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Reconnecting the Eastern Wildway

Human land use practices have a tendency to fragment natural landscapes and break them into pieces, shred them into torn ecosystems and broken food webs. On the other hand, by pursuing habitat connectivity, we have the opportunity to reconnect, restore, and rewild landscapes, putting things back closer to the way they were, or at least the way they should be now.

Michael Soulé, one of the founders of the discipline of conservation biology and also one of the founders of Wildlands Network, once wrote a powerful essay equating habitat connectivity with “Nature’s Aspirin.” We should be clear: if wildlife corridors and other connectivity improvements such as wildlife road crossing structures are “Nature’s Aspirin,” then the East Coast of North America has a terrible headache that needs to be healed as soon as possible!

John Davis stands on a rocky outcrop, overlooking blue water that stretches toward the horizon.
John Davis stands at the Gaspé Peninsula, after having just completed his trek from Florida to Canada to ground-truth the Eastern Wildway. Photo: John Davis

Hence our urgent efforts to develop an Eastern Wildway, a continental-scale network of core habitat areas and wildlife corridors stretching from the snowy wilds of the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec, all the way down to the sunny Florida Keys, and as far west perhaps as the Mississippi River.

Our vision for healing the natural ecosystems of the crowded east coast of the continent may sound outlandish and naive given the millions of people living here and the millions more on the way. But we have a few aces up our sleeves, a few key factors working in our favor, that make our Wildway vision still possible to achieve.

First, one of the reasons the East is so crowded is that we have abundant water resources, and all of that water makes our biodiversity super-resilient. The vegetation at least has a tendency to bounce back quickly, as any eastern gardener knows. Second, since the East coast was settled first by Europeans, the original wave of habitat loss has long since passed, and many regions of the Eastern U.S. and Canada have reforested quite nicely in recent decades.

Fall colors along a slow river, with low colorful mountains in the background
Oswegatchie River, Five Ponds Wilderness Adirondacks, New York. Photo: George Wuerthner

The challenge now is reconnecting the big core forests and wetlands of the East into a network that is more than the sum of its parts, and do so fast enough and smart enough to stay ahead of the second wave of habitat loss due to urbanization (and suburbanization) marching across many popular parts of the region. While we have literally thousands of nature reserves to work with, almost all of them (with the possible but uncertain exception of the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park in New York) are too small to maintain critical populations of large carnivores such as wolves and cougar on their own. We know from decades of recent science—and ecological wisdom stretching back to the writings of Aldo Leopold—that top carnivores are essential for maintaining healthy ecosystems and protecting rare plants from overbrowsing. To restore these wide-ranging keystone species to eastern forests, we need to reconnect our existing parks into a broader, more cohesive network.

We also know the climate is warming rapidly, and connectivity is crucial for restoring the migration pathways that species have used for millennia to adapt to changing environments. Plants, animals, even fungi need to move to keep up with suitable conditions, and an Eastern Wildway habitat network provides the only realistic solution for preventing massive extinctions due to warming in this part of the world.

How Do We Rewild Eastern North America?

How do we achieve our bold and ambitious vision? Well, conservationists love maps; they provide us with a vital and compelling way to understand the landscape and determine priority places to protect for the sake of our biodiversity. After completing several Wildlands Network Designs—or regional conservation plans that show priority cores and corridors—along the Rocky Mountains in the West, Wildlands Network then moved to the wildest part of the East, the Northern Appalachians. Under the leadership of our then-Eastern Wildway Director Conrad Reining, we worked collaboratively with a range of partners to complete a Wildlands Network Design for the Northern Appalachians by 2006. This WND provided a roadmap for protecting wild Northern forests for the benefit of species such as wolves, marten, and lynx, not to mention moose, fisher, black bear, and so many other species.

A map of Southeastern US with orange, red and green coloring and black dots.
Cumulative current density model for timber rattlesnake (circa 2006). Green areas have the highest current density, indicating they have a higher potential flow of the target species across that portion of the landscape. Map: Wildlands Network

In 2010, Wildlands Network hired me to focus on the Southeastern U.S., which being both warm and wet is home to tremendous biodiversity, and at the same time tremendous development pressures. I set to work running connectivity models for a range of species across the region, partnering with federal agencies, including the South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative and the USGS Southeast Climate Science Center, and academic institutions, including North Carolina State University and Clemson University. In order to highlight priority corridors for species such as timber rattlesnake, we used the Clemson University supercomputer to produce models that were broad in spatial extent and yet extremely fine-scaled in resolution.

