The year was 1991. In the face of the world’s 6th Great Extinction, many scientists had come to realise that North America’s protected areas were too small and disconnected to sustain the diversity of life—yet few were willing to act. Dr. Michael Soulé, who had co-founded the Society for Conservation Biology, envisioned a conservation group that could merge sound science with on-the-ground action…Together with wilderness activist Dave Foreman, wildlands philanthropist Doug Tompkins, and a few other colleagues, Soulé launched a bold new group—first called the North American Wilderness Recovery Strategy, soon simplified to The Wildlands Project, and now known as Wildlands Network…
Conservationists dream in wildness – of landscapes green and unbroken, rivers clear and full of fish, forests reclaimed by wolves. We think about our favourite ecosystems and what they must have looked like, what they must have felt, smelt, tasted, and sounded like, long before modern humans left their mark. We wonder about the untold stories of the hawk overhead, the doe in the field, the worms beneath our feet.
But as we are woken from those daydreams, by the sound of traffic outside the window and the glare of the computer screen before us, we are reminded just how far away that image of wildness seems to be. But the truth is, it really isn’t that far away.
For over twenty-five years, Wildlands Network has been on the forefront of the large landscape conservation movement, our founders literally wrote the book on Continental Conservation. At the heart of this movement is the idea of weaving people and nature together in a network of connected, healthy ecosystems, regardless of political or manmade boundaries, through multi-stakeholder engagement. Large landscape conservation envisions wildness through protected cores of habitat, stitched together by wildlife corridors, allowing animals the room to roam, ecological processes the ability to function at scale, and adaptation opportunities in the face of climate change.
At the same time, such conservation also envisions greenways leading out from our cities into the heart of nature, with recreational breaks for humankind’s happiness and health. Such conservation buffers our coasts and waterways, allows our communities to be resilient to sea level rise, and seeks to bridge barriers like roads with wildlife crossings, thereby affording landscape permeability and helping keep drivers safe from wildlife-vehicle collisions. Large landscape conservation essentially seeks to build interconnected networks that allow both human communities and our wild neighbors to thrive together in harmony.
But taking these lofty dreams down to the ground, literally, will take patience, strategic planning, and input from many different sectors. In North America, our Western and Eastern Wildway Networks pull together conservationists, government agencies, and academic, faith, recreation, and tribal communities to work collaboratively toward this vision. With our network, we are developing maps with cutting-edge research to outline where the opportunities and threats to a connected, sustainable landscape lie and communicating these results to local communities, policymakers, and other stakeholders. We are working with land trusts to strategically conserve land parcels, and collaborating with departments of transportation to ensure animals can safely cross roads. We are catalyzing dialogue on the nexus of cultural and environmental resources. Finally, we are working at local, regional, and transnational scales to leverage research and policy to accomplish on-the-ground conservation.
Our vision will take decades of hard, complicated work, but our Wildway Networks are simple: we are networks of people building ecologically meaningful networks of nature. Together, we will forge a future where urban jungles meet mountain cathedrals, where wildness is not exclusive of human communities, but a part of what makes our communities human. Wildness should not just be a dream of a few conservationists, but a dream for anyone who desires to see a sustainable future, because as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.”
Header Image: ©William C. Gladish
About the Author: Maggie Ernest is the Eastern Wildway Coordinator and Landscape Conservationist for Wildlands Network. She develops the Eastern Wildway program through strategic research, planning, and collaboration-building and is passionate about landscape conservation, road ecology, and bringing diverse stakeholders together. Maggie is based out of the Wildlands Network Washington, DC office.