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A bold conservation vision calls for a return to the South’s once-vast longleaf pine forests. (Carlton Ward Jr. )

Can the World Really Set Aside Half of the Planet for Wildlife?

The eminent evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has an audacious vision for saving Earth from a cataclysmic extinction event

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Although, frankly, much of Nokuse is still scruffy. A longleaf reforestation turns out to look a lot like a construction zone, as Davis acknowledged while driving me over bumpy trails in a golf cart. “Well,” he said, “I tell people we’re in Year 13 of a 300-year program. I could easily make 1,000 acres look beautiful, but the extinction clock’s ticking, so I decided to take on the bigger challenge.”

At Nokuse, Davis and his crew of workers have thinned 22,000 acres of pulpwood pines and planted eight million longleaf seedlings. He’s brought flames back to the woods after a half-century absence, setting carefully controlled fires on about 10,000 acres every year. For the past 25 million years, a prominent feature of the weather in this coastal environment has been violent summer thunderstorms and strobelike lightning strikes. What grew here, uniquely, was a fire-and-rain forest, one that to stay healthy and keep its open glades, thirsts as much for scorching as it does for drenching (the one starts seeds germinating, the other lets them grow). Longleaf itself only thrives because it has evolved a slow, intricate fire dance that lets it evade being burned: An infant longleaf looks like a clump of ground-hugging grass, and it keeps that humble shape for up to 15 years before entering a “rocket stage” and growing four feet straight up in a single burst that takes it beyond a ground fire’s lethal reach.

Something’s going right at Nokuse—bears have reintroduced themselves, having ambled in from Eglin Air Force Base next door and then stuck around. Davis is planning to bring back red-cockaded woodpeckers, and, one starry night out on the guest-cottage porch, he also started talking to Wilson and me about finding a place for bison (the area’s last known woodland bison was shot just before the American Revolution).

“Oh, now you’ve got me dreaming,” Wilson said about the bison. “You’ve set my imagination on fire!”

So far, though, Davis’ proudest accomplishment has been an intense statewide recruitment for a seemingly uncharismatic creature, the foot-long gopher tortoise. Nokuse Plantation director Matt Aresco, a biologist with a PhD in turtle studies, has retrieved 3,500 otherwise doomed gopher tortoises from all over Florida. These “ecosystem engineers,” as one conservation biologist calls them, have the kind of transforming influence on their surroundings that beaver families do—although it’s unseen. Only two-thirds of a longleaf forest ecosystem is visible (trees and ground cover), with the rest underground, and 360 animal species take shelter in the 40-foot-long, 10-foot-deep burrows excavated by shy and dusty gopher tortoises. They retreat down these paths to where fires and hurricanes can’t penetrate, and where temperatures never sink below 55 degrees in winter or get above 80 in summer. The Florida mouse digs side tunnels, and a tiny, tiny ant lives on the eggs of a spider found only in these burrows.

The tortoises, guarantors and guardians of longleaf abundance, have suffered badly at the hands of both rich and poor: During the Depression, they were dug up and eaten (known back then as “Hoover chickens”). Now they’re buried and left there. The sandy soils they dig through are the same soils that developers build on, and gopher tortoises can’t dig up, only down, so to kill a gopher tortoise you only have to stop up the tunnel entrance.

In the luminous glow of intense orange Florida sunsets, Davis and Wilson would sit on the porch, planning. They pored over maps of nearby industrial timberland that if acquired and re-longleafed, could link Nokuse to the protected half-million-acres almost due east, thereby summoning a Long Landscape—more than 160 miles of continuous longleaf in a grand biodiversity corridor. Then there’d be room enough, Davis pointed out, for even the widest-ranging species, like red wolves and panthers.

Davis kindly offered Wilson and me a ride to Boston in his Cessna Citation jet, which had a black bear, the Nokuse logo, emblazoned on its tail. (He has since sold that aircraft.) Wilson, who is indefatigable, had suffered a slight stroke during our April 2013 visit, but he bounced out of the hospital two days later and by the following day was holding his hospital-issued walker over his head like a barbell. He has made a complete recovery, and this year, on our return visit to Nokuse, he spent a morning chasing butterflies. On the plane we talked about a park within the longleaf corridor in Mobile, a project that Wilson is working on with a horticulturist named Bill Finch, who, Wilson says, “is one of the two best naturalists in the world—and the other’s in Mozambique.” The Mobile Delta is a vast and diverse wilderness with over 300 species of birds. You’d think you’d returned to the early 19th century—it has been called “America’s Amazon.” But this would be an urban park, too, since the wild lands begin only 200 yards from the courthouse in downtown Mobile.

Looking out the window as we flew along the Appalachians, I told Wilson that I saw some Long Landscape parallels with the interstate highway system down below. A wilderness Appalachian corridor could run up and down the East Coast. The great, unbroken forests across all of northern Canada could be another. Together with the Western Wildway and a resurgent longleaf forest, this pattern would almost completely enclose the edges of the continent in a sequence of interlocking Long Landscapes bordered by the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. From sea to shining sea and then some. With, of course, additional and more inland routes to be added later, such as the sweeping grasslands of the Great Plains, which cover parts of ten states just east of the Rockies.

