Monday, January 30, 2012

Optimist or pessimist? by Moderator Scott Weidensaul

As I mentioned in my first post, the consensus among my friends and colleagues when I set out to retrace Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher's original Wild America trip was that, all in all, it would be a pretty grim experience.

Looking for the beating heart of wild North America after half a century of burgeoning human population, eroding habitat and species loss, everyone agreed, would be a depressing exercise. And I have to admit, I thought so myself.

Gray wolf, Denali National Park, AK (©Scott Weidensaul)
And there were many times when that sober prediction was made real – the sprawl that had gobbled up so much of my native East, the insidious effects of environmental toxins like estrogen mimics – even situations that would be comic were they not so tragic, like the collapse of sea otter populations because of a cat parasite carried into waterways by flushable kitty-litter.

But to my surprise, I came away from my own travels feeling more energized than I had been in years – yes, there was bad news, but it was largely eclipsed by all the good things that we'd accomplished. I found a deeper understanding of what enormous environmental hurdles we'd overcome in the past decades, and returned with a recharged confidence in our ability to effect great change.

Return to Wild America was published in 2005, in the midst of an administration overtly hostile to many environmental causes – "a fire-sale mentality at the federal level, a damn-the-environment attitude on a scale we haven't witnessed in generations," as I wrote in the book's conclusion.

Yet I felt sure this was just a temporary hiccup, and the best, I believed, lay still ahead, if we were bold enough to seize it:

Grapevine Hills, Big Bend National Park, TX
(©Scott Weidensaul)
"We have, I think, a responsibility to stretch beyond what common sense tells us is possible, because if the past half-century carries any lesson for conservationists, it's that we can do far more than we think we can. We will never have a pre-Columbian America, complete in all its too-much splendor, but such is the resiliency of wild America that mostly what we need is the courage to dream big and set goals that are equal to this majestic land. The key is hope, because hope, when paired with the ferocious love Americans feel for their land, becomes action."

It's been seven years since then – seven years that have seen a change in administrations, but a souring of political discourse and a hardening of divisions; a steady march of public opinion, at odds with the rest of the world, away from recognition that climate change is real and dangerous; a financial crisis that has left many people focused merely on survival, and which spawned draconian budget cuts in critical programs at the federal, state and local level; and the rise of a political movement that uses opposition to environmental protection as a blunt weapon, and sees almost any kind of regulation as an incarnate evil.

Pisgah National Forest, NC
(©Scott Weidensaul)
Closer to home, I've seen the biggest surge in energy development in memory, driven largely by natural gas drilling, and a gold-rush mentality (exemplified by my home state of Pennsylvania) in which even the most cursory oversight of fracking is considered anathema by our elected officials, even while we begin to alter the landscape in ways we haven't seen since the coal-mining boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Am I as optimistic as I was when I lifted off from the Pribilof Islands, after my 11-month sojourn around North America? I'd have to say that I'm not, though perhaps that's inevitable; one reason I came away so confident is that by following a trail laid down in 1953, I saw the world through twin visions – today's reality, superimposed on the harsh facts of Eisenhower-era conservation.

But what about you? Are you an optimist or a pessimist? Why, and about what issues? I doubt anyone falls wholly into one camp or the other; what gives you the most cause for hope, and what engenders the most grief and despair? What are the biggest roadblocks, and where are the greatest opportunities for conservation?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Restoration, Natives and Invaders by Moderator Scott Weidensaul

[Discussion Topic: Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul]

Because there's been so much interesting discussion here the past week or two on the subject of what constitutes "wild" and how to approach ecological restoration, I wanted to share a paper that was published last week in the online journal PLOS One. It raises some fascinating questions about human impacts on the natural world, our ability to reverse them, and it ties into a new and sometimes controversial view of natives vs. invasives at the ecological level.

