Rewilding America: The Froggy Love-Tunnel Vision Quest

[ Chip Ward, ecological writer and activist and Assistant Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, presents a positive ecological vision of the future. As Tom Engelhardt points out, “this piece is … a set of Cliff Notes for the new book [Chip has] just published, Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land.” Thanks to Popi and Tom Natsoulas for passing this piece along. –BL ]

May 13, 2004 |

by Chip Ward

Imagine America in 2104. From the air, what you see is a largely unbroken, green, and fluid realm with graceful and permeable natural boundaries — all those geometric grids we were so used to faded away when we tapped out too many aquifers before we switched over to sustainable farming. There are still dams, but only a few. Water is stored the way nature stores it in regenerated wetlands, recharged aquifers, and along recovered flood plains that are also refuges for wildlife. The restored river valleys also serve as corridors for cougars, wolves, and bears moving between huge habitat reserves that are spread from one end of the continent to the other. In the Northwest, salmon teem in pristine streams that also provide clean drinking water for nearby cities. On Midwestern plains on a great, restored, natural “commons,” the buffalo roam again. Across a mostly rural continent, the howling of wolves can sometimes be heard at night.

Lawns, so popular in the water-wasting days of the twentieth century are rare, but native plants thrive everywhere, inside buildings and out. Schools have shaded playgrounds and gardens. Rainwater and storm runoff are harvested to make it happen.

An urban renaissance went hand-in-hand with the creation of a continental network of nature reserves. Cities eventually became more attractive than sprawling suburbs because they offered so many parks, sports fields, libraries, galleries, restaurants, nightclubs, and museums. After several decades of explosive growth, sprawl stopped, and then receded, as long and frustrating commutes, dead lawns, and the social isolation of the burbs lost out in competition with the easy transportation and diverse cultural amenities of cities. There are still cars and sometimes even traffic, but clean and reliable public transportation is generally the preferred method of travel.

Sadly, the urban renaissance was fueled by natural disturbances. Persistent wildfires caused by global warming and decades of unnatural fire suppression eventually chased people down from the hills, and the inhabitants of floodplains were driven off, too, when hundred-year floods became common. Slowly, that old checkerboard sprawl has been converted back to small farms (the term “organic” is now assumed) to meet a growing demand from local farmers’ markets and from the popular “slow food” trend. The disruptions of global trade, thanks to terrorism and pandemics earlier in the last century, opened up a burgeoning market for more reliable regional food.

On vacation, city dwellers still love to head out to the mega-reserves that run like a necklace of huge national parks across the entire continent. Created to conserve vital biodiversity — especially after we understood that life in all its forms provided us with medicines, foods, and new kinds of building and manufacturing materials, plus endless models for sustainable production and consumption — the mega-reserves became as mega-popular as they were mega-necessary. People go to the reserves to hike, bike, kayak, windsurf, vision quest, or just relax. Sunbathing, of course, still remains too dangerous as the ozone layer has yet to completely heal and, in any case, most beaches disappeared when the melting glaciers inundated them. But people love to sit under umbrellas and watch wildlife — deer and elk, for instance, and the bears and the wolves that pursue them — pass under or over the old highways along specially constructed and landscaped corridors designed to make their passage from one mega-reserve to the next possible. Almost anyone can tell you when they saw their first wolf, whale, or condor.

Between the cities and the chain of connected reserves, are buffer zones of family farms, wind farms, solar farms, retreats, spas, and green belts that are also outdoor recreational hotspots. After the obesity epidemic led to a mid-century diabetes die-off and we realized that excessive television and Internet surfing caused early senility and paranoia, more people headed for the outdoors. Now that carbon emissions have been cut drastically and the weather is moderating, the land between city and reserve is being redesigned to accommodate both people and critters in ways that can be sustained.

This is the world we got when we chose, incrementally in a million fits and starts, to “rewild” our continent because we finally realized that natural biological systems which include us are invaluable and irreplaceable. The ecological collapse of China early in mid-century was certainly instructive. We got tired of dysfunction and trauma and we could see it was only getting worse. Global warming had displaced whole populations and caused war and chaos. New pandemics were emerging. The first incidences of genetic pollution were a shock. When denial was no longer possible and it became clear that Rapture was not an option — that we would all be “left behind” — we simply decided there was a better way; we didn’t have to be impoverished, anxious survivors, desperate for an advantage in a fraying world. As a culture, we finally grasped that biodiversity was ultimately a better measure of health and well-being than bell-and-whistle measures like GNP or corporate profit rates. So we decided to put it all back together — to reconnect and restore our wounded world until it was reanimated and resilient again. It took us almost a hundred years to get started, but here in 2104 we’re slowly but surely healing the land — and ourselves as well. Life is better. Hope is widespread.

