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Return to Eden

The man behind the Wildlands Project defends his plans.
By Tim Findley, Range Magazine fall 2003 edition

One man’s fantasy may be another man’s nightmare. In the sparks shooting up from a campfire and floating in red and amber dots against a black sky is primitive imagination born. Some of it is about the future and adventure yet to be had, but more of it calls to mind something primeval and nearly forgotten, crackling against infinity.

By one account at least it is said to have been in such a setting in Arizona in the early 1980s when David Foreman expressed his Wildlands vision, for emphasis spinning into the air a freshly emptied tequila bottle that witnesses swear was never heard to fall back to earth.

It is a tale no less believable than the relentless project Foreman set in motion that is spinning still on the political horizon, more apparent and even more incredible than any campfire yarn. It would revert as much as 50 percent of the continental United States to a pre-Columbian condition, absent of roads and towns, dominated in their realm by predators such as grizzly bears and wolves that would be free to roam in wide corridors from the Yukon to the Yucatán. What few human beings who might find their way into its depth would be intruders, and the least capable of all species at surviving in the savage preserve.

Spinning and spinning, the dream still sends no sound of dropping back to reality. In fact, at least two measures introduced in Congress, and scores of other smaller federal and nonprofit acquisitions have already begun to create a map of the unbelievable, drawing a huge portion of the world’s most successful civilization slowly back into at least the 15th century.

Foreman, the founder of Earth First! and the self-identified eco-terrorist for his "monkey wrench" tactics of spiking harvestable trees and threatening other uses of "public" land, could himself be relegated to credibility only among the young extremists who dote on his renegade image. But it was not the blustering, bottle-pitching Foreman who really defined the unimaginable to the susceptible power brokers capable of making it happen. It was Reed Noss.

With a Ph.D. in wildlife and range sciences from the University of Florida, 50-year-old Noss carries a résumé thick as a country phone book, full of publications and academic honors, faculty positions and references from many of the most prominent research facilities and recognized scientists in the United States. If not near the pinnacle of his profession as a conservation biologist, he is watched as a still-young "comer" from his position at the University of Central Florida and his increasingly high-profile role as chief scientist and cofounder of the Wildlands Project.

Not so nearly inclined as Foreman to be tossing tequila bottles at campfires, he nevertheless projects a young and enthusiastic presence in his speeches propounding the "re-wilding" of America. Evidently fit, slim, and eager to coach his students, to this reporter at least, he seems to bear a curious resemblance to "gonzo" writer Hunter Thompson. No one else, he said, has ever made that comparison.

We at Range don’t mean to imply such a mad-genius image. Noss is a serious, recognized scientist. He agreed to answer a series of questions conveyed to him by e-mail about the Wildlands Project and its intentions. We agreed to publish those questions and answers without editing or internal comment.

Believe it or not, however, the Wildlands Project is a fully staffed and funded organization based in Washington, D.C., that works interactively with other environmental organizations.

"Human activity is undoing creation," says the official mission statement of the Project. Its adherents believe there is underway now a "sixth major extinction event to occur since the first large organisms appeared on earth a half-billion years ago." The only way to halt that "extinction event," the statement suggests, is to dramatically limit human activity.

"We seek partnerships with grassroots and national conservation organizations, government agencies, indigenous peoples, private landowners, and with naturalists, scientists and conservationists across the continent to create networks of wildlands from Central America to Alaska and from Nova Scotia to California."

Dr. Noss does not regard this as a fantasy or a nightmare. We suggest you judge for yourself.

Reed Noss discusses the Wildlands Project.

Range: Let’s start with the most difficult aspect of the Wildlands Project. Even a cursory look at the ambitions of the plan suggests that thousands of people, including whole communities in the West, would have to be relocated to accommodate these corridors and cores. How do you think you could accomplish that?

NOSS: The most difficult aspect of the Wildlands Project, Tim, is that there are unethical people out there perpetrating ridiculous lies in an attempt to discredit us. The Wildlands Project has never proposed relocating people to accommodate our reserve designs. This has never been part of our plans. Nevertheless, certain folks in the Wise Use Movement have fabricated maps, attributed them to us, and circulated them to rural newspapers, websites, and so on, apparently intending to frighten local people and turn them against conservation. There is even a phony web page posing as the Wildlands Project and making us look 100 times more radical than we ever dreamed of being. After we took legal action, that site can no longer claim to be the official website for the Wildlands Project.