The paper ("All is not loss: Plant biodiversity in the Anthropocene") was written by Erle C. Ellis and Erica C. Antill from the University of Maryland and Holger Kreft from the University of Göttingen in Germany. In it, they try to model the losses in plant diversity from native extinctions and gains from exotic introductions to find what they term "anthropogenic species richness" – what you're left with when humans alter wild plant communities in this, the Anthropocene, the age of humans.

To calculate this, they started by dividing the Earth's ice-free land area into 7,800 square kilometer units and determining the native species diversity of each unit. Then they subtracted species lost through human actions, and finally added in the "anthropogenic species increase," which comprised exotic invasives, agricultural crops and ornamentals.

While acknowledging that this approach oversimplifies reality, they concluded that half the terrestrial biosphere has lost 5 percent of its native plant diversity, and a quarter of the landscape has lost up to 10 percent. On the other hand, the number of exotics added to terrestrial ecosystems, they argue, have more than outweighed the losses, for a median increase of 7 percent in plant diversity in each biome – an increase made up mostly of invasive exotics, not crops or ornamentals.

In all, they say, humans have caused a net increase in plant diversity over two-thirds of the ice-free land - "a vast biotic homogenization of plant communities" marked by "moderate loss of native species coupled with related but larger gains in exotic species, mostly by invasions."

Is this good or bad? Ellis and his colleagues don't make a strong argument either way. They also acknowledge, at least tacitly, a problem with this and other related studies on the impacts of invasives – setting the bar far too low by using local extinction as the criteria for change, when in fact ecological function may vanish long before actual extinction occurs.

Some researchers, however, have tried to make the case for net benefits from invasive exotics. A paper published last year ("Fruit quantity of invasive shrubs predicts the abundance of common native avian frugivores in central Pennsylvania," Gleditsch and Carlo 2011) found a tight correlation between the density of invasive Asian shrub honeysuckles in the Northeast and American robins and gray catbirds.

Noting that both bird species have increased dramatically since shrub honeysuckles were introduced half a century ago, the authors warn that honeysuckle eradication could "negatively impact frugivore abundance, which could have undesirable ecological and economical consequences in both local and distant regions."

What's more, they claim that by attracting more birds, thickets of honeysuckle actually enhance the chances for surviving native fruit-bearing plants to have their berries eaten and their seeds dispersed by birds. These positive interpretations of plant invasions were given an even more approving spin in the press. "Invasive Plants can Cause Positive Ecological Change," the announcement from Penn State trumpeted.

All this struck me (and a lot of other people) as a whopper of a stretch, especially since the honeysuckles have succeeded by largely crowding out native species like spicebush, shrub dogwoods and viburnums that generally have fruit of higher quality for migrant songbirds; the slight edge gained by natives through better seed dispersal isn't much help if there's no room left in which to grow.

But there are further levels of complexity here – which by happy coincidence are explored in a fascinating article in the current issue of Birding magazine.

While acknowledging that some species of birds, including cardinals, catbirds and robins, use bush honeysuckles for food and cover, Rodewald cautions that this is only a small part of the picture. The birds that benefit most from the exotic shrubs are generalists – birds that do well in many habitats. Specialists fare far worse. Acadian flycatchers - which don't eat fruit but which need fairly open understory layers in which to nest - get crowded out of forests overrun with honeysuckle, for example.

Most intriguingly, she has found that the carotenoid pigments in honeysuckle berries may be short-circuiting the means by which male cardinals "advertise" their fitness to potential mates. Normally, brilliant crimson plumage is a sign of a healthy, well-fed male cardinal, whose territory provides lots of high-quality food. But because honeysuckle berries are a rich source of carotenoids but a poor source of nutrition, they beef up a male cardinal's color even when his condition is poor – and the females attracted to such a male may thus find themselves nesting in a marginal or dangerous territory.

All in all, the picture is far more complicated - and the balance sheet far less clear-cut - when you look more closely at the question of invasives, even from a fairly simple perspective of plant-and-avian interactions. The full ecological reality, of course, is orders of magnitude more complex.

