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Celebrating the Vision of the Eastern Wildway

Two years ago, Wildlands Network convened an Eastern Conservation Summit to set a plan to see eastern wildlands reconnected at a continental scale. Using our successful Western Wildway Network as a model, we began to put together a network of conservationists working at all scales along the Wildway. It has grown and evolved since then into our own Eastern Wildway Network.


View from the Wildacres Retreat Center. Photo: Ron Sutherland

Last week, we reconvened for our second Summit in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina at Wildacres Retreat Center. The views of unbroken, undulating forests, just beginning to color, were not only spectacular, they were also a constant reminder of what we work so hard to protect: for the black bears and elk, the bobcats and salamanders, this is our shared landscape, our shared home, and together, we can work to build a continental wildway that sustains wildlife and humans into the future.

Empowering Connections

At the core of the Eastern Wildway Network’s mission is the belief that we can accomplish more working together than separately. So, we began by first reviewing and updating each other on the great work going on throughout the Wildway. We learned more about regional collaborations, such as the transboundary Staying Connected Initiative/2C1Forest and the iconic A.T. Landscape Partnership. We delved into the resources and on-the-ground projects led by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Adirondack Program and celebrated the tremendous successes of Kentucky Natural Lands Trust to protect Pine Mountain.

Attendees of the Eastern Wildway Summit. Photo: Emily Blanchard

Wild Virginia updated us on their recent efforts, including a new partnership to make roads safer for both people and wildlife outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Similarly, National Parks Conservation Association and Wildlands Network presented on new projects focusing on roads and wildlife in Asheville and Durham, N.C., respectively. The Wilderness Society also highlighted some of their cutting-edge research in the Southern Appalachians.

Defenders of Wildlife laid out the imperative co-existence strategies for our eastern landscapes’ large carnivores, including red wolves and cougars. Understanding the importance of apex predators for ecosystems, John Laundre, a prominent cougar biologist, explained how a connected East will benefit and be benefitted by cougar rewilding.

On the policy side of things, we learned more about Rep. Beyer’s legislation to create a National Wildlife Corridors System, as well as companion legislation that can be introduced at the state level. Finally, we were afforded the opportunity to get out on the landscape and learn more about the local plant communities on a hike lead by Kevin Caldwell, Principal and Conservation Biologist for Mountains to Sea Ecological, and Josh Kelly, Public Lands Field Biologist at MountainTrue, both of whom have encyclopedic memories for identifying local flora.

While the remnants of Hurricane Nate made for a soggy hike, there is nothing more inspiring than enjoying nature surrounded by people who have devoted their careers and lives to better understanding, advocating for, and protecting these special places.

Envisioning the Future

By far the best part of the Summit was the workshops that brought these groups together to envision a new way forward. Wildlands Network’s Conservation Scientist, Ron Sutherland, unveiled the draft Eastern Wildway map and led an interactive discussion on how to refine and improve it.

Conservationists huddle around the draft Eastern Wildway map, making notes here and there. Photo: Emily Blanchard

With conservationists huddled around maps, drawing in corrections and circling priorities, it was easy to see how every group – whether large or small, with a global, national, regional, or state focus – could see how they fit into this continental wildway. They could see how every puzzle piece, whether a thin corridor in Kentucky or a national monument in Maine, is integral and dependent on one another for connecting habitats, for linking wildlife populations, for increasing recreation access, and for providing adaptation to climate change.

Every piece is important, and when we work together to stitch these wildlands back together, we can achieve our ambitious vision of a reconnected and rewilded North America.

As we mapped out our next steps for the Eastern Wildway Network, I couldn’t help but be filled with pride for my landscape. We will work in concert, fighting against the threats—like the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline—that endanger our soil, water, and air; mitigate the challenges—like implementing crossings over roads to protect drivers and wildlife; and celebrate the victories, whether large or small, that make the Eastern Wildway our landscape and our home.

Maggie Ernest presents to a group of the Summit’s attendees. Photo: Ron Sutherland

I once again have a renewed hope for the East and believe that through the strategic collaboration of the Eastern Wildway Network, we can and will live in harmony with nature, preserving our unique landscape for generations to come.

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