On November 15, 2022, I stood on a high ridge south of Tucson, AZ. I was on a field trip with the board and staff of Wildlands Network, a US-based non-profit organization dedicated to creating a continental movement to protect nature.
Far below us, flatbed trucks stirred up the dust as they carried shipping containers off into the distance. My heart sank as I watched dozens of containers being stacked, two high, along the border with Mexico. From my time on Wildlands Network’s Board, I knew that this barrier would block the movements of endangered local jaguars.
Although on federally protected land that is designated as critical habitat for the big cats, the Coronado National Memorial, nothing was being done to stop the illegal erection of a ‘border wall’ by the outgoing governor of Arizona, Doug Ducey. Other wildlife whose habitat is bisected by the illegal wall which, unlike the federal wall, has no gaps for wildlife movement, include javelina, white-tailed deer, black bear, and many other species. We were there to witness this event and to support Wildlands Network staff who were working to try to stop it.
Beginning in the 1960s, a new environmental movement arose that sounded the alarm about pollution, habitat destruction, and the threats facing native plant, animal, bird, and fish species. This movement built on the work of 19th and early 20th centuries to establish a system of national parks and protected areas in Canada, the US, and Mexico. As human understanding of biological systems grew, conservationists realized that protecting individual species or setting aside landscapes, no matter how large, would be insufficient to ensure the long-term survival of vulnerable wildlife populations. Rather, what was needed were networks of interconnected lands that were managed to ensure the ability of healthy populations to move between them.
Wildlands Network (originally called the Wildlands Project) emerged in the early 1990s in response to this understanding. Based on the science of conservation biology, Wildlands Network seeks to establish large, interconnected networks of protected lands in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Such a network will help to prevent biodiversity loss and promote climate change resilience while empowering communities across North America to safeguard their wild spaces. To help advance this ambitious goal, Wildlands Network focuses its efforts on three continental-scale landscapes that it calls ‘wildways’: the Pacific Wildway, stretching from the south coast of British Columbia to the Baja Peninsula; the Western Wildway, encompassing the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Alaska to northern Mexico; and the Eastern Wildway, extending from the Canadian Maritime provinces to Florida. Within these large geographies, Wildlands Network works with myriad public and private partners to create the conditions in which healthy wildlife populations can move and thrive.
Specific strategies pursued by the 30+ staff and volunteers of Wildlands Network include advocating for the protection of local ecosystems; advancing policies at the local, state, and national level to reduce threats or increase protection for wildlife; advocating for wildlife over- and under-passes to facilitate the safe movement across roads and protect human travelers; and working with local communities to pursue more sustainable economies.
Over its 30-year history, the Wildlands Network has led or contributed to numerous gains for conservation, including securing $350 million in the latest federal Transportation Bill to reduce wildlife vehicle collisions; promoting wildlife connectivity bills in 11 states; protecting 79,000 acres of forest in eastern North Carolina, defending the recovery program for critically endangered red wolves in the US Southeast; and undertaking original research to support wildlife overpass locations on several major highways. Wildlands Network has been the inspiration or incubator for several other large landscape efforts, including the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, the Western Landowners Alliance, and the Staying Connected Initiative in the Northern Appalachian Mountains.
As this blog was going to press, we received the news that Wildlands Network’s and allies’ efforts to stop and reverse the ‘container’ wall were successful!
Wildlands Network and Earthfire Institute share the same goals: to heal our planet and restore the balance between humans and nature. Earthfire’s work to help people reconnect with wild creatures is strengthening the web of supporters for the rewilding work being led by Wildlands Network. While each organization pursues its own mission and programs, they can support and reinforce each other’s efforts in a way that amplifies and expands what each can individually achieve.