Ellis, Antill and Kreck's PLOS One paper on plant diversity makes one thing crystal clear – the impact of humans is utterly pervasive, and in many respects irreversible. We also barely understand the ramifications of such changes, even on the smallest level, as Amanda Rodewald's work makes evident.

Does that mean we shouldn't try to make things better – to rebuild (or, as someone said last week on this blog, "reimagine") ecological systems? Hardly; the pace of habitat loss, climate change and rising population makes it essential. But we do need to be humble before the fact of our profound ignorance.

Last month, Erle Ellis, lead author on the plant diversity study, was one of four coauthors of a New York Times op-ed piece in which they argued that the Anthropocene – this new geological age of global human impact - "does not mean we inhabit an ecological hell."

Instead, he and his coauthors concluded, "It is the stage on which a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism can be built. This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. It is not ruined. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it."

That's a sentiment I think we can all agree with.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Restoring Nature to...What? by Moderator Scott Weidensaul

[Discussion Topic: Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul] View Readers' Comments

Great Smoky Mountains National Park
(©Scott Weidensaul)
The discussion over the past week has been enjoyable and gratifying. When I accepted the offer to moderate the WILD READ discussion, I wasn't sure what the response would be, and it's been wonderful to get the varied perspectives and experiences that everyone's been adding to the mix.

I'd like to shift the discussion a bit, though, and focus on a subject that's been mentioned a few times in the past week, as well as in previous months on this blog – the subject of ecological restoration.

"If the East is to have wilderness it must restore it," Roger Tory Peterson wrote in Wild America, while he and Fisher were traveling down the Blue Ridge in 1953. "The second growth now thirty, forty or fifty years old, which clothes the Shenandoahs, will, while our sons are alive, become trees eighty, ninety, or one hundred years old. Our grandsons may see a forest approaching climax."

But that was about all the two naturalists wrote about restoration; mostly their discussion of wilderness concerned celebrating the existing pieces, and saving those areas still under threat – like a passage that had always puzzled me, reading Wild America when I was younger.

Old clearcut, Lower Hoh River,
Olympic Peninsula  (©Scott Weidensaul)
"It would be criminal if we allowed the saw the freedom on Olympic park; the Park belongs to all Americans, and not to a few to make a profit from," Peterson wrote. Well, obviously; that's why commercial logging is banned from national parks, isn't it?

But not until I dug deeper during my own time in the Pacific Northwest did I learn that this was a well-aimed barb at the park's infamous mismanagement during those days. Starting in 1941, loggers were allowed to remove 100 million board-feet of lush, old-growth forest from Olympic National Park – a loss driven by misplaced patriotism, private greed and abetted by park managers who took an extraordinarily liberal view of "salvage" logging. Only after growing protests, including those of Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, did the wholesale cutting end in 1958.

Alpine meadow, Olympic National Park
(©Scott Weidensaul)
Today, of course, Olympic National Park is 95 percent federally designated wilderness, but from the high country you can still see how the lowland rain forests where some of the mightiest trees on the planet once grew have been chewed up for kindling – forests that, but for political chicanery, rapacity and short-sightedness would have been included in the park, or better protected once they were.

Unlike the fast-growing hardwoods of the East, those cut-over conifer stands will not recover in many spans of human life. But restoration can take many forms, and one of the most exciting river restoration projects in the country got underway this past autumn in Olympic. The Elwah and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwah River are being simultaneously removed, restoring free flow to the largest watershed in the park. (There's a National Park Service blog about the removal, which will take three years.)

The strong, fast-flowing Elwah was an anadromous fish paradise, home to steelhead, sea-run cutthroats, coho, chum, sockeye and pink salmon, and spring and summer runs of the some of the largest chinook salmon in the world, sometimes exceeding 100 pounds. Although the sockeyes are probably extinct, there are a few Elwah spring-run chinooks left, and once the dams are gone, more than 70 miles of spawning river will be available to them instead of the meager five miles they've had since the dam went in more than a century ago.

