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The Essential 16

Where Ecological Urgency Meets Recreational Opportunity

In 2011, wildways trekker John Davis set out on a person-powered journey from the Florida Keys to Canada’s Gaspé Peninsula to ground-truth the Eastern Wildway. Based on his TrekEast journey, Wildlands Network has identified the following locations as urgent priorities for restoring habitat linkages in eastern North America:

Map highlighting 16 locations from Florida to Quebec

Many of these locations coincide with popular recreational corridors—including the Appalachian Trail, cherished by hikers worldwide. Wildlands Network recognizes recreational corridors, particularly National Scenic Trails, as opportunities for enhancing ecological connectivity. We will be building upon such opportunities in the days to come, especially as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the National Scenic Trails program in 2018. Below is a brief summary of each of the Essential 16, as well as key threats to their habitats and potential for connectivity.

Caloosahatchee Crossing, Florida. South Florida is the last remaining stronghold of cougars (panthers) in the East. Dredging of the Caloosahatchee River and development along its banks, together with high road densities, is hindering panthers from recolonizing habitat north of the Everglades. In 2017, one female Florida panther made it north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time in modern history! Even more exciting, she gave birth to cubs last spring, potentially paving the way for this species’ population to grow in North Florida. This region is in urgent need of wildlife bridges across the Caloosahatchee and major roads—including Interstate 4, which bisects the state from Tampa to Daytona. A large Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge should also be established.

  • Conecuh to Eglin Longleaf Complex, Florida and Alabama. All but small remnants of the 90 million acres of longleaf pine forest and savanna that once clothed the Southeast are gone. The best opportunities for restoring longleaf pine forests can be found in the Florida Panhandle and southern Alabama, including Blackwater River State Forest, Eglin Air Force Base, and Conecuh National Forest. Connecting Eglin to the expansive Apalachicola National Forest would reestablish an even bigger swath of longleaf pine, as would sweeping north through Alabama’s botanically rich Red Hills.
  • Two young black bear cubs on opposite sides of a tree trunk, looking at the camera.
    Black bear cubs. Photo: William C. Gladish

    Altamaha and Ocmulgee Rivers, Georgia. Many of the big rivers and deltas in the Southeast Coastal Plain, such as the Suwannee in Florida, Cahaba in Alabama, and Edisto in South Carolina, remain mostly unspoiled. Damaged habitats should be restored for biodiversity, water quality, and buffering of human communities from storms. Highest priority should be given to the Ocmulgee and Altamaha Rivers, which could help maintain ties between the great swamps of northern Florida and southern Georgia (including the famed Okefenokee) and coastal wildlands, such as Fort Stewart in Georgia.

  • ACE Basin to Francis Marion National Forest, South Carolina. The Low Country region of South Carolina contains two stunning jewels in coastal plain conservation: the ACE Basin and Francis Marion National Forest. Formed by the confluence of 3 rivers—the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto—ACE Basin contains a tremendous area of protected wetlands, and numerous stately plantations whose upland habitats have been permanently protected from development. Further north, Francis Marion National Forest features 250,000 acres of longleaf pine and wetland habitats rich in wildlife diversity. Connecting these 2 core areas will be essential to black bears, diamondback rattlesnakes, and other wide-ranging species. Suitable corridors will have to be restored and protected around the rapidly expanding city of Charleston to turn this linkage into a reality. In December 2016, Wildlands Network convened a group of local conservationists to start planning for this reality.
  • Green Swamp and Cape Fear Arch, North and South Carolina. Home to almost the entire global population of venus fly-traps, this corner of the Carolinas is a critical linkage connecting coastal habitats in South Carolina (Winyah Bay, Waccammaw National Wildlife Refuge) to the wilds of Holly Shelter Gamelands, Croatan National Forest, and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge to the north. The area retains diverse stands of longleaf savannah, including the celebrated Green Swamp preserve. Further protection of riparian habitats along the Waccammaw and Northeast Cape Fear Rivers is needed to secure this linkage against suburban growth creeping inland from Wilmington and other coastal cities. Such protections would help enable the eventual dispersal of red wolves.
  • The mind needs wild animals. The body needs the trek that takes it looking for them. Ellen Meloy, Eating Stone

