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Rescuing the Planet

Protecting Half the Land to Heal the Earth

Tony Hiss

“Everything is impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

Part 1: Protecting Earth’s Species

 

A surprising and genuine optimism about the Earth’s future emerges from the pages of Rescuing the Planet, by Tony Hiss, former staff writer for The New Yorker. Hiss finds this hope in otherwise ordinary people who are forging new protections for magnificent and vital expanses of wilderness. Often unaware of each other’s actions, these environmental protectors are bringing reality to the dream of “Half-Earth,” Hiss’s term for the ambition of renowned biologist Edward Wilson to protect half the Earth’s land and sea for nature by the year 2050.

Wilson understood that the extinction event now taking place might become as far-reaching as the one that killed the dinosaurs. He calculated that the only way to prevent this is to permanently protect half of our planet for nature by the year 2050 – in other words, “Half Earth.” When interviewing Wilson, Hiss wondered if achieving Half-Earth is even possible, and so he set out across North America to see for himself. Rescuing the Planet touches on the science of this conservation movement, but it focuses on the individuals who are making a true difference in saving our world.

“…the only way to prevent this [ongoing extinction] is to permanently protect half of our planet for nature by the year 2050 – in other words, ‘Half Earth.’”

The details of land conservation are complicated, and not only the economics and politics but the biology itself (see The Science of Half-Earth). Although Wilson’s goal is admittedly wildly ambitious, Hiss learns that “it is not only doable but is already being done.” The people getting it done are as varied as people can be, but they have in common a love for Earth and an understanding that our planet is not only our home but, in a sense, our family. Humans are a special kind of animal with an inborn empathy for other forms of life; Hiss and the people he portrays feel this acutely. This is a book especially for readers who share this intuition.

Such a sensibility is often attributed to indigenous people, and much of Rescuing the Earth is about indigenous people in Canada, the US, and Australia. Their stories are real-life, factual accounts of what indigenous people are accomplishing today by combining hard work, modern biology, and a reverence for tradition. In the words of Valerie Courtois, director of the Indigenous Leadership Initiative in Canada, “In the planning that gets taught in schools, first you mark off areas for industrial development, then you decide what to protect. But in the planning that gets taught by the land, we start out asking, ‘what needs to stay where it is for indigenous people to stay who they are.’”

“Although Wilson’s goal is admittedly wildly ambitious, Hiss learns that ‘it is not only doable but is already being done.’”

The history of indigenous people is a history of dispossession, but the “Half-Earth” vision does not mean that anyone has to move – quite the opposite. Canada and Australia in particular have returned large amounts of land to previously displaced native populations. Detailed studies have shown that lands managed by indigenous people in these programs have the same biodiversity as nearby areas protected by the government. So the fact that indigenous people live on (and potentially control) 25% of the world’s land offers significant first steps toward half-earth goals. This approach is essential in developed countries to reverse the pattern of famine and poverty that forces indigenous people into desperate actions that despoil their own land.

As the climate changes, plants and animals need unobstructed paths to migrate and adapt. With the warming climate, north-south corridors and passages to higher elevations will be needed to allow movement to cooler places. In many places, such as the American West, east-west pathways are needed to allow migration away from areas that will fall into permanent drought. But parks and wilderness preserves have been set aside in a disconnected, ad hoc way, often without careful thought given for the lifecycles of the local species. So part of Half-Earth is connecting the already preserved spaces.

“…studies have shown that lands managed by indigenous people in these programs have the same biodiversity as nearby areas protected by the government.”

There are a great many places in the developed world where natural spaces can be connected to create corridors for wildlife. Hiss tells of how in the U.S., a handful of enthusiasts are restoring the vast pine forests in the southeast, while others are creating a major expansion of the Appalachian Trail. In the west, people are forming a connecting link along the length of the Rockies into Canada. Each of these protected spaces were originally created through the efforts of just a few people, or even a single individual, motivated not to “save the Earth,” but by a personal connection with their own small part of it.

These small changes can add up to big benefits. Wildlife highways are often within sight and sound of actual human highways. The Trans-Canada Highway incorporates simple overpasses and tunnels for animals, paths that are camouflaged and off-limits to humans. Thirty thousand cars a day drive a stretch near Banff, but according to ecologist Tony Clevenger, “… for the animals it’s as if the cars aren’t even there.” Similarly, the Delmarva Oasis Plan to save the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay shorelines where Virginia, Delaware and Maryland come together demonstrates how enlightened planning can create space for wildlife even right next to high-density urban areas .

Even today large tracts of the natural world remain untouched by humans. The great forested areas, Siberia, the Amazon, and the boreal forests of North American comprise most of the world’s remaining wilderness. While development threatens Siberia and the Amazon and is largely unchecked there, the North American Boreal is still mostly virginal. These intact preserves illuminate what a nation needs to succeed in protecting its natural heritage: unprotected land still available for protection, a tradition of conservation, the ability to afford to leave wild space undeveloped, and the practice of operating by rule of law.

“To save nature and to save ourselves, we must reconnect nature to people’s daily life.”

So it is up to nations like Canada, Australia, and the United States to lead the way. At present the US has protected about 15% of its land and 12% of its marine areas. This amounts to 10% of the world’s protected land by a country covering 6% of the world’s surface. But it is not enough. Some smaller industrial countries already have higher percentage – Germans for example have placed about 50% of their land in protected status, but they have little left to protect. The Biden administration has announced that it intends to double the protected area in the US in this decade, a “30 by ‘30” program that marks an important milestone on the way to Half-Earth.

To save nature and to save ourselves, we must reconnect nature to people’s daily life. People have an innate attraction to other species. Some of the first words that children learn are the names of animals that most will never see. Everywhere – in the wild, near farms, around urban centers, and near small towns – the job is the same. Set aside what is still whole, repair what we can, reconnect pieces that have been cut apart. As Hiss concludes, “. . . we’re able to construct a new ability, a human protection pattern that can safeguard the biosphere and its species.” Including our own.


Protected Areas (from Protected Planet)

Watch: Coyote and Badger

Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) / Pathways for Wildlife
We know from scientific studies and Native American records that coyotes and badgers have been known to hunt together. But this is the first documentation (that we know of) where a coyote and badger use a human-made structure to travel together safely.

Watch: Connectivity Conservation

Center for Large Landscape Conservation
Learn how all of us can help avoid landscape fragmentation, where roads and other human activities divide habitat into isolated patches and make it difficult for wildlife to thrive.

Watch: Why Wildlife Corridors Matter

Center for Large Landscape Conservation
This video illustrates the importance of large landscape conservation—why connected natural areas are so critical—not only for wildlife, but for all of us.

Watch: Restoring Landscapes for Life

Cambridge Conservation Initiative
Several recent restoration projects on both land and sea provide cause for real optimism and demonstrate how we can make ecosystems more resilient and enable species to return to their natural habitats.

Watch: Working Lands, a Story of Bears and Ranching

Future West
This video illustrates how ranchers in the western U.S.A manage their land, including its wildlife, and see why working ranches are critical to habitat connectivity and wildlife preservation.

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