The payoff may be immense – in terms of a healthier river, robust salmon runs (which the NPS estimates could reach 390,000 fish a year); cultural rejuvenation for members of the Lower Elwah Klallam whose lives traditionally revolved around the salmon; and subtle but crucial changes to the forest ecosystem within the park, which historically benefited from the annual influx of marine nutrients brought deep into the interior by the spawning, dying salmon.

Ecological restoration was a theme I was able to visit again and again in Return to Wild America. Dam removal is just one aspect of this movement, and one that's been gaining momentum in the 12 years since the Edwards Dam on the lower Kennebec River in Maine was torn down – the first time a federal license was revoked for ecological reasons. (Last year, almost 3 million alewives migrated up the steadily healthier Kennebec.)

Thousands of dams have been removed across the country, or are slated for removal. Most are small low-head dams on tributary streams, but many are big; the same time the Elwah project got underway, the Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington State was breached in a single, breathtaking blast. (This time-lapse video of the breach is spectacular and worth watching.)

But whether it's the troubled restoration of the Everglades ecosystem, the creation of a 250-mile-long wildlife corridor of restored thornscrub forest along the lower Rio Grande in Texas (now jeopardized by the ill-conceived and politically expedient border wall), or grander plans for "continental rewilding" through protected core areas, corridors and the reintroduction of apex predators articulated by Michael Soulé, Reed Noss, David Foreman and others, it's clear that we're willing to dream big dreams of ecological restoration. But as we do, there is a central question that must be answered: Restoration to what?

Traditionally, the goal of any ecological restoration project has been a return to a pre-European condition – the "wilderness" condition, it has always been assumed, that existed before about 1600 A.D. But ecologists have come to belatedly realize that there hasn't been a humanless landscape – therefore, a true "wilderness" landscape – anywhere in the western hemisphere for a very, very long time. In that light, 1600 A.D. seems like and increasingly arbitrary target.

This has really come into focus for me over the past six years, as I've been working on a book that is just now hitting the shelves – The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery and Endurance in Early America. (And I apologize for the shameless promotion.) As you can tell from the title, it's not a nature book, but a straight human history of the 250 years leading up to the close of the Seven Years' War in the 1760s.

'The Manner of Their Fishing," John White 1585
 (Library of Congress)
Still, as a naturalist I was filtering everything I read and researched through the prism of my passion for the natural world. Whether it was the ecological transitions that followed the retreat of continental glaciers 12,000 years ago, the sweeping megafaunal extinctions, or new anthropological, linguistic, genetic and archaeological research that is pushing the arrival of humans in the western hemisphere back at least 16,000 years (and perhaps as far as 30,000 years), the picture is one of constant change and a pervasive human footprint.

I'm not suggesting my epiphany was anything revolutionary – many scientists have been reshaping our view of pre-Columbian America for years. But it is one thing to read the dry estimates in scholarly journals of precolonial Native populations in North America as high as 18 million, and another to read the first-hand accounts of early explorers like John Smith, sailing in 1614 from Monhegan Island in Maine to Cape Cod along the coast of what he dubbed "New-England."

Smith raved that is was, "of all the foure parts of the world I have seen," the place he would prefer to live. "The country of the Massachusits," he said, was the "Paradise of all those parts."

Except for one problem. Everywhere he sailed, the coast "shewes you all along large Corne fields, and great troupes of well-proportioned people." Again and again, his accounts stress the large Indian population  he encountered - and it wasn't just Smith. In 1524, for instance, Giovanni da Verrzano sailed into Narragansett Bay and reported meadows and corn fields extending seventy-five miles from the bay, "open and free of any obstacles and trees."