While we started a regional design for the south, what we really wanted to see was a conservation vision for the entire Wildway. So we assembled a team of collaborators, including Dr. Mark Anderson at The Nature Conservancy, Dr. Tom Hoctor at the University of Florida, and many others, and with their help we compiled the best available conservation science data sets. And then we set to work, mapping out the first ever complete draft of a continental-scale Wildway vision.

Drawing of the Eastern United States with much of the coast the interior regions mapped out in green and yellow.
Wildlands Network’s map of the Eastern Wildway builds on E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth theory, protecting 48.68% of eastern North America. Map: Wildlands Network

We think the map speaks for itself in terms of serving as an inspiration to nature-loving conservationists from Florida to Quebec. As currently drawn, the potential cores and corridors of the Eastern Wildway cover 50% of the overall region. So not entirely by coincidence, we’ve mapped out what Dr. E.O. Wilson’s “Half-Earth” vision would look like for this important part of the world, and we’re very pleased with the results! In fact, we unveiled the draft Eastern Wildway map, affectionately called our “Half-East” map, to the public for the first time at the Biodiversity Days conference organized by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation at Duke University in 2017.

What Does the Map Mean?

Let’s be clear about one thing: the map is NOT a roadmap for pushing people off their family farms and private forests, nor is it a map of human exclusion zones for the East. What the Wildway map shows is a vision for how we—the conservation community and the broader public—could work together to achieve something truly grand during our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren.

With the Eastern Wildway, we could choose to protect enough land and water from development to save our eastern biota from mass-extinctions, and in the process create a near-paradise of outdoor recreation opportunities unparalleled across the world.

We could choose to protect enough land and water from development to save our eastern biota from mass-extinctions, and in the process create a near-paradise of outdoor recreation opportunities unparalleled across the world. Protecting the Wildway will take decades of hard work, and it will easily take billions of dollars in increased conservation funding to be able to pay private landowners via voluntary markets and long-term incentives for keeping the bulldozers off their lands. We think the results would be worth it, as people and wildlife would both reap the incredible benefits of continental-scale ecosystem restoration.

Remember the old adage about the best time to plant a tree? Well, the same applies here: the best time to have protected the Eastern Wildway would have been in the 1600s, when the region was still full of primeval forests, Native-American and lightning-maintained grasslands, and the full suite of species from wolves to elk to bison to mountain lions. The second best time to protect the Wildway is now, while we still have a chance to put the pieces back together in a holistic way that will stave off extinctions and rewild the eastern landscape.

Our hope is that by providing this vision map, and regularly updating it to keep track of conservation progress, new threats and opportunities, and key priorities for urgent actions, we can inspire generations of conservation-minded citizens in the U.S. and Canada to work together to make this positive vision a reality. Existing conservation efforts by state and federal agencies and private land trusts have achieved so much over the past 100 years or so; the eastern landscape is speckled with conservation victories large and small. But all too often, no one is looking at the big picture in terms of connecting it all together.

That is where our Wildway vision map comes in: we think it can serve as an essential reminder to land protection efforts across the continent to look across boundaries and planning units and to truly think and plan at a grand scale when it comes to saving biodiversity from extinction, and when it comes to protecting green spaces for human sanity and quality of life.

How Can You Help?

The map is also where you come in: we need help from our supporters in several key ways. First, if you know your local or state conservation opportunities well, and can provide feedback on the Wildway vision map, we’d love to hear from you. Contact me at ron@wildlandsnetwork.org, and I’ll send you instructions for providing spatial feedback.

Second, if you want to support our vital conservation science and mapping work, and our efforts to achieve conservation success on the ground in priority areas across the Wildway, we would love to count on you for financial support!

Donate to the Eastern Wildway

Don’t forget to donate to your favorite land trust as well, and work with them to ensure that local conservation efforts in the East can add up to something grand at the larger scale. Thank you for believing in our work and in our shared vision for a more biodiverse future for North America!

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