It all sounded within reach, from high in the air.

***

New England would seem to be a Half Earth slam dunk, a landscape on the upswing of a yo-yoing transformation. The region was 90 percent forested when the Pilgrims arrived, but almost 200 years later farmers chopped down all but 20 percent of the trees during a “sheep fever” that can in part be blamed on Napoleon and the first stirrings of globalization.

When Napoleon overran Portugal in 1810, a Vermonter carried off a herd of merino sheep, prized for their soft, premium-priced wool, which until then had been a monopoly of the Portuguese aristocracy. The 30-year wool craze that followed has been called “a mania as powerful as any religious fanaticism.” New England’s famous stone walls, rocks piled up by hand, like the Egyptian pyramids, and with more stones than the pyramids, are a remnant of that period. Then this vast series of sheep pens was abruptly abandoned as farmers and herders moved west.

The forests returned, though no one in the 21st century will see anything like those first forests’ practically sequoia-size Eastern white pines, trees that awed early settlers. Timbering is common in the newer woods, and even if left strictly alone, white pines need 400 years to tower over everything in sight. The “reforests,” if you can call them that, instill their own wonder, though. Self-seeded, they’ve spread again to cover 79 percent of New England, and a recent report refers to the entire six-state region as a “continental-scale habitat corridor.” If the pace of land conservation can be doubled, says this same clarion-call report, “Wildlands and Woodlands,” then 50 years from now New England can stay 70 percent forested forever. The area, it says, is something rare in the biosphere: a “second-chance landscape.”

Some of the conservationists who toured me around give this outcome no better than a 50-50 chance. Most of the land in New England is in private hands, with, in general, larger tracts up north and much smaller holdings as you move south (100-, 60-, or 20-acre lots). Which means that property maps of New England display a fragmented landscape rather than a reunified one. No one is proposing turning New England into a national park. What you can do, though, conservationists say, is ensure biodiversity on private property by paying landowners to protect present and future forests; in technical terms this is known as a “conservation easement.” Approaching thousands of individual landowners about this, one at a time, could defend and define natural corridors so they remain seamless for animals and plants, setting up formal connections between parcels that previously were in a legal sense merely adjacent.

Money is an obstacle—though easements cost less than outright land purchases—and another is finding the people to do the paperwork, which traditionally has been handled by small local groups called land trusts; they’re now amalgamating themselves into larger associations called RCPs, regional conservation partnerships, so as to take on bigger projects. Ed Wilson identified biophilia as the innate affinity for the rest of life within us all. How large a force field can biophilia exert within a second-chance landscape?

One of the most mind-opening aspects of the Half Earth quest is that it’s a reimagining of the possible, bringing into focus what had been a blur. I found one north-south wildlife corridor, about 200 miles in length, that couldn’t be called forgotten because it was never celebrated, although Thoreau wrote lovingly about one mountaintop, Monadnock, up near its northern end. On a satellite-generated nighttime map of New England, now that such things exist, this corridor pops out unmistakably. These maps show city lights as bright white smears separated by a fascinating absence and emptiness, the almost uninterrupted blackness of the “dark landscapes” in between—that dark is where the wild things are.

The column of dark land in the middle of southern New England has a band of light on one side, made by New York and the cities along the Connecticut River Valley, and a splash of white on the other, radiated by Boston and Providence. The dark land itself is a cascade of rolling, wooded hills that course down from the White Mountains through New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut on their way to the marshes along Long Island Sound. It’s a corridor that’s never had a name, except for a geological one, “eastern uplands.” Its hills are humbler than the Taconics and Berkshires to the west, so it has never attracted a school of painters or their wealth or cachet. But because of its intactness, this potential corridor—White Mountains to Whitecaps, it might be called, or W2W—is the single decisive interruption in what is now a 400-mile-long line of cities from Washington to Boston, the so-called Northeast Megaregion.

W2W derives much of its strength from an act of brute force. In the 1930s, Boston drowned four towns, evicted 2,500 people and moved 7,600 graves to create the Quabbin Reservoir, a huge, U-shaped lake in the center of Massachusetts. Further development was banned on 56,000 acres of woodland around the reservoir to keep its water pure. Moose, black bears and bald eagles, all long gone, returned. Anchored by this “accidental wilderness,” as it’s been called, three active RCPs lead off from the reservoir, two to the north, one to the south. The biggest is Q2C, the Quabbin-to-Cardigan Partnership, whose goal is to protect up to half of the two million acres between the reservoir and a mountain at the southern tip of the White Mountains.

