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Wildlands Network Takes the First Step in Our Planet’s Fight for Life

Wildlands Network Releases Cutting-Edge Vision Map for Eastern North America

We often find ourselves transfixed, unable to move forward.

This is an unfortunately common occurrence—the writer who can’t find the words to start their story, the dancer who won’t walk out to center stage, the presenter who trips over their speech… Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to just get started, to take that first step forward.

Woman wearing field vest attaches a camera to a tree with a cord
In the face of Mother Nature’s woes, Wildlands Network’s Maggie Ernest goes to work, deploying cameras in a red wolf study. Photo: Ron Sunderland

So is this fact of life true in the world of conservation. We are often so overwhelmed, so paralyzed by the scale and complexities of Mother Nature’s woes that we don’t know how or where to start. A climate in chaos, an unprecedented extinction crisis, relentless pollution poisoning our air and water – the assault on our planet seems infinite. And it’s true: there are times we conservationists rub our tired eyes and think, “How can I possibly make a difference? How can I help Nature survive the challenges of today, tomorrow, and decades from now?”

The answer is deceptively simple: Half-Earth. Renowned biologist and author E.O. Wilson recently called the world to action in his 2016 book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, arguing that if we conserve half the land and sea, we can save 85% of biodiversity from extinction. His proposal builds on the framework of island biogeography theory, which predicts higher biodiversity in larger and more connected habitat patches, as compared to smaller, more isolated “islands” of habitat. Therefore, to conserve half the earth, conservationists must strategically design their conservation plans to reduce habitat fragmentation and emphasize landscape connectivity between large, wild, protected areas.

Accomplishing Half Earth

So, how could conservationists implement such a plan to ensure the survival of life on our planet? For over 25 years, Wildlands Network has considered just that, and in the East, our Eastern Wildway Network is actively working to implement this vision on the ground. We are working to safeguard legendary species like the cougar, red wolf, and elk, as well as lesser known inhabitants of the East, such as the Northern long-eared bat, Eastern Indigo snake, and smooth coneflower.

For the past year and a half, we have spent many painstaking hours tracking down and evaluating datasets, meeting with conservation leaders, and crafting a visionary map of what Half-Earth would look like in eastern North America. The result is our draft Eastern Wildway map, which we debut here for the very first time.

Map of eastern United States, showing green and yellow sections for connectivity, wildlife corridors, and outdoor recreation areas.

This grand, 100-plus-year vision for an Eastern Wildway involves creating a network of protected lands and waters that allows humans and wild nature to coexist by restoring ecological functions and fostering outdoor recreation. Some areas will be wilder than others, allowing animals the room to roam freely, while at the same time creating space for us to enjoy the outdoors by biking, hiking, hunting, fishing, kayaking, swimming, and camping.

Man with sunglasses canoeing in a lake with fall foliage in background
Canoeist near Blue Mountain Lake, Adirondacks, New York. Photo: George Wuerthner

Key to this conservation design is the network of wildlife and recreational corridors that connect one wild place to the next, ensuring that a large and linked Eastern Wildway will conserve the greatest amount of biodiversity. For example, the iconic Appalachian Trail can serve as the spine of the Eastern Wildway, providing an incredible recreational resource to people, but with a protected buffer surrounding it, it could also serve as an integral corridor for species moving along a north-south gradient.

A Half-Earth Future

The Eastern Wildway, if restored, reconnected, and protected, would conserve nearly half of the land and water in eastern North America (48.68% to be exact). Today, the Eastern Wildway is roughly 28.5% secure under various levels and types of conservation protections, including federal, state, and provincial designations, as well as private conservation easements.

In preserving half of our side of the continent, we take the first step in safeguarding our land, our waters, our air, our wildlife, and ourselves today, tomorrow, and a century from now. By reconnecting landscapes, we provide pathways for flora and fauna, such as spruce-fir forests or the Eastern Tiger salamander, to migrate to more suitable habitats as the climate changes. By protecting core reserves of habitat, we afford native species like the American eel or Florida panther the space and the resources they need to defy the extinction crisis. By ensuring environmental safeguards in these places, we protect our soil, water, and air from pollution that makes our children sick.

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

We have the opportunity to make eastern North America not just home to some of the greatest cities in the world, but also home to some of the greatest wildlands in the world. We can provide an example of peaceful coexistence to replicate across our planet. In the coming months, we are taking this visionary map to conservation experts to refine, edit, and improve it, representing many of the iconic landscapes of the East – from the Gaspe Peninsula to the recently protected Maine Woods, down to the Adirondacks and High Alleghenies, through the peaks of the Smokies and out to the flat wetlands of the Florida Everglades. Once the map is complete, our ever-expanding network of participants will begin to bring this vision to the ground – protecting each puzzle piece, whether large or small, as a part of the Eastern Wildway.

Of course, this vision won’t become reality overnight, or even within the next year or decade. However, as President John F. Kennedy once famously proclaimed, calling the country and world to action for peace, “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.

In light of our mounting environmental crises, this directive is as apt today for conservation as it was in 1961 for peace. The hardest thing to do sometimes is to take that first step. Today, we present to you our first step toward Half-Earth. It may take a century to realize this vision on the ground, but let us begin today.

One thought on “Wildlands Network Takes the First Step in Our Planet’s Fight for Life

  1. As the executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), I applaud these efforts but also notice a conspicuous lack of planning, inclusion, and awareness of eastern U.S. grasslands. These ecosystems, highlighted recently in Dr. Reed Noss’s (SGI’s Chief Science Advisor) book “Forgotten Grasslands of the South, represent a major aspect of the biodiversity of eastern North America. They once covered more than 100 million acres of the southeastern US and support for than half of the terrestrial biodiversity of the Southeast, yet they are woefully underrepresented in conservation planning and most conservation funding goes to forests, forested wetlands, streams and marine systems in spite of the disproportionate contribution to biodiversity that grasslands provide. I am concerned when I see that large swaths of the east in these regions with historically very large grassland systems are not in consideration for these corridors. The reasons why make sense. They are mostly in agricultural landscapes today and rewilding is challenging or impractical. However, we are at a point where grassland birds are collapsing, pollinators are collapsing, etc. If we don’t start planning on a massive scale for the inclusion of savannas, prairies, barrens, glades, etc. within these concepts then we will continue to lose half of our biodiversity that need grasslands. Please consider watching our mini-documentary about the southeastern US grasslands. We would love to participate in the conversation about how to do ensure these imperiled communities are considered. Currently, we are unique because we are the only organization focused solely on grassland ecosystems of the Southeast (a 23 state region from PA and MO to FL and TX). Our video can be watched here: Thank you for your time and for this excellent work.

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