Smith, rounding what is now Cape Ann and Gloucester Harbor, gushed over the location – "not much inferior," he said, "(for) anything I could perceive but the multitude of people." (Emphasis added.)

Again and again, European explorers groused about what must have seemed a divine joke – Providence having led them to a rich new land, but one so thickly settled that finding a colonial toehold would be difficult or impossible.

Then, of course, "Providence" changed the rules. Those initial contacts sparked the greatest pandemics the world has ever seen, which were especially horrific during "the Great Dying" that swept the northeastern seaboard in the early 17th century. By the reckoning of scholars like Henry Dobyns, these so-called virgin soil epidemics may have swept away more than 95 percent of Indian populations in a few years, leaving the land depopulated and ripe for colonization.

Just five years after Smith found the coast packed with people, Thomas Dermer visited the same area and found only "some antient Plantations, not long since populous but now utterly void." In 1623, Christopher Levett founded the settlement of York, Maine, on "good ground, and much of it already cleared, fit for planting or corne and other fruits, having heretofore ben planted by the Salvages who are all dead."

Beyond the immense loss of life, this must have also had tremendous impacts on the ecology of the emptied regions. The great swaths of the Northeast had been maintained as open grassland or shrubland by fire, which is why the heath hen, the eastern subspecies of the great prairie-chicken, was common from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. (Not everyone buys the notion of pervasive Native use of fire; Foster and Motzkin 2003 is one work from this contrary view.)

Still, because these pandemics swept deeper and deeper into the interior, it's inescapable that as the land emptied of people it became, in every meaningful sense, wilder. The collapse of the great urban-based, agriculturally supported chiefdoms in the south, the palisaded towns along the tidewater and major river valleys of the mid-Atlantic, and the largely hunter-gatherer (with some seasonal gardening) cultures of the Northeast, all were decimated. Many of the interior cultures, like those in the Alleghenies west through the Ohio River valley, were essentially extinct before Europeans ever set foot in the region.

You can make a strong argument that the period from about 1620 through the 1740s was the least inhabited – and therefore the wildest – that had existed in this area for thousands of years.

So where does that leave ecological restoration? What are the targets we should be setting for ourselves? Do we want to recreate – to the extent that landscapes and historical extinctions allow – an echo of a particular period in North American history? And if so, should the goal be the era before European colonization and the Great Dying, or something more distant and more exotic, like the notion of Pleistocene rewilding – trying to recreate a megafaunal ecosystem that mimics the function, if not the exact appearance, of what existed before the last great extinction ending 4,000 years ago?

What do you think?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Finding Our Way to the Wild by Moderator Scott Weidensaul

View Readers' [Comments]

Discussion topic: Return to Wild America: A Yearlong Search for the Continent's Natural Soul

Welcome (or welcome back) to America's WILD READ. I was delighted when Anne Post at the National Conservation Training Center asked me to act as a moderator; I'm intrigued by the possibilities of generating a meaningful online conversation about the things that actually take us out of our virtual, 21st century bubble and into the real – the natural – world.

In 2004, I set out to retrace the path blazed 50 years earlier by two of the 20th century's greatest naturalists, Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher – one a self-taught ornithologist whose only formal higher education was in art, the other an Eaton- and Oxford-trained scientist who abandoned plans for a medical career when he fell in love with the birds of the Arctic in the 1930s, and became a famous writer, broadcaster and biologist.

"So much had I seen of wild Europe, and especially wild Britain in the company of my colleague, and so much had I learned under his tutelage...that I had a growing desire to reciprocate, to show him my own continent," Peterson wrote. So he hatched plans for what he called their Grand Tour of Wild America, which Peterson planned with almost military precision.
They were very different personalities, from very different backgrounds, but when they met in 1950 at an ornithological conference in Sweden, they became immediate and fast friends. Peterson was, at the time, working on his field guide to the birds of Europe, and Fisher became his escort, consultant, champion and frequent hotelier, since Peterson and his wife Barbara often stayed at the Fishers' country home in Northamptonshire (or at James' club in London), when in the U.K.
It's also an obvious pleasure and a honor to follow in the footsteps of people like Robert Michael Pyle, Margaret Atwood, my colleague Will Stolzenburg and many others, including our most recent moderator, Bill Sherwonit.And finally, I'm happy to lead a discussion that uses, as its jumping-off point, one of the most enjoyable, interesting, exhausting, brain-stretching experiences I've had in my almost 35 years of writing about the natural world.

