“Battles are where the fun is,” said E.O. Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, “and where the most rapid advances are made.” We were sitting in oversized rocking chairs in a northwest Florida guest cottage with two deep porches and half-gallons of butter-pecan ice cream in the freezer, a Wilson favorite. He’d invited me here to look at what he considers a new approach to conservation, a new ecological Grail that, naturally, won’t happen without a fight.
Wilson, 85, is the author of more than 25 books, many of which have changed scientific understanding of human nature and of how the living part of the planet is put together.
Known as the father of sociobiology, he is also hailed as the pre-eminent champion of biodiversity: Wilson coined the word “biophilia” to suggest that people have an innate affinity for other species, and his now widely accepted “theory of island biogeography” explains why national parks and all confined landscapes inevitably lose species. He grew up in and around Mobile, Alabama, and has been at Harvard for over 60 years but still calls himself “a Southern boy who came north to earn a living.” He is courtly, twinkly, soft-spoken, has a shock of unruly white hair, and is slightly stooped from bending over to look at small things all his life—he’s the world’s leading authority on ants. Wilson has earned more than a hundred scientific awards and other honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes. And perhaps his most urgent project is a quest to refute conservation skeptics who think there isn’t enough left of the natural world to be worth saving.
Throughout the 544 million or so years since hard-shelled animals first appeared, there has been a slow increase in the number of plants and animals on the planet, despite five mass extinction events. The high point of biodiversity likely coincided with the moment modern humans left Africa and spread out across the globe 60,000 years ago. As people arrived, other species faltered and vanished, slowly at first and now with such acceleration that Wilson talks of a coming “biological holocaust,” the sixth mass extinction event, the only one caused not by some cataclysm but by a single species—us.
Wilson recently calculated that the only way humanity could stave off a mass extinction crisis, as devastating as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would be to set aside half the planet as permanently protected areas for the ten million other species. “Half Earth,” in other words, as I began calling it—half for us, half for them. A version of this idea has been in circulation among conservationists for some time.
“It’s been in my mind for years,” Wilson told me, “that people haven’t been thinking big enough—even conservationists. Half Earth is the goal, but it’s how we get there, and whether we can come up with a system of wild landscapes we can hang onto. I see a chain of uninterrupted corridors forming, with twists and turns, some of them opening up to become wide enough to accommodate national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.”
I had also begun to think about such wildland chains as “Long Landscapes,” and Wilson said he liked the idea that they could meet climate change head on: Those that run north-south, like the initiative in the West known as Yellowstone-to-Yukon, can let life move north as things warm up, and those that run east-west may have the benefit of letting life move east, away from the west, which in the future may not see as much rain. “Why, when this thing gets really going,” Wilson said, “you’ll be so surrounded, so enveloped by connected corridors that you’ll almost never not be in a national park, or at any rate in a landscape that leads to a national park.”
Is this Half Earth vision even possible, I wondered, and what might it look like? The question would send me across the States, to a bison ranch in Montana and to emerging wildlife corridors in New England, but according to Wilson, the pathway to a planet permanently half-protected—something he thinks we could accomplish in half a century—begins right beyond our cottage near the town of Freeport, Florida, in a forest being created by M.C. Davis, a multimillionaire who grew up in a Panhandle trailer and as a young man raised his first stake playing poker.
Like Wilson, M.C. Davis is a tireless, elaborately courteous Southern charmer. But Wilson himself is quick to point out a difference: “I only write about saving biodiversity. He’s actually doing it.”
Davis’ idea has been to revive the “Piney Woods,” the signature ecosystem of the American Southeast. The longleaf pine forest once covered 90 million acres, or about 60 percent of the land, in a virtually continuous 1,200-mile stretch across nine states from Virginia to East Texas. That forest has been reduced by 97 percent, and there are about three million acres of it left. That’s more catastrophic than what has happened to coral reefs (10 percent to 20 percent destroyed) or the Amazon rainforest (more than 20 percent). The longleaf pine forest’s “Big Cut,” as it’s still known, began after the Civil War and left behind what commentators referred to as “a sea of stumps.” Much of the land has since been reforested, but de-longleafed, and is now planted with row after row of faster-growing pines raised for pulpwood.
Davis, a commodities trader in timber and oil and gas rights, who grew up 65 miles west of his forest, is jovial, folksy, forceful, slightly rumpled-looking, unassuming (“I’m a dirt-road, Panhandle guy”). But for the past decade he has been spending half a million dollars a year planting longleaf pine trees and another half million on other parts of a longleaf forest.
Davis remembers his awakening. He got stuck in a big pileup on I-4 near Tampa, saw a high-school marquee with the sign “Black Bear Seminar” and walked in the door: “There was an old drunk, and a politician who’d thought there’d be a crowd, and a couple of Canadians looking for day-old doughnuts and coffee—and, up on the stage, two women talking about saving black bears. They were riveting. The next day I gave those ladies enough money to keep going for another two years, which I think scared them, it was so out of the blue. Then I asked them for a 100-book environmental reading list for me, for my education. I spent a year reading Thoreau, John Muir, Ed Wilson. Then I started buying up land to see what I could do.”