A Froggy Love-Tunnel World

Now, drop back to America in 2004 and we have a long way to go. Consider the froggy love tunnel in Germany.

A local radio show in Salt Lake City where I live has a “stupid story” contest every morning. Three tales of incredible foolishness are pulled from the back pages of the news and conveyed by laughing DJs. Commuters caught in traffic jams then pick up their cell phones and vote for the “stupidest story of the day.” They choose, for example, among a kidnapper who writes his ransom note on the back of a personal check, a woman who burns her house down to get rid of ghosts in her bathtub, and a robber who turns himself in for the reward money. On one recent morning, German bureaucrats were thrown into the mix for, “get this,” the DJ said, building a tunnel under a highway so local frogs could get from the woods to a lakeshore where they mate. The show’s hosts had a blast imitating German accents and yelling, “Froggy love tunnel!”

Nuts, huh? No. What’s seen here as the perfect opportunity for ridicule is actually a fine example of ecological enlightenment. The new scientific discipline of conservation biology has vividly demonstrated that biologically diverse ecosystems have a better chance of surviving our assaults on them, and that biodiversity is being lost at alarming rates. The principal reason that species die off is human hegemony — we are degrading and fragmenting their habitat. Among other things, there are too many human-made barriers in the way when animals need to migrate, or to regenerate a population decimated by natural disturbances like fire or disease. Populations of species cut off from one another suffer a lack of genetic variation that severely reduces their viability over the long run. Creatures have always faced challenging natural barriers like rivers and mountain ranges, but add a zillion interstates featuring diesel trucks with flat raccoons on their bumpers and the balance is tipped.

A key, then, to conserving biodiverse life on earth is to make our human-built world more “permeable” for creatures that hop, lope, and crawl. A froggy love tunnel is a cheap means to save a species that may play a critical ecological function we do not yet appreciate, or perhaps contain the key to a medicine we have not discovered — better to play it safe and build that tunnel. Or maybe, like me, you just like frogs and think the world would be lonely without their rough music. In the West, we are already starting to provide landscaped bridges and tunnels across highways for deer because the alternative — hitting them — is dangerous and expensive. Removing barriers, then, is hardly a stupid story.

All the froggy love tunnels or deer overpasses in the world, however, won’t solve our most basic problems. Removing barriers is not enough. In the 1970s, an obscure discipline called “island biogeography” discovered that islands were the globe’s extinction hotspots and that, generally speaking, island populations do better the bigger the island is or the nearer it is to another island. The larger the populations of a species that an island can support, or the easier access is to other populations of the same species elsewhere, the better the chances that a healthy population can rescue a depleted one and the more genetic variation is available to draw on in times of stress. For North America, this means we have to take a second look at our system of national parks and designated wilderness areas. Cut off from each other, they function as “islands” on the mainland and most are too small or too isolated to assure the survival of many of the creatures they harbor over the long run. We like to think we are conserving bears and moose so our grandkids can see them. Whether their kids will be able to do the same, however, is in doubt.

A Country Raised by Wolves

Enter a wild idea — rewilding. In 1991, Michael Soule, a renowned professor of biology at UC Santa Cruz and the midwife of the new multi-disciplinary science of conservation biology, got together with Dave Foreman, the legendary activist who founded Earth First! to shake up a lethargic conservation community, and the Wildlands Project was born. Over the next decade, the Project translated conservation biology’s key concepts into land-use principles and designs. Ecological criteria for deciding what lands are crucial to set aside — like identifying “keystone” and “umbrella” species important to other species because they are “highly interactive” — were explained in ways that made them useful to local activists and advocates. Smaller numbers of big reserves, for example, were deemed more ecologically advantageous than larger numbers of small ones. Species in big, interconnected core reserves surrounded by buffered areas are more viable than those in cores that bump up against cities and suffer “edge effects” or those not linked to others. Add such empowering new ideas to a technological revolution that included satellite positioning devices and new mapping software that can show patterns of flora and fauna on conventional topographic maps, and the academic concepts of conservation biology got legs. Across the nation, its influence on land-use planning is now being felt — from land-trust meetings to university classrooms where a new generation of land-use managers is being trained.