Our proposals for wildlands network designs in the West are focused on public lands. For areas of identified high conservation value within these lands, we recommend increased protection (i.e., wilderness status or equivalent). Those relatively few private lands identified as core areas are lands belonging to The Nature Conservancy, land trusts, conservation-minded ranchers, and other folks who voluntarily manage their lands for conservation. Any other private lands that show up in our designs are labeled "areas of high biological significance," "compatible-use lands," "conservation opportunity areas," or whatever, and are areas where acquisition, easements, or management agreements would be pursued with willing landowners only. The Wildlands Project is no different from other conservation organizations these days, public or private, in the conservation tools we employ or propose. I say "propose" because the Wildlands Project works mostly with local groups, land trusts, etc., to implement our plans. We don’t have the money or the political power to do it all ourselves. We differ from many other groups in the particularly high value we place on wildness.

Range: "Peer review," as you say, supports the necessity of this habitat restoration in order to head off what Michael Soulé says is the impending "sixth major extinction." Yet your emphasis is on wolves and grizzly bears, neither of which appear to be endangered as a species. Why do you believe it is necessary to extend their domain at the price of human civilization?

NOSS: Actually, although we emphasize carnivores (and not just wolves and grizzly bears) in our literature, our wildlands network designs are based on multiple biodiversity conservation goals. Our plans attempt to accomplish four major objectives: (1) represent all native ecosystems across their natural range of variation in protected areas; (2) maintain viable populations of all native species; (3) sustain ecological and evolutionary processes within a natural range of variability; and (4) build a conservationnetwork that is adaptable and resilient to environmental change. These goals are very well accepted within the conservation and scientific communities.


Like blobs of melting ice cream, the areas targeted by the Wildlands Project seem to slowly expand and run together to cover ever more land. Why not the center of the country? Dr. Noss says states such as Iowa and Illinois have too little natural habitat left, so "we have to set the standards lower." This map no longer appears on the Wildlands Project website.

We place special emphasis on carnivores and other demanding and ecologically important species for several reasons. First, if you want to maintain all native species in a region, you need to give extra attention to those that are most sensitive to human activities. Otherwise, they’ll be lost. At a regional scale of planning, carnivores make excellent focal species because they are sensitive to the area and configuration of habitats. They are also vulnerable to persecution by people. Second, scientific research (and yes, "peer reviewed") has demonstrated that in many cases carnivores function as keystone species, which control the abundance of their prey and contribute to the diversity of the ecosystem as a whole. Third, carnivores are emblematic of wildness, something that is spiritually and aesthetically important to many people, but which is lacking in so much of the modern world. However, it is incorrect to suggest that the survival of carnivores is incompatible with human civilization. Humans have lived with carnivores for millions of years. In some places, however (in particular, most of the conterminous 48 states), we have hunted them to regional extinction. I, for one, think that is morally wrong. These creatures have as much right to be here as we do.

Range: You have said that these wilderness corridors and core areas would encompass 50 percent of the continental United States, primarily west of the 100th meridian. Doesn’t this suggest a cultural bias?

NOSS: Fifty percent is an estimate I made years ago of the proportion of an average region that would need to be managed for conservation in order to meet well-accepted conservation goals. The question "how much is enough?" should be answered empirically rather than dogmatically. If we consider empirical research on this question, it turns out I was pretty much on the mark with my 50 percent hypothesis. Studies done by researchers in North America, Australia, Africa, and elsewhere have found that’s about what it takes. Most of the estimates fall in the range of 25 to 75 percent. It takes more land in some regions than in others to meet the same goals, because regions differ in their biogeography. For example, regions with high endemism (that is, many narrowly distributed species), such as much of California, require more area to meet the goal of representing populations of all species in a reserve network than a region with more widely distributed species, such as the northern Rockies. And, of course, states such as Iowa and Illinois have so little natural habitat left (only around 2 to 3 percent) that opportunities for meeting conservation goals are limited without extensive habitat restoration. We have to set the standards lower.

The Wildlands Project, however, does not restrict its vision to areas west of the 100th meridian. We and other conservationists have ambitious plans for the East as well. For example, state government agencies in Florida and New Jersey, of all places, are attempting to protect a third or more of their land in conservation areas. That’s much more than most western states that have much more public land.