Gannets at Cape St. Mary's, Newfoundland (©Scott Weidensaul)
In April 1953, Fisher and Peterson met in Newfoundland, and commenced an odyssey by car that carried them down through New England and the Appalachians, around Florida and the Gulf, into the Sierra Madre Oriental in Mexico, through the American Southwest to the Pacific, up the coast to the Olympic Peninsula, and finally by plane to some of the most remote parts of Alaska, then still an American territory - places like the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and the Pribilof Islands.

I did not try to match that pace. The bulk of my travels took nine months – nine of the most challenging and rewarding months of my professional life. I didn't want to simply lap the circuit; I wanted to dig more deeply into the many landscapes through which those two men passed, and explore the conservation issues that haunt them. Where Peterson and Fisher spent about 36 hours along the lower Rio Grande, for instance, I spent two weeks there.
As the 50th anniversary of Wild America's publication drew closer, it struck me that the book provided a perfect opportunity to go back and reassess what we'd lost and gained in the half-century since Fisher and Peterson made their frenetic, 300-miles-a-day circumnavigation of the continent.
But as I grew up and began to travel around North America myself, the book took on a deeper resonance. Rereading it, at times it seemed impossibly quaint; Fisher was agog at his first views of a highway cloverleaf, and the two authors felt a need to explain motels and air-conditioning to their American readers. At other times – as the authors warned about development pressures, western water use and forest management – it seemed strangely prescient.
I first read Wild America when I was a kid, and the whole thing seemed like a terrific lark – two buddies chasing birds all over creation. (Among other things, the trip was the genesis of the idea of a "big year," a birding tradition that has taken on an extreme life of its own since then.)
Their book, Wild America, was published in the autumn of 1955, and proved to be both an immediate bestseller, and a iconic classic of American nature-writing – a bit of an irony, since most of the book was written by Fisher, the Brit.
It would be, Peterson promised his friend, "a more complete cross section of wild America than any other Englishman, and all but a few North Americans, have ever seen." It took them three and a half months, plotted almost to the minute thanks to Peterson's meticulous planning. (Arriving on the northern California coast one afternoon, they met conservationist Laidlaw Williams, who was to show them sea otters. "At four [o'clock], punctual," Williams noted as the men got out of their car. "What time did you leave?" "Sixty days ago," Peterson deadpanned.

Old Chevak field station, Yukon Delta NWR
 (©Scott Weidensaul) 
There were times when I was following precisely in their footsteps – chasing condors through the mountains of southern California 50 years to the day after their visit, or staying in the old, ramshackle field station at Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge in western Alaska, the one-time Catholic church for an abandoned Cup'ik Eskimo village, the same building Fisher and Peterson stayed in, watching the descendants of the same western sandpipers and bar-tailed godwits they watched.

In some cases, though, I veered well off their original track – most memorably into the Sierra Madre of eastern Mexico, a region they just brushed when they made an incursion to the mountain town of Xilitla. Just another 15 or 20 miles deeper into the mountains, just over the line in Querétaro state, lay my destination, the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve.Here I found the single most uplifting, optimistic story of my Return to Wild America travels – how a single committed family led by the mother, Pati Ruiz Corzo, had started a local environmental group in the 1980s. The Grupo Ecologico Sierra Gorda grew to one of the most effective NGOs in Latin America, and worked with residents in hundreds of small mountain villages throughout the region to successfully petition the federal government to create a 950,000-acre biosphere reserve covering a third of the state.