Outstandingly and even improbably, W2W offers an older, slower sense of countryside that’s no longer common in the East; it’s a Truman-era setting, a seemingly endless landscape, where towns are like way stations or solitary boats bobbing on what an 18th-century geographer called “an ocean of woods.” Which is what you see today looking down from a small plane—a few towns, a few farms and the ceaseless woods. “There are hawks in my yard,” says Chris Wells, a Q2C coordinator who grew up in suburban New Jersey, studied planning in Manhattan and now lives in tiny Wilmot, New Hampshire. “Bobcats on the front lawn. Some nights you hear coyotes howl—I could be living in the African veld.”

Dan Donahue is director of land protection and stewardship at the Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary, which straddles the Massachusetts-Connecticut border not far south of Quabbin. The core of Norcross’ 8,000 acres has a remoteness to it, a hushed, back-of-beyond quality that encourages you to speak more quietly. The land was bought in the 1930s by Arthur D. Norcross, founder of the Norcross Greeting Card Company (still remembered for popularizing Valentine’s Day cards). His great interest was “rescue work,” relocating plants about to be destroyed—including, as he noted proudly, an entire colony of Hartford fern taken from a doomed Quabbin town just “before the bulldozer and the flame throwers did their work and the area was flooded.”

Donahue told me he sees W2W as a fire wall that can dramatically slow climate change. “Mr. Norcross saw this place as an ark,” Donahue said. “The truth is you can’t make an ark big enough to save species. But you can have arcs instead—arcs of land, like the one we’re standing right in the middle of. ”

***

In Montana’s Gallatin Valley one July afternoon, a pickup-truck prowl at the Flying D Ranch, near Bozeman, felt like an instantaneous return to an unrecoverable past, to the “seens of visionary inchantment” that Meriwether Lewis came across when he and William Clark made their way across Montana in 1805. Lewis recorded encountering—there was no spell check in the expedition’s equipment—“immence herds of Buffaloe, Elk, deer & Antelope feeding in one common and boundless pasture.” We were on the lookout for wolves; I was willing to settle for bison.

The 113,613-acre Flying D, up at the northwest corner of Greater Yellowstone, is a Ted Turner operation, and only a smidgen of the two million acres he owns in the United States and Argentina. The ranch has almost 2,000 elk and maybe 5,000 bison. Before the 1870s, it has been said, it would’ve been easier to count all the leaves in a forest than to count the bison. After 15 years of mass slaughter, though, there were only 325 bison left in the nation.

Like Nokuse in Florida, the Flying D is a large-scale, long-term experiment in ecosystem restoration. The premise, according to State Senator Mike Phillips (the pickup- truck driver), is that in ranch country, a wildlife refuge can pay for itself if it’s also run as a business. The big bison herd, which replaced a cattle operation, is largely raised for sale—bison burgers are available at all of Turner’s 45 Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants around the country. A few bull elk are hunted annually by high-end outfitters. Other species are welcomed, celebrated: mule deer, grizzlies, cougars, moose, pronghorn antelope, cutthroat trout, the occasional wolverine—nearly all the animals that were present before settlers arrived in Lewis and Clark’s wake. Wolves found their way to the D in 2002, seven years after being reintroduced to Yellowstone. The D’s wolf pack, called the Beartrap pack, is the largest in Greater Yellowstone—or was until a year ago, when it got so big it split into two separate groups.

Phillips, a biologist and a friend of Wilson’s, was elected to the Democratic minority in the Montana Senate two years ago. Since 1997 he has also served as the founding executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund (TESF), “the largest and most significant such family-funded initiative that we know of in the world,” he says. I ask him what the D will look like a hundred years from now. “Exactly like now,” he says with a laugh, “providing we get a good June rain.”

Ted Turner was making one of his many visits to the D that afternoon for a private meeting celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the ecosystem’s biggest advocacy group, and made a point of introducing himself. In jeans and a crisp sport shirt, he seemed quite chipper. “Here’s a piece of land,” he said, pointing from his back porch to the high, snowcapped peaks behind him, “that could’ve been a resort—28 minutes from the airport, or downtown, or a good Division II football game. But it’s perfectly placed as a beachhead for wildness. Seemed to me the choice was obvious, and it’s a good thing we stepped in when we did.”

He said the Flying D is the largest private property in Greater Yellowstone—a critically important part of this connected landscape. “It’s clear nowadays that to protect imperiled species we need to operate at enormous scales that make sense to nature but that transcend anything people have assembled,” he said. “And it’s just as clear that no country will ever have the money to buy up all the unprotected pieces. But it doesn’t all have to happen on public land, since private ranches like this one can promote ecological integrity. Private lands are working landscapes; they’re money-making businesses. And I think we’ve invented something entirely new here—call them ‘wild working landscapes’—where we make a profit and so does the planet.”

Large carnivores, Phillips says, are an excellent lens for looking at landscapes. Their movements and migrations define broad corridors that already exist physically. The unanswered question is whether we can develop “socially accepted corridors,” as he calls them, along these same routes, so that the people within this now-inhabited habitat can co-exist with the big creatures in their midst. “The GYC folk talk about moving from tolerance to acceptance to appreciation, though I usually substitute ‘admiration.’” It sounds like Wilson’s biophilia, in bite-size, time-released doses.

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