A conservation network for the East: long in coming, now growing
For years, conservationists have envisioned a network of lands in Eastern North America connecting the Acadian forests of Maritime Canada to the Everglades in Florida. In the 1920s, Benton MacKaye envisioned an expansive Appalachian Trail composed of a network of “braided” trails running the length of the Appalachian spine. Maps of an eastern corridor drawn in the early 1990s captured the imaginations of a new generation of conservationists and influenced conservation planning at the state, provincial and regional levels for the next 15 years.
Since then, “landscape connectivity” – a connected system of conservation lands – has become widely recognized as essential for long-term ecological viability and wildlife survival. With this recognition has come renewed interest in creating a continental wildlife corridor from Québec to Florida, an "Eastern Wildway”, a reality. Learning from its extensive work in the Northern Appalachian Corridor, Wildlands Network is spearheading the effort to build this corridor - beginning with its recent TrekEast awareness campaign.
All along TrekEast, Wildlands Network's wilderness explorer John Davis, along with heroic conservationists, found many places richly deserving and urgently needing protection. Often, these efforts were in alliance with hikers, birdwatchers, hunters, foresters, farmers, ranchers, and other outdoor recreationists. Completing a huge list of eastern habitats in need of safekeeping is an important task for the conservation and recreation communities. In the meantime, Davis and his Wildlands Network colleagues have identified some places that stood out as particularly compelling. The identification of at least 16 key locations, known as the Essential 16, has created both the opportunity and the urgency to form a future continental-scale eastern wildlife corridor known as the Eastern Wildway.
This Eastern Wildway contains some of North America’s most beloved national parks, preserves, forests, scenic rivers and other wild places. From the wilderness of Québec, the Adirondacks, and the Shenandoah, to the wilds of the Great Smoky Mountains and Everglades National Park, this continental corridor traverses a wide array of eco-regions including: the Northern and Central Appalachians, the High Allegheny Plateau, the Southern Blue Ridge and Tropical Florida. Its mountains and valleys, forests and farmlands feature climates from arctic to tropical. The related species diversity in these regions is accordingly impressive and includes predators such as wolf, marten and cougar to prey such as moose, deer and groundhog. Many plants, birds, fish, and butterflies are endemic ( found nowhere else in the world) but particularly in the southeastern United States.
Now for some not-so-good-news (The Challenges Ahead): while advanced conservation planning, data analysis, and mapping have occurred throughout the Eastern Wildway, these efforts have not kept pace with the conservation challenges. The mountain ranges in the eastern U.S. are located so close to mega-population centers that development has come to places once thought remote. Montreal, Québec City, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Atlanta are all within a few hours drive of the center of this Wildway.
Complicating matters, as rural economies continue to stagnate, private landowners are selling off large land parcels. The economic reality is shifting as hundreds of pastoral agricultural and timberland holdings come on the market. Also, many people moving to the mountains are building second homes, retirement communities, etc., as well as the requisite infrastructure to get there, thereby destroying the very natural environments and solitude they seek.
Many wildlife species in the Eastern Wildway are in jeopardy, as roads and development, poor farming and logging practices, fire suppression, introduced invasive and/or exotic species, resource extraction and a lack of significant conservation land protections take their toll. Many keystone predators have also disappeared from the landscape. Populations of species such as bobcat and beaver have dwindled. Keystone predators such as wolf and cougar are all but gone -- challenged by diminished prey numbers, reduction of adequate habitat as well as by the court of public opinion when re-introduction programs are suggested. In the Southern Appalachians alone more than 190 aquatic species and 50 species of terrestrial plants and animals are formally listed as either endangered and/or threatened with extinction.
As concern about habitat fragmentation grew, and in proportion to increasing human population pressures, Wildlands Network Designs and other biodiversity conservation tools, such as eco-regional plans, were created. Still, no singular framework emerged to link these plans and these places to one another that would establish a system of interconnected lands—until now.
Now the good news: Wildlands Network is spearheading an initiative to connect habitats along the length of Eastern North America, from the Everglades of Florida, through the forests of Alabama, along the Appalachian Mountains, to the boreal forests and Maritime Provinces of Canada. This continental-scale wildlife corridor skirts around towns and communities while connecting working landscapes and private conservation lands to large public parks and preserves.
A plan to create this proposed 2,500-mile corridor, known as the Eastern Wildway, is being developed, along with the resources needed to implement the plan identified. Priority lands will be targeted; landscape linkages will be pinpointed; the corridor will be mapped in detail through a scientific process; and a coalition of regional partners working on the ground will be formed.
Much of our information gathering is now underway. Boundaries have been identified, many maps of existing conservation work have been collected and integrated into a geographic information system and dozens of organizations and scientists have been contacted and enlisted in the Eastern Wildway effort.
As part of this process, Wildlands Network is engaging a broader network of conservationists, including the top non-profit organizations and foundations concerned with maintaining the biodiversity in the proposed Eastern Wildway corridor. Considered too in the planning process are the related ramifications of climate change. This network works together to incorporate landscape connectivity into its program priorities.
Ultimately, it will take collective action at every level to bring this bold vision to fruition. From creating new conservation lands, reforming policies, and providing incentives for private land stewardship, to working with transportation agencies on wildlife bridges, incorporating smart growth into local plans, and passing new legislation to face contemporary challenges, each and every process will be considered for success. Ambitious? Absolutely. Necessary? No question! For more information on our Eastern Wildway Program, and our existing work in the Northern Appalachians, contact us at email@example.com.
"Although the Wildlands Project's (now Wildlands Network) call for restoring keystone species and connectivity was met, at first, with amusement, these goals have now been embraced broadly as the only realistic strategy for ending the extinction crisis."