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Edited by: John Stewart

The Wildlands Project Comes to Hidalgo County - Part 5

The Wildlands Project: Conservation Biology

by: Judy Keeler

The Wildlands Project’s Master Plan consists of an 87 page document, originally published in the “Wild Earth” - 1992. Within these pages are found the essential elements with which to build a “biological preserve”. The chapter discussing this reserve design is entitled “The Wildlands Project: Land Conservation Strategy”, by Reed F. Noss.

Dave Foreman, Howie Wolke, and Bart Koehler actually laid the foundation for this concept in the early 1980’s. Published in the June 1983 issue of Earth First!, and again in Foreman’s 1991 book, “Confessions of an Eco-Warrior”, the concept continues to be honed over time.

Normal scientific findings usually begin with a theory, or hypothesis. The scientist’s job is to prove the hypothesis using acceptable standards to reach an unbiased conclusion. These standards include gathering facts, analyzing data, comparing information with a control group, testing the hypothesis, then reaching a conclusion.

On the other hand, conservation biology does not operate using standard scientific guidelines. In the author’s own words, the Plan is “largely untested”, a theory yet proven.

It has, however, been embraced by both academia and the media from Seattle, Washington and Stanford, California to Orona, Maine and Orlando, Florida. Incorporated in 1986, the Society of Conservation Biology claims membership of 10,000 people and institutions.

Reed Noss openly acknowledges that “the ideas and words presented”, in the Wildlands Project’s Master Plan, “are part of a continually evolving text. According to Noss’ biography, he is a consultant in ecology and conservation biology, half time research scientist at the University of Idaho’s College of Forestry, and a research associate at Stanford University’s Center for Conservation Biology. He holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from the University of Florida. His most recent stint has been to serve as a paid consultant to the Department of Interior, hired during Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt’s term.

It is interesting to note here, the Bureau of Land Management’s Rangeland Reform ’94, birthed through a great deal of controversy during Secretary Babbitt’s administration, adopts, almost word for word, Noss’ recommendations for maintaining biological diversity.  As expressed in the Master Plan, in order to maintain biological diversity one must maintain ecological and evolutionary processes such as; “disturbance regime, hydrological process, nutrient cycle and biotic interaction”.

Conservation biologists also believe large carnivores and ungulates require large expanses of land in order to breed and expand. For a minimum viable population of 1000 [large predators], an area of 242 million acres would be required for grizzly bears, 200 million acres for wolverines, and 100 million acres for wolves.

The reserve design would consist of core reserves, connecting corridors, and two buffer zones. Core reserves would be managed as roadless areas, within which all roads would be closed, “free from industrial use”. The “inner buffer zone would be strictly protected”, while the “outer zones would allow a wider range of compatible human uses”.

Outside the outer buffer area would be an area Noss refers to as the “matrix”. Initially this matrix would consist of the land surrounding the reserve. However, according to Noss, the matrix would exist only “in the first stages of a wilderness recovery project”. Eventually, the wilderness network would be expanded to “dominate a region and thus would itself constitute the matrix, with human habitations being the islands”.

As noted in an issue of “Science” – June 25, 1993