Two things are becoming apparent. First, conservationists in the past have paid too little attention to ecological criteria. All too often, our national parks and wilderness areas were “conserved” for their appealing scenery or the recreational opportunities they offered. We got a lot of rock and ice as a result, but not much ecosystem integrity. We need to pay much more attention to landscapes and species that do not look great on those brochures used to raise money for environmental groups or to lure vacationers into “the wild,” but may play important ecological roles. Second we need to think of preservation and restoration on a much grander scale. Why? Because ecologically we are raised by wolves.

The “top-down” view of predators developed by conservation biologists stands in stark contrast to the old “bottom-up” model that said you could remove a big predator like the wolf from the food chain with minimal results. Until recently, being at the top of that food chain meant you were seen as expendable because your role was considered superfluous. We knew, for instance, that wolves were dependent on the relationships beneath them — eliminate forage and you got less prey and less prey naturally meant fewer wolves. But it didn’t work the other way around (or so we thought). Eliminate wolves and the forage and grazing prey would be largely unaffected.

The recent natural history of Yellowstone National Park, however, demonstrated just how limited that old model was. After wolves were exterminated within the park boundaries, Yellowstone filled with fat, lazy elk that hung out by streams and ate the aspen and willow seedlings down to their nubs. With no aspen and willow to eat, beavers disappeared and so stopped creating wetland habitats for myriad other species. Stream banks eroded and native fish couldn’t feed or breed in silted waters. When the tall grasses were chewed away by the elk, birds and small mammals lost nesting areas. They were also eaten up by smaller predators like foxes and coyotes that had no wolves to fear or to limit their own populations. Here was a vast and supposedly self-willed landscape that was slowly unraveling, all because we took out an evolutionary player and assumed it wouldn’t be missed. We were wrong and so in the last ten years, wolves have been successfully reintroduced into the parkscape.

The reintroduction of wolves to Western landscapes would have been unfathomable to our grandfathers — as unimaginable as those scenes of a rewilded future America are to us. Our complete misunderstanding of the role played by big carnivores in healthy ecosystems is only one of many mistakes that, thanks to conservation biology, now seem obvious to many of us.

To take an example, we built thousands of big dams across the globe, taming almost every river on the planet. Now we know that dams are great fun for someone with jet skis and are convenient for barges, but they destroy habitats and compromise whole ecosystems downstream. So we struggle to undo the damage. The same is true of wetlands: We spent a hundred years draining them without a second thought and now find ourselves having to spend vast sums to restore places like the Everglades. Conservation biologists are showing us the importance of all sorts of species we thought were ecologically insignificant to the integrity and health of the ecosystems that sustain our world. Hug that tree for dear life.

At the conceptual heart of rewilding is the notion that nature may not only be more complex and dynamic than we thought, but more complex and dynamic than we can think. Rewilding, rooted in humility and patience, signals that the era of hubris is over. We can dance with natural systems but not drive them. Once that lesson is learned, the era of piecemeal conservation as we’ve known it since the days of John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt will be over too, and a new era of wholesale restoration and reconnection will begin. Ecological restoration will not only save us, it will redefine us in ways we can hardly imagine today.

Sound like a pipedream or froggy love-tunnel madness? Look around. People across the nation are restoring habitats, removing dams, setting aside land, and planning to link reserves together. In the Southwest, the Sky Islands Alliance is puzzling together national parks, wilderness areas, ranch lands, state lands, and wildlife refuges across Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico in an attempt to reverse a century of fragmentation and degradation. If they are successful, someday we may again see jaguars and parrots within the boundaries of the United States. Farther north, a coalition of conservation organizations, land trusts, and government agencies is patching together wildlife corridors meant to extend from Yellowstone to the Yukon. In the East, citizens are working to create a map with protected wildlife linkages that will reach from New York’s Adirondack Mountains through Maine into Canadian Quebec.

Similar efforts are going on without much fanfare in hundreds of communities. People simply aren’t waiting for a new federal mandate — something like a National Biodiversity Protection Act — they’re just doing it. Like all cultural shifts, some get it and some still don’t. But, since the biodiverse services of nature are irreplaceable and non-negotiable, eventually we will all be on board or we will be desperately diminished. So, make way for the froggy love tunnel, coming soon to a habitat near you.

Chip Ward is the author of Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land, just published by Island Press/Shearwater Books, and of Canaries on the Rime: Living Downwind in the West. An activist who co-founded the grassroots organizations Families Against Incinerator Risk and HEAL Utah, he also sits on the board of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. He is the Assistant Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System.

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