Once as wild as anywhere on Earth, Eastern North America is now a patchwork of protected lands sown into a human-dominated landscape. Conservationists have long dreamed of restoring a vast network of wildlands in this region, from the Acadian forests of Maritime Canada to the subtropical Everglades of Florida. In the early 1920s, wilderness visionary Benton MacKaye imagined an “Appalachian Trail” running the length of the Appalachian spine. Millions of hikers have since explored this trail as a portal to wildness.
Wildlands Network launched its first blueprint for a wilder East in 2002, when we released our Maine Wildlands Network Vision—a detailed, scientific approach to reconnecting the landscape of New England’s largest and most heavily forested state. This ambitious report set the stage for the 2006 report From the Adirondacks to Acadia, an even bolder Wildlands Network Design comprising the entire Greater Northern Appalachians region.
Today, we are making significant progress toward creating a continental-scale Eastern Wildway—an extensive wildlife corridor linking eastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The Eastern Wildway contains some of North America’s most beloved national parks, preserves, scenic rivers, and other wild places, from the wilderness of Quebec, the Adirondacks, and the Shenandoah Valley, to the Great Smoky Mountains and Everglades National Park. Protecting and expanding these and other key core areas is crucial to rewilding the East.
The Eastern Wildway also traverses a wide array of eco-regions and climates, with the latter ranging from arctic to tropical. An equally broad diversity of wildlife inhabits these eco-regions, including red wolves, Canada lynx, cougars, martens, and other native carnivores. Many resident plants, birds, fish, salamanders, and butterflies are found nowhere else on Earth—particularly those in the southeastern U.S., which was recently identified as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.
Eastern Wildway Network
Our ongoing work in the Western Wildway has shown us that partnerships are key to bringing a wildway to life. In 2015, we formed the Eastern Wildway Network (EWN) to advance our efforts in eastern North America—more than 100 conservation leaders working to restore, reconnect, and protect regional habitats, and to help native species move safely through the landscape and adapt to climatic change. We’re also promoting the recovery of keystone species like wolves and cougars.
Through EWN, we are building a strong coalition of conservation organizations, academic institutions, and state and federal agencies to map conservation and land acquisition priorities in the East. We are also developing an outreach strategy to address the importance of large-landscape conservation and the need to restore apex carnivores. We hope to incorporate these ideas into law and policy, and most importantly, to inspire more conservation activity on-the-ground.
Although scientists and conservationists have conducted extensive planning, data analysis, and mapping throughout the Eastern Wildway, these efforts have not kept pace with habitat degradation. Eastern mountain ranges are located so close to mega-population centers that development has spread into once-remote places. Notably, the cities of Montreal, Quebec, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta are all located within the Eastern Wildway.
To further complicate matters, many rural landowners are selling off large land parcels for development, logging, and resource extraction as rural economies continue to stagnate. And with a growing number of Easterners building first or second homes in relatively wild places, people are collectively destroying the natural environments and solitude they seek.
As a result, Eastern biodiversity is in jeopardy. In the Southern Appalachians alone, more than 190 aquatic species and 50 species of terrestrial plants and animals are formally listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Wolves and cougars are all but gone from eastern North America, as are their beneficial effects as keystone predators.
Establishing an Eastern Wildway will require bold and collaborative action at many levels. From creating new conservation lands, reforming policies, and providing incentives for private land stewardship to working with transportation agencies to construct wildlife underpasses and overpasses, incorporating smart growth into local planning, and passing new legislation to confront growing challenges, each and every step will bring us closer to rewilding the East. Ambitious? Absolutely. Necessary? No question!
In 2011, Wildlands Network’s wilderness explorer, John Davis, raised awareness about the Eastern Wildway by embarking on a 7,600-mile, human-powered journey—deemed TrekEast. During his trek, John identified numerous places along his route in immediate need of protection. His efforts helped inform our Half-East Map, which shows what a reconnected Eastern Wildway could look like on the ground.