“Rewilding” our world to benefit both nature and humanity

In New York’s Adirondack Park, truly wild and inhabited spaces can coexist. Credit: Adam Baker.

Sarah Casson [left] is a Peter and Patricia Gruber Fellow in Global Justice at Yale Law School. She holds a MESc from the Yale School of Forestry and a BA from Grinnell College.

Nicole Wooten [right] is a Masters of Environmental Management student at the Yale School of Forestry, where she focuses on landscape-scale conservation. She holds BAs in Environmental Studies and English from the University of North Carolina.

Cities like Detroit, Indianapolis, and Wichita are moving toward an integration of people and wild nature. This process — “rewilding” — is what our world needs to create resilient communities with thriving economies and societies. Rewilding takes a developed, polluted, denuded, or otherwise unbalanced environment and restores it with balanced, functioning ecosystems. Creating closer connections to healthy nature is a solution to climate change that allows communities and local economies to thrive.

Rewilding our world requires integrating nature and humanity. Such integration relies on key wilderness values: biological intactness, sacred areas, traditional livelihoods, absence of commercial resources extraction, and access to simple solitude. These values also include respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and tribes who call wilderness areas home. Wilderness areas should be based on balanced, sustainably functioning ecosystems with no large-scale extraction.

Rewilding successes offer hope for wilderness-human coexistence

The Adirondack Park in New York State is a move toward rewilding our world: it is both a wild and inhabited space. Governments around the world seek to replicate its model of sustainably inhabited wild spaces. In the Adirondacks, nearly two million acres of wilderness and healthy wildlife populations coexist with human communities. A hundred small towns and tourism sites co-mingle with conservation easements — legally conserved private lands — and “forever wild” state lands. The public-private patchwork area contains six million acres in total, about half of which is in public ownership.

More public spaces now reflect the inseparability of people and nature, and the wildness of both.

Great strides were made in shifting this area from a denuded landscape of the late 1900s to its current state, which includes a large percentage of functional old growth forests. The area was once ignored and left for unregulated resource extraction. Today the Adirondack Park is the largest national park in the continental United States, three times as large as Yellowstone National Park. Following decades of conflict, multi-stakeholder processes like the Adirondack Common Ground Alliance and Adirondack Futures are now working to implement a shared vision of sustainable economies within a healthy forest ecosystem.

Algonquin Peak in New York’s Adirondack Park, which is considered a success story of wilderness and healthy wildlife populations coexist with human communities. Credit: Jeff P, flickr.

Tourism development, exurban sprawl, recreational use, climate change mitigation, and working forests are subjects of active discussion among diverse people and organizations there. The outcome of these deliberations and the continued success of sustainable rewilding in the Adirondacks have global implications.

Another example of rewilding, also from New York State the Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness. Only 60 miles east of the most densely inhabited place in the United States, Otis Pike is accessible by public transportation from downtown Manhattan. It is proof that not all wilderness access requires deep backcountry treks.

Cities offer opportunities to connect with nature in unique ways

Urban wilderness areas found in wild cities — cities that protect, restore and regenerate wild nature as the foundation for all other ecological, social, and economic improvements — are spreading worldwide. Some forward-thinkers have been planning for urban wilderness for decades. Boulder, Colorado, for instance, contains over 100,000 acres of open space wilderness lands. These spaces offer much more than beautiful running paths easily accessed: they offer a tangible connection to the wildness of nature. Areas like Rabbit Mountain Park provide Boulder residents with access to solitude, to golden eagles in the sky, and to bobcats in the forest.

New York’s Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness is an example of “rewilding” that conserves wildlands, offers access to recreation and helps buffer against some impacts of climate change. Credit: Diane Abell via Wilderness.net.

Cities require natural wildness for their residents. Urban wildernesses, like Otis Pike, don’t just give residents access to quiet recreation; they can actually shelter cities from the impacts of extreme weather. Healthy dunes at Otis Pike form protective barriers between ocean storms, like Hurricane Sandy, and the mainland. As climate change increases the frequency and intensity of storms, wilderness areas become essential to cities’ very survival. They enhance a city’s character too. We do not need to live in sterile urban environments washed clean of wildness.

Cities require natural wildness for their residents, both as a buffer against the effects of climate change and integral part of their character.

Vast, remote, ‘forever wild’ spaces have been and will always remain important. Those areas are critical to our planet’s survival and to our humanity. What will not remain, though, is the binary between remote, backcountry wilderness areas and urban areas that are devoid of nature. To help ourselves, we need to be advocates for this change. Fortunately, many leaders are doing just that. Our world is increasingly being designed to reflect the inseparability of people and nature, and the wildness of both.

Originally published at wilderness.org.

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