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Connected, Wild, and Free

As a relatively new addition to the Wildlands Network staff, I find myself reflecting on what I wish was better in this world, especially in this time of environmental uncertainty. I think first of what I love most: my family and friends, time spent in nature, and the ability to live connected, wild, and free. I see a growing disconnect between my children and the wild. I grew up on a farm in the foothills of North Carolina, and as a young child I ran through soybean fields, searched for crayfish in rocky creek beds, and sat quietly in the woods at dawn hoping a deer would answer my call.

These early years and quality time spent communing with nature instilled in me a passion for all things wild and resonates with me to this day in my conservation career and busy life as a working mother of three. Now, as my own children grow up in the digital age, I see how little time is spent outdoors. Our connection with nature is diminishing.

“In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” -Baba Dioum

I was fortunate to grow up in a time when it was simple to see creatures large and small. Almost daily, quail, squirrels, deer, and snakes would pass by my privileged eyes. I heard coyotes in the distance, wolves if I was lucky. I spied black bears and beavers when we traveled to the mountains and bobcats and box turtles at the coast.

With a little luck and patience, you might spot these creatures today, but not as often as in years past. According to a study published in the journal Climatic Change in March, “Up to half of plant and animal species in the world’s most naturally rich areas could face local extinction by the turn of the century.” Most alarmingly, large carnivores—like the child in nature—are a dying breed.

Has our idea of the wild changed? What if our North American Wildways were void of creatures large and small? Is this the “real world” we’re willing to accept?

At Wildlands Network, we certainly aren’t. We connect Wildways so carnivores have Room to Roam, our children can connect with nature, and all creatures can live wild and free. We understand when keystone species, like bears, wolves and big cats, are present, ecosystems behave the way they’ve evolved to behave and, therefore, thrive. Large, connected swaths of land are required for such species to provide the checks and balances that regulate healthy ecosystem functions. Removing these apex predators results in ecosystem collapse.

Such ecosystem collapse actually happened in the 1920s when government policy allowed the extermination of Yellowstone’s gray wolves, resulting in elk population overgrowth and the disappearance of beavers, songbirds and many others. In 1995, concerned citizens fought back and, by the power of regulations at the heart of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the gray wolf was reintroduced and balance restored. Sadly, as I write this, the legacy of our 45-year old ESA is being gutted by our current administration.

Two red wolves, one in front of the other, stand on a patch of dirt surrounded by greenery.
Red wolves, at risk of losing critical protections under the Endangered Species Act. Photo: Ron Sutherland.

At Wildlands Network, we’re working to find new ways to mend old mistakes, and this gives me hope. Across the country, we’re stitching back together broken migratory paths on a continental scale, for both beast and bounty. In Washington, D.C., we’re spearheading efforts to reintroduce bi-partisan federal legislation with backbone: the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act. If passed, the Act will channel unprecedented resources toward the creation of wildlife corridors nationwide. In the Pacific Northwest, we’ve just launched the Pacific Wildway, which will eventually reconnect, restore and rewild most of the West Coast, from British Columbia to Baja California. In the East, we’re leading the fight to petition the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s protection of red wolves. And along the borderlands, we’re leading efforts to make Mexico’s Highway 2—a dangerous hotspot for wildlife-vehicle collisions—safer for wildlife and people.

But, these audacious goals and our continental-scale programs come with a hefty price tag.

I recently came across Dan Pallotta’s TED Talk “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong” and had an aha moment. Why, as a society, are we okay with paying a $13 million annual salary to the CEO of a high-tech company in Silicon Valley, but we resist compensating the director of a nonprofit trying to save endangered species?

For me, the takeaway is clear: operating dollars are vital to a nonprofit’s success, and we should embrace funding the people, bricks and mortar that it takes to make our “real world” a better place. Just like the wolves who carry Yellowstone, operating support builds a nonprofit’s foundation and balances its efficacy.

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” -Rachel Carson

Our staff works doggedly to reconnect, restore and rewild nature. They fight daily for our public lands, and for wolves, grizzlies and other species who have no voice of their own. Provocative thinking and inspiring leadership shouldn’t be undervalued, nor should the price tag to rewild North America be underestimated. We’re fighting daily in town halls, in community meeting places and in the halls of Congress. We need staff, vehicles and mileage to deploy and recover camera traps, and we need computers to crunch the science that informs policy and conservation actions across the continent.

And, perhaps most of all, we need your support for our annual fall fundraising campaign. Our work cannot happen without you. Wildlands Network does not exist without you. Wolves, grizzlies and panthers are at the risk of extinction without all of us in their corner.

Pallotta also said, “Philanthropy is the market for love.” We hope this year you’ll dig deep and give wildly to protect what you love for those you love. Our Connected, Wild, and Free campaign is essential to ensure this idea of a well-balanced, thriving “real world” exists for generations to come. This is our why. With your help, we’ll continue laying the groundwork to restore, reconnect, and rewild North America. It’s our wish that the work we do gives you true hope for the future of wilderness and our wild places, as it has for me.

I want to help!

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