  • Linville Gorge to Roan Mountain, North Carolina and Tennessee. There are 2 major branches of protected forest in the North Carolina-Tennessee region of the Southern Appalachians. The Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment hosts portions of Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, Mount Mitchell (the highest point in the eastern U.S.), Grandfather Mountain, and the wild and scenic Linville Gorge. The other branch is anchored by Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and extends out of the Smokies along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. To the north, this branch follows the Appalachian Trail over scenic Roan Mountain and beyond. One of the gaps between these 2 forest corridors is only a dozen miles wide—between Roan Mountain and Linville Gorge. Restoring this connection would enable wide-ranging species to move across a vast network of ridge tops and deep forest coves. In 2018, Wildlands Network launched an elk study to track where this species is moving in and out of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. By assessing their paths, we can determine where they are crossing major roadways and implement wildlife crossings.
  • Pine Mountain, southeast Kentucky. The Kentucky Natural Lands Trust saved Blanton Forest—Cumberland Plateau’s largest remnant of old-growth, mixed mesophytic forest—and then began adding to this protected part of Pine Mountain. In 2017, Kentucky Natural Lands Trust completed the Pine Mountain corridor and will continue to protect and add to this outstanding ecosystem. Elk now roam here again, and black bears travel in relative safety. Still, not enough has been conserved (yet) to recover cougars or red wolves, and exotic pests like hemlock wooly adelgid threaten the irreplaceable old-growth forest.
  • Arc of Appalachia, southern Ohio. Highlands Nature Sanctuary in the Appalachian foothills is one of America’s premier wildlands philanthropy stories. With thousands of forest acres—vibrant with wildflowers, songbirds, and bats—having been secured, stronger links east to the Appalachian Mountains are now needed.
  • West Virginia Highlands. Some of the East’s most magnificent scenery and remote backcountry is found in the Monongahela National Forest, Blackwater Falls State Park, Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and other public lands of West Virginia. Keeping these West Virginia Highlands intact is crucial to maintaining connections through the Central Appalachians. With modest changes in management, a half million-acre High Allegheny National Park or wildlands complex could be created. Carnivore recovery, along with wilderness expansion, is urgently needed here, as the forests are being badly over-browsed by unnaturally high concentrations of deer, who also pose safety risks to drivers. West Virginia has the highest rate of deer-vehicle collisions in the country
  • Pine Creek Watershed, Ridge and Valley Province, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania, which once grew some of the East’s most magnificent forests, is under increased assault from coal-mining, hydro-fracking, and other unsustainable energy exploitation. Natural corridors must be protected along the Ridge and Valley Province for wildlife to be able to shift northward with the warming climate. The mountains along and near Pine Creek should be protected for wildlife movement and stream health, and to ensure that the beloved bike path along Pine Creek does not look out on industrial scars.
  • Shawangunk to Catskills Greenway, southern New York. The Shawangunk Ridge Biodiversity Partnership is working to restore biological connections between the Shawangunks and the Catskills (a sub-range of the Appalachians) to the north. The “Gunks” are famous for rock-climbing as well as biodiversity and scenery, and New York’s Catskill Park is the state’s second greatest wildlands complex (after Adirondack Park). Wildlife crossing structures on major roads will be crucial to reconnecting these ranges, as will more conservation easements on private lands.
  • Southern Lake Champlain Valley, New York and Vermont. Nearly half of New York’s 6-million acre Adirondack Park is protected as Forest Preserve under the Forever Wild clause of the State Constitution. Maintaining and enhancing forested connections throughout the Park (including wildlife passages across I-87), and also to other wildlands, is critical to biodiversity. The most urgent of links beyond the Park connects the partly pastoral landscape of the southern Lake Champlain Valley to Vermont’s Green Mountains—an area through which the renowned Appalachian Trail also passes. The nearby Vermont Valley is an important priority, too—a narrow lowland sandwiched by the Taconic and Green Mountains, and vulnerable to development. Land conservation, sound stewardship, and careful management of development are needed to maintain safe travel routes for blacks bears, fishers, bobcats, and other wide-ranging species.
  • Northern Green/Sutton Mountains, Vermont and Quebec. The northern Green Mountains in Vermont and southern Quebec (where they are called the Sutton Mountains) maintain a wildlife-friendly mix of large forests and small farms—though development and roads threaten habitat connectivity. The Staying Connected Initiative is working to sustain landscape character for wildlife and people through land conservation and by making key road crossings safer for wildlife. Several groups in Quebec are also conserving land and collaborating with local municipalities to manage development. This is a good example of cross-border cooperation among Americans and Canadians to maintain their shared natural legacy. In fact, in 2016, the governors of New England states and five eastern Canadian premiers signed a resolution pledging to commit to conserving key forest corridors for wildlife.
  • A woman holds a young child in her lap at the door of their tent, looking out at a calm lake in pink sunlight. Two canoes rest on the sand.
    Canoeists enjoy the serenity of Lobster Lake, Maine. Credit: George Wuerthner

    Northeast Kingdom to Moosehead; Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. To maintain healthy populations, black bears, Canada lynx, fishers and martens must be able to move easily within and between Vermont’s remote Northeast Kingdom, the rugged White Mountains and Connecticut Lakes of New Hampshire, and the Mahoosucs and Boundary Mountains of New Hampshire and western Maine (with the Appalachian Trail serving as a stem for budding connections). One critical impediment to connectivity is the east-west Route 2, where a wildlife crossing structure at Bowman Divide (in the Whites) would be beneficial.

  • Moosehead Lake falls within the sparsely settled North Woods of Maine. Large-scale land conservation remains a real opportunity in this vast area, most of which has a long history of being commercially logged. Building on the 2.3 million acres that have already been conserved—including Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, recently donated by Roxanne Quimby and proclaimed by President Obama—will be essential to the ecological integrity of northeastern North America.
  • Three Borders Area of Maine, Quebec, and New Brunswick. Maine’s North Woods connect to the interior of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula and northern New Brunswick through a region of scenic forests and rivers. The region is bisected by the St. John River, where rich valley soils support farmland straddling the international boundary. The International Appalachian Trail, which runs from Mt. Katahdin to the tip of the Gaspé, introduces hikers to seldom-visited parts of the Northern Appalachians, and can serve as the backbone for a system of reserves and private conservation lands. The Three Borders Area itself, where New Brunswick, Quebec, and Maine meet, would be an ideal international peace park.
  • Gaspesie Park to Forillon Park, Quebec. The Chic-Choc Mountains in the heart of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula are partly protected as Gaspesie National Park, and nearby Forillon Park helps protect the area where the Appalachians dive into the Atlantic. Reconnecting these spectacular parks (again, largely along the International Appalachian Trail) could curb the decline of the East’s last remaining herd of caribou south of the St. Lawrence River, and would help ensure the long-term survival of Canada lynx, marten, Atlantic salmon, bald eagles, and waterfowl.