Fall wildflowers in the Sierra Gorda
(©Scott Weidensaul)
I fell in love with the Sierra Gorda on that trip, and have returned a number of times since, reveling in the wild landscapes, which range from high-elevation cloud forests where ancient oaks, gums and pines are draped in moss and epiphytic orchids, to hot evergreen jungles and semi-desert scrubland. The Sierra Gorda also holds every species save one that was there when the Spanish arrived, from tropical animals like jaguars, margays, military macaws and emerald toucanets to temperate creatures like black bears and American dippers.

Yet on that trip and my subsequent visits, even when I found myself far, far back in the deepest mountains, hours by foot from the end of the last jeep track, I was not in an untouched land. Mesoamericans inhabited the Sierra Gorda for thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of years before the conquistadors, and today there are perhaps 100,000 people living in the mountains – mostly in small villages like La Trinidad, a cluster of homes and pastures cradled in a high, chilly valley scented with wood smoke and the smells of traditional Huasteca cooking.
(The one animal that has disappeared, sadly, was a subspecies of the spider monkey, the northernmost primate – other than us – in the western hemisphere.)

The effects of their presence, however – in terms of hunting, logging and grazing, to choose a few examples – are almost universal; in fact, it was dismay over how they were degrading the Sierra Gorda that led the villagers themselves to call for its protection, and begin the process of zoning the new preserve into core protected areas, buffer zones, extractive zones and so forth.

The observation was – much to my own surprise – how good the news from the past half-century has been for conservation. When I set out on my trip, a lot of my friends and colleagues said, in effect, "That's going to be depressing." And it's true that we lost immeasurable treasures in the last 50 years – species vanished, landscapes paved, the climate warming, the artificial world's footprint growing ever-more inescapable. And yet I found that the perspective afforded by Peterson and Fisher's original trip allowed me to see what we often overlook – that we've made incredible progress for conservation in the past five decades. This is progress that no one could have predicted in 1955, when you could dump any chemical you wished in the local river, shoot migrating raptors along the ridges of the Appalachians, harpoon great whales, dam free-flowing rivers, claim a bounty for gunning down Alaskan bald eagles or clear cut old-growth forests inside national parks like Olympic.

The very idea of federal legislation like the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the National Wilderness Preservation System or the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, to name a few, would have seemed like the most foolish kind of pipe-dream in 1955. And yet we as a nation accomplished all of that, and much more, in just a few years. We're a long way from perfect, but the lesson of the last half-century is that we can do astonishing things if we put our minds, our hearts and our voices to it.

But now for the question, and this is what I'd like our initial conversation in the days ahead to explore. How much of "wild America" is truly wild, and how do you define that word? What makes it wild? Is "wild" only wilderness, free of all human touch (and if so, is there any wilderness left anywhere, pole to pole, in this day of pervasive climate change or chemical contamination)? By that measure, is the soggy tundra of Yukon Delta wild, where humans have lived and hunted since the days of the mammoths?
But the Sierra Gorda beautifully illustrates two of the central points I brought away from my Return to Wild America experience – one an observation, the other a question.

Least auklets, St. George, Pribilof Islands AK (©Scott Weidensaul)
Are there shadings of "wild," degrees of wildness? Can the wild be restored to places from which it had been banished? What role does, say, the presence of large predators play in a landscape's wildness (thanks to Will Stolzenburg for broaching that topic last year). And how much of wildness is in us, instead of a organic feature of the land?

It's a happy accident that this discussion comes on the heels of Bill Sherwonit's discussion of the Brooks Range in Alaska, one of the wildest landscapes by almost any measure left on the continent – but also a thread that draws a lot of relevance from the real and metaphorical "ditches" that Bob Pyle traces through our own lives, and which he discussed with WILD READ participants last autumn.

Enough from me – thanks for listening. Now let's hear from you.