Range: Such a radical proposal attached to the "shock value" tactics of David Foreman and Earth First! might be put aside as fantasy, but you place substantial scientific credentials of your own in conjunction with what many regard as the demagogic terrorist methods of Foreman. Are you comfortable with that?

NOSS: Well, Tim, the Dave Foreman of the 1980s Earth First! days was a bit different from the Dave Foreman of today. Isn’t that true of anyone? His conservation goals remain basically the same (I generally agreed with him then and I agree with him now), but his tactics have changed. Curiously, Dave’s a lifelong Republican. He’s hardly a terrorist, and I resent your use of that word. Save the terrorist word for murderers like Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh.

I came into the conservation movement as a naturalist, one who studies nature. I saw the beautiful woods I played in as a kid in southern Ohio destroyed by developers. I went to college to become a biologist, hoping to apply my skills to the conservation of nature. Today we call this field conservation biology, which I define as science in the service of conservation. Conservation biology is mission oriented, as are medical science, range science, engineering, and other applied sciences. We are interested in solving problems, not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Many prominent conservation biologists and other scholars have served on the board of the Wildlands Project, and many more (at least thousands, I would guess) are very comfortable with our approach. Indeed, one reason we founded the Wildlands Project was to forge a link between activists and scientists interested in large-scale conservation.

Range: Clearly the acquisitions of public and private lands appropriate to the Wildlands plan is ongoing by funded conservation trusts led by The Nature Conservancy. Is TNC in part clearing the way for such connectivity and what you call "linkages" in the West?

NOSS: TNC has their own ecoregional plans; they don’t follow ours. However, it is true that over the last few years, TNC’s planning has taken on a regional focus much like ours, and they use many of the same scientific methods. I think it’s clear that the Wildlands Project has had a significant influence on TNC and other major conservation groups. In addition, research in conservation biology has demonstrated that a collection of small, isolated reserves (TNC’s old approach) just doesn’t cut it in the long term—you need large, interconnected networks of protected areas. Small, disconnected reserves lose native species rapidly over time, are invaded by alien weeds, and are more difficult and expensive to manage. Most private land trusts, on the other hand, have shown little interest in biology—they’ve been more interested in protecting "open space." But that’s beginning to change as these organizations get better educated staffs.

Range: As you have observed in speeches, the primary danger today even to such major predators as wolves and grizzly bears is not hunting, but roadkills. Are you suggesting in this project that even transcontinental highways be altered in some way or closed to accommodate the corridors?

NOSS: In some regions, even surprising places such as the central Canadian Rockies, direct roadkill is the largest documented source of mortality for large carnivores. However, in many other places, human persecution (legal or illegal hunting) remains the major cause of death. But here, too, roads figure prominently in the problem, because they provide access to people with guns. The higher the density of roads, the lower the probability that wolves, bears, and other animals can survive. This has been documented worldwide.

Regarding major highways, we are not so impractical to suggest they be closed. However, we do recommend underpasses, land bridges, and other wildlife crossings be constructed at strategic locations—places where animals regularly get struck—to protect wildlife as they move across the landscape. New highways should be built only if they take the movement needs of wildlife into account. Wildlife crossings have been built in several states, for example Colorado, California, and Florida, as well as extensively in Europe. Yes, it’s costly, but not close to the cost of building the road in the first place. Ironically, in some cases building a new road can be a good thing. Near where I live in Florida, the state is proposing to build a new limited-access highway that will be elevated for seven miles to protect black bears, other wildlife, and sensitive wetlands. The new highway will replace a busy two-lane road that is responsible for most of the black bear roadkills in the state.

Range: Do you not agree that the economic impact of such a project would be disastrous to the western United States and even to the nation as a whole?

NOSS: Absolutely not. The cost would be trivial compared to many things our society spends big money on (for example, welfare, missiles, and highways). In many cases wilderness preservation enhances local economies by stimulating tourism and business investments and relocations. This has been demonstrated convincingly by Professor Tom Power at the University of Montana, among others. Reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone has given the local economy a shot in the arm. The state of Florida has been spending more than $300 million per year for nearly two decades buying land for conservation, so that the state will remain attractive to tourists and businesses.

Range: Assuming such a plan is implemented, who would administer and manage it? The government? Or a nongovernment agency? Who should have police powers in controlling use?

