The Wildlands Project: Bold Dream for America's Wildernesses

(Note: This Control Plan has been around a lot longer than eight years, and the mosaicing of land purchases - and easements -- has been around a lot longer. The naïve reporter makes it sound so innocuous and grand, but the scheme is truly a plan to control the world. Those driving this plan have just found a 'warm and fuzzy' sales pitch that has worked on much of the general public. Although the United Nations and World Bank remain unnamed, this project/agenda is being directed by them. Do a simple search at for 'Wildlands' plus 'IUCN' or 'global' and prepare to see a LOT of connections.)

September 13, 1999

By Deborah Schock, Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Times

Nature: Scientists committed to conservation envision stitching together wild areas from coast to coast to give animals room to roam. Critics call the plan extremist.

Idyllwild, California - The scientists came armed with special codes to open the twin gates of the San Jacinto Mountains reserve.

But a freak spring storm dumped snow high in the forests, leaving the steep road to the lodge rutted and slick. A coyote crisscrossed the road as some of the guests invited to an unorthodox brainstorming session fumbled with the cold, clunky combination locks.

For two days they huddled over maps of Southern California with colored markers. They painstakingly linked one wilderness fragment to another, struggling on paper to provide safe passage for coyotes, deer and mountain lions.

Their mission was both audacious and controversial: preserving what remains of the region's tattered wilderness. It was among the latest ventures overseen by the Wildlands Project, an 8-year-old group that some call the last best chance to save the American wild.

Others denounce it as anarchy in the name of environmentalism -- or wonder if its work is simply ivory tower dreaming.

The Tucson-based group is attempting to lay the groundwork for a system of wilderness areas clear across the North American continent. It hopes to eventually stitch together wilderness from coast to coast, from spruce fir to prairie to chaparral.

The April meeting at the UC Riverside James Reserve near Idyllwild, organized by the California Wilderness Coalition, drew several of the state's best-known conservation scientists -- from five University of California campuses, the Smithsonian Institution, The Nature Conservancy and other organizations.

Each had stepped outside the orthodox world of academic conferences in what they saw as an effort to fend off massive extinction and save the natural world to which they have devoted their careers. "Most of those people were in that room because their life is conservation in California," said biologist Kevin Crooks, who helped instigate the meeting. "If we don't do this now, within the next five, 10 years, much of it will be lost."

The scientific leader of the Wildlands Project is Michael Soule, considered by some the father of conservation biology. After decades in academe, he is devoting himself full time to the project. His unlikely cohort: David Foreman, best known in his former role as co-founder of the radical environmental group Earth First!. Together, the two have forged an unusual alliance between science and activism.

"More and more biologists are beginning to understand why physicists in the Second World War abandoned their universities and went to work on the Manhattan Project," Soule said. "It's just as serious -- more serious for nature than the Second World War was -- and, in the long run, it's more serious for humanity, too."

Invisible to most Americans, the Wildlands Project already is involved in conservation efforts from the Mexican border to Appalachia to Maine to Canada.

Among the 25 networks it envisions are plans that would link the wilderness of Yellowstone to the Yukon, the British Columbia rain forests to the Rockies.

Organizers believe that current wildlife preserves are too small and scattered to allow natural processes, such as the roaming of native animals. Studies have shown that such "land islands" can promote genetic inbreeding and speed up extinction.

So organizers want to create larger preserves linked by corridors and shielded by buffers.

They think in terms of 100 years, 200 years or more -- unlike local groups focused on saving one wetland or stopping one development.

They talk matter-of-factly of piecing together public lands and reserves with private land to be purchased from willing sellers or protected through conservation easements.

No land has yet been set aside, though leaders hope to release a series of plans early next year.

The group has remained intentionally low profile, only recently hiring a spokesman.

With eight staff members and a budget of $1.6 million, the Wildlands Project is supported by grants from environmentally minded companies and foundations.

Beyond simply setting aside land, the group also envisions "re-wilding" parts of the West by winning government approval to bring back major carnivores like mountain lions, wolves and grizzlies to maintain ecological checks and balances.