If you were going to save Florida black bears, it was clear from the start, you’d have to save longleaf forests, their preferred habitat. An adult male black bear roams across perhaps a hundred square miles of land. North Florida already had some good-sized clusters of publicly owned longleaf—national forests, state forests, wildlife management areas and, in the western Panhandle, Eglin Air Force Base, a huge facility that back before World War II had itself been a national forest. If you could add in enough territory to put these pieces together, they’d amount to something greater than just a “postage stamp” of the natural world, as conservationists had started calling the national parks. The problem was that 70 miles separated the first two protected longleaf forests—and it was another 95 miles to the third.
As he dug deeper, Davis realized that the coastal Southeast is a “hyperdiverse” biological hotspot with up to 60 different species in a single square yard—though you might not think so when you see it, since a mature longleaf forest looks clipped and kempt, more like a big city park. Without any human intervention, here is a forest with tall, straight trees that are rather widely spaced, plenty of sunlight and lots of open, grassy meadows. Longleaf branches out only after it’s high overhead, where glistening needles up to two-and-a-half-feet long are arrayed in pomponlike sprays. Below the branches is empty space a hawk can glide through.
Davis’ plan was to buy up and re-longleaf the “in-between” open space east of Eglin and west of a protected river corridor. The available land was close to people, just a few miles inland from the sugar-white sands and high-rise condos of Gulf Coast beach towns. These tourist-driven communities used to be known as the Redneck Riviera, featuring attractions like the Snake-a-Torium, but more recently have been marketing themselves as the Emerald Coast (with slightly confusing slogans like “White Sand, White Wine, White Necks”). There was nothing, however, even remotely upscale about the land Davis had his eye on. It was dismal-looking rather than dazzling, a series of abandoned peanut farms and unproductive pulpwood forests with low asking prices.
Davis’ approach—“M.C.’s folly,” conservationists called it, because it seemed too ambitious—was something that emerged from Wilson’s mid-1960s demonstration that islands of habitat lose species over time. “Ed set the course,” Davis told me, “by showing us that doing something huge is our only hope. We’re all marching under his umbrella, and he’s so inspirational he makes people like me take action.”
Davis bought 51,000 acres of degraded farms and forests, a swath of land up to five miles wide that included barely 1,500 acres of longleaf pine in scattered patches. Basically, he’d be starting from scratch, and would be “rewilding” his property. Davis named his bedraggled purchase Nokuse Plantation. Pronounced “No-GO-see,” Nokuse means “bear” in the language of the Muskogee people who once lived there, but their written alphabet doesn’t have a hard “G.” Nokuse is the biggest private preserve and the biggest restoration project east of the Mississippi.
To honor Wilson, Davis built the dazzling, $12 million E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center at one edge of Nokuse, where thousands of fourth through seventh graders from six counties get free classes that let them hold real baby gopher tortoises and clamber and pose for pictures on a giant ant sculpture.
Wilson regards Nokuse as part of “the final stage of conservation.” Back in 1871, the United States electrified the world by inventing the national park, setting aside 2.2 million acres, an area larger than Delaware, to create Yellowstone National Park as a public “pleasuring ground.” (The world now has 5,000 national parks among its 200,000 protected areas.) Half a century ago, the vision expanded. Fifty years ago this month, President Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, which for the first time permanently protected land for its own sake, establishing a National Wilderness Preservation System of areas where “the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man is only a visitor who does not remain.” This was hailed as securing the “freedom of the wilderness”; Wilson would call it “the conservation of eternity.” The 9.1 million acres of American wilderness protected in 1964 have since grown to 109.5 million acres (4 percent of the country), thanks to citizen groups working on behalf of the rest of life.
The new challenge, as Wilson sees it, is to link up national parks and wilderness reserves and restored landscapes to “protect in perpetuity entire faunas and floras.” He has high praise for several such projects out West—especially the Yellowstone-to-Yukon initiative to join vast areas of the U.S. and Canada, and the even more extensive Western Wildway vision, a tri-national arc of land along the length of the Rockies from Mexico to Alaska sponsored by the Wildlands Network, a consortium of biologists and activists headquartered in Seattle.
In early sketches of some proposed “cores and corridors” systems, the connecting corridors look thin and spindly, like brain cells yoked together by the wiring of narrow, protruding axons. Even the word “corridor” sounds restrictive and unwelcoming, conjuring up images of school and hospital hallways, non-places for hurrying along or skulking through on the way to where you’re really going. Davis’ new longleaf corridor had to be more than just a pass-through place. In a hotspot where so many species are so densely crowded together, each rewilded acre had to be a stopping place, as well—a haven and a highway.