NOSS: We’re not talking about any kind of centralized administration and management of wildlands networks. Despite the claims of the wise-use alarmists on the internet, we are in no way aligned with the United Nations and their fictitious black helicopters. To the extent that new wilderness areas, national parks, national wildlife refuges, etc., are added to the system, they would be managed by the federal agencies in charge, as they are today. Other lands would be managed by land trusts, other private organizations, or by the same willing landowners (ranchers, farmers, and others) who manage them today. But we think there should be added incentives, such as big tax breaks, for managing land in a way friendly to nature. There would be no "police power" other than the law enforcement system already in place.

Range: Did you once say that westerners are part of the "slothful and ignorant populace" who disagree with you? Do you not recognize the elitism contained in the proposal itself?

NOSS: I don’t remember saying that, but if I did I would have been joking. I wouldn’t use the word "slothful" in a derogatory sense, because I like sloths. On the other hand, I do believe that ecological ignorance on the part of the public is one of our greatest problems. Most people, particularly in the cities, don’t have a clue how nature operates. However, this problem is hardly unique to the West. In fact, studies have shown that easterners are more ignorant about wildlife, on average, than westerners. As for elitism, if it is elitist to place a high value on ecological education and on compassion for the land and living things, then yes, I’m an elitist. But I certainly don’t hold any special grudges against westerners. I’ve spent most of my professional career in the West and the South, where I feel more comfortable than with uptight easterners.

Range: What if you’re wrong? None of us may live long enough to know, but what if species are more adaptable than you seem to think? What if the growing general acceptance of ecological relationships assures a natural balance in the future better than any imposed plan could do? And what, conversely, if such enforced intervention as the Wildlands Project leads to ultimately dire consequences on social freedom: do you care about that?

NOSS: I do care. The proposals of the Wildlands Project are science based. But even the best science (which we strive for) carries a moderate-to-high level of uncertainty. Sure enough, some research suggests that particular species are more adaptable to human activities than we once thought.

The pileated woodpecker, for example, declined with forest fragmentation across much of the country, but now seems to be doing fairly well in fragmented landscapes, as long as enough big trees are around for foraging and nesting. It adapted. However, probably more species are turning out to be more sensitive to human landscape modification than we thought, but we won’t know for sure unless we monitor their populations across many generations. In the face of such uncertainty, scientists recommend following the precautionary principle, where we try to pursue policies and management practices that pose the least risk to nature and human society. Sometimes there are conflicts, of course, and trade-offs must be made. The available evidence suggests that the extinction crisis is our greatest global problem. Therefore, in the face of uncertainty I would risk erring on the side of protecting too much land rather than too little.

Although this may conflict with economic development in some cases, it need not conflict with personal liberties. Big corporations pose a much greater threat to liberty than conservationists. Like many in the Wildlands Project, I consider myself a conservative—an old-style, Teddy Roosevelt-kind of conservative. I’m libertarian in many of my views, especially with respect to personal behavior. For example, it’s my own damn business whether or not I wear a seat belt. But given the high level of selfishness that humans display, we need policies and laws to protect nature, just like we need laws to protect human life and dignity from the depredations of other humans.

Range: Certainly as an optional question for you, but one still most troubling for many: statements by Foreman and others have suggested that returning so much area to a pre-Columbian state can only be accomplished by some form of population control, bluntly eliminating some portion of human existence. This is a chilling statement with obvious derivations. Can you comment on it?

NOSS: I don’t think the implications are so obvious, Tim. Globally, human population growth is the biggest threat to nature and to human liberty and peace. Second in importance is the growing rate of per capita resource consumption. What kind of world do we want to live in? A world with swarming people pressed shoulder to shoulder or a world with wide open spaces and clean air to breathe? Population control need not require draconian measures—in fact, I would oppose such measures. Rather, it’s a matter of providing incentives and disincentives. Rather than giving people tax breaks for every additional child they have—which we do now and President Bush wants to increase—I would favor tax breaks for those couples with two or fewer children and tax penalties for those with three or more. I think such a tax policy, combined with strict limits on immigration, would take care of our population problem in the United States. Likewise, destructive technologies (for instance, those wasteful of fossil fuels) should be taxed heavily and sustainable technologies, such as solar and wind energy, should be promoted. "Conservative" and "conservation" spring from the same root, and it’s about time today’s so-called conservatives figured that out.

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