Biologist Crooks, who studied under Soule, scrutinized how the coyote's decreasing population altered developed areas of Orange and San Diego counties. His findings were described last month in the journal Nature in an article written with Soule.

They described how the loss of coyotes can lead to an increase in domestic cats, gray foxes, skunks, opossums and raccoons -- many of them predators of ground-nesting birds such as the rare California gnatcatcher.

Teaching Science and Wilderness

On a bookshelf in his suburban Albuquerque home, David Foreman keeps antique monkey wrenches that friends have given him over the years.

The symbolism is unmistakable for anyone familiar with the Earth First! reputation for "monkey-wrenching" development projects.

Foreman takes a guest on a brief tour along Interstate 40 as it climbs east, pointing out how the highway and burgeoning development could further block deer and mountain lions moving south from the Sandia Mountains.

"There's still connectivity here for the Sandias," Foreman said, "But if we don't do something now, it will become an island."

Foreman worked for the Wilderness Society in New Mexico and in Washington and then helped form Earth First!, which he left in the late 1980s.

"I'm not a scientist. I don't have the personality. I could never set up & do experiments. I'm a good synthesizer," Foreman said. He sums up his partnership with Soule like this: "He's taught me science. I've taught him wilderness."

Soule, a UC Santa Cruz professor emeritus, sparked the Wildlands Project with a letter to Foreman in 1991. "I respected him a great deal and felt he was the most visionary living conservationist," Soule said. "I said, 'What we're doing isn't working. We need to come up with a much more effective plan, strategy, to save nature.'

"So he wrote back and said, 'Funny you should mention it.' He'd been thinking along the same lines." In 1996 Soule left California for tiny Hotchkiss, Colorado, and a house overlooking mountain peaks and verdant meadows. Deer scamper across the road below, unfazed by the occasional pickup truck. Here, amid plenty, Soule writes about extinction. He has little patience for the Clinton administration's efforts to balance the Endangered Species Act with economic growth. "It's an administration that, though they favor the protection of nature, feel that the way to achieve it is by making everyone happy, by finding win-win situations," he said.

How the Wildlands Project accommodates humans -- or doesn't -- has become a lightning-rod issue for property rights advocates nationwide.

A group called Citizens with Common Sense launched an alternate Web site, claiming the project "advocates an extreme manifestation of environmental and public policy." And some critics question just how much damage humans really wreak on wildlife. "Animals thrive in some areas because ranchers and farmers provide food, water and protection," said Kathleen Benedetto of the National Wilderness Institute, a group that advocates private land stewardship.

"There's a lot of doubt whether we have real science or junk science," added Chuck Cushman, executive director of the American Land Rights Association.

Even some environmentalists wonder if the project is too focused on theory. Among them is Dan Silver of the Los Angeles-based Endangered Habitats League, who works to craft so-called "multiple species" habitat plans to save rare plants and animals.

"My basic view is that what [the project] is doing may be important, but it does not appear to be having an effect on the actual on-the-ground efforts like the multiple species plans, which is really the most crucial need at the moment," Silver said.

Some scientists agree.

"God knows, conservation biology needs idealists, and they've certainly got one in Michael," said Peter Brussard, a biology professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. "But we also need people ... who are willing to sit for ages at the table with developers."

Internal dissent surfaced this summer with a split between project leaders and executive director Steve Gatewood, who will leave this fall.

That triggered the resignation of board member Reed Noss, a well-known scientist who defends Gatewood as a level-headed administrator in a group dominated by visionaries.

For many supporters, however, that big-picture vision is what makes the Wildlands Project valuable. Dan Simberloff, professor of environmental studies at the University of Tennessee, has questioned some premises of the project but recently contributed to an anthology outlining its views.

"We have to act as if we can stop this horrible process of habitat degradation and extinction," he said. "If we act as if we can't do anything about it, then we're surely going to lose."

Connecting the Dots

More than two dozen regional efforts across North America are part of the Wildlands Project, a controversial movement to link wilderness areas with corridors to keep ecosystems in balance and protect animals against extinction.

Source: The Wildlands Project

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times


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