and to all of my fellow humans—the majority of whom are just trying to get by for another day. But most of all, I worry for the species on Earth we ignore or worse, as if they were invisible, already ghosts.

Rules Are Subject to Change

I have spent my adult life as a lawyer and a conservationist working to protect and restore wild places and wild things. As I reflect back on more than 30 years of effort, I realize I’ve been stuck in a two-step dance: one step forward, two steps back in an ever-expanding ballroom of environmental insults, and within an ever-shrinking window of time to “Save Nature.”

I have borne witness to a Yellowstone without wolves—signed petitions urging their return at card tables manned by volunteers at Tower Falls and Old Faithful. And to a Yellowstone with reintroduced wolves doing what wolves do in the Lamar Valley, and then to the vicious blowback against their progeny, killed for sport or for hate, considered vermin to be controlled rather than wild predators allowed to be wild.

Four people look through spotting scopes, into a small valley with patches of snow.

People come from all over the world to watch wolves in Yellowstone, but these same animals are at high risk of persecution once they leave the safety of the park. Photos: Robert Long and Paula MacKay

Now grizzly bears in the West: rescued from the brink of extinction only to be targeted once again for sport hunting, as political minions in Wyoming vote to kill “excess bears.”

And so the story goes, repeating itself in time and space across North America. When I was an undergraduate, I researched wolf control in Alaska. Wildlife management in that state was bad then and we see that trend continue today. Only last month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke directed the National Park Service to allow extreme and egregious hunting methods in Alaska’s national preserves—baiting brown bears, killing black bear mothers and cubs in dens, and killing wolves and pups by trapping them during denning season.

Meanwhile, we fight to establish national monuments and wilderness areas, believing that if we can just achieve paper designations, these wild places will be wild forevermore. But what is written is easily erased. See Exhibit A, the shrunken boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument to accommodate uranium mining claims.

Toward the horizon on the right side of the frame, a red standstone plateau rises out of the vermillion sand and green grass landscape.The sky is blue and dotted with fluffy white clouds.
The Trump Administration shrank Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by 85 percent. Photo: Bob Wick, BLM

We passionately cling to our bedrock environmental laws passed in the 1970s, laws that have been so distorted by self-serving political manipulation that they barely function—yet we still try to make those paper tigers mean something in a world where not enough of us take a stand to make it so.

The impermanence of all of these efforts and the increasing challenges to saving places and species lead me to one, sometimes overwhelming conclusion: We cannot rewild Nature unless we rewild ourselves.

Recalibrating Conservation

Rewild ourselves. What the heck does this mean? you ask. (Or perhaps you’re wondering which now-legal [in Washington state] strain of bud I am smoking this morning.) Succinctly put, we must fundamentally change humanity’s relationship with Nature.

Imagine a world where we truly recognized the intrinsic worth of all species.

Just for a minute, imagine a world where we truly recognized the intrinsic worth of all species. In such a world, the Endangered Species Act, if necessary at all, would be broadly supported. Our forests and fields, rivers and streams, wetlands and oceans, prairies and grasslands, would be valued and protected; our use of these so-called resources would be constrained by the explicit recognition of their importance for our well-being and the well-being of all forms of life—which have an inherent right to just be.

In such a world, we would internalize the fact that a rich diversity of species is as important to our continued existence as clean air, clean water, and safe, healthy foods. Acknowledging these fundamental elements of life as essential, we would make protecting the natural world a voting priority. We would advocate just as fiercely for the protection of species and habitats and wildness as we do for jobs, equal rights, and social justice.

By now you may be ready to hand me a return ticket from la-la land, or you’re thinking: Even if I buy into this vision, how is a tiny group like Wildlands Network going to make it real? That’s okay, I get these reactions a lot. Here is my two-part answer:

First, I urge you to think outside the box. True, Wildlands Network and its modest (but growing) staff doesn’t have the capacity to change people’s relationship with nature around the world—but it’s not just our obligation to do this; it’s your job, too. It is, in fact, the job of everyone who cares for life on Earth and whose  circumstances allow for engagement and activism on its behalf.

A view of the entire round Earth from space
It’s up to all of us to change our relationship with the natural world. Photo: NASA

Second, while we are a relatively small organization, someone has to get this ball rolling, and our history is living proof of Margaret Mead’s famous quote, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world.”

Moving Mountains

Since our beginning, Wildlands Network has been about shifting paradigms. In 1991, our impassioned founders launched a then-outlandish North American vision of large protected areas connected by wildlife corridors and populated (or repopulated) by (ecologically pivotal) carnivores. Today, this conceptual network of protected and connected lands is at the core of conservation efforts worldwide, and large carnivores— particularly wolves—are reclaiming habitats in North America and Europe. An idea that was boundary-breaking back then is accepted as mainstream thinking today. That’s a one-step-forward part of our story.

A close-up of a small brown snake sitting in someone's hand
Dekay’s brown snake. Photo: Virginia State Parks

But to avoid the perpetual two-steps-back, we must embrace the strategy of rewilding ourselves and have the courage to care about and trust wildness—even if wildness makes us uncomfortable at times.

By all means, support the conservation of wild creatures far afield (elephants in Africa, polar bears in the Arctic), but also reflect on what it means to coexist with wildness in your own backyard. How about those coyotes trying to eek out a living in your neighborhood, or the native snakes taking refuge in your log pile or garden? Is the food on your plate conducive to conservation?

Questions like these kindle the spark we’re trying to ignite through our Trusting Wildness blog, and that we’re aiming to incorporate into every one of our on-the-ground conservation projects across the continent.

This may not be the huge leap it appears to be. If you are reading our blog, I bet you or your children or friends already act in ways that honor the diversity of life. You care for your watersheds, compost your vegetable waste, speak up for local causes—like the many students and citizens of North Carolina who have repeatedly spoken up for red wolves at local rallies. Person by person, community by community, we can and must be the change we wish to see.

Many people hold signs that say things like "#SaveRedWolves" or "We've Got the Back Of the Red Wolf Pack!" The banner handing above the people reads: "Red Wolves Belong Here."
Wildlands Network’s Ron Sutherland (top left) joins fellow concerned citizens in speaking up for red wolves. Photo: Heather Clarkson, Defenders of Wildlife

It’s taken me three decades to reach the conclusion that there’s no shortcut to the one-person-at-a-time approach, and I don’t expect you to easily accept my belief that this is a tenable strategy. I ask of you only the following: Think about it; check back here often as we probe the idea or rewilding ourselves in future posts; and read our friend Marc Bekoff’s book, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, for further inspiration.

I hope that, like me, you will come to see rewilding ourselves as a vital path forward—within the realm of possibility, and not just the early morning rant of a tired soldier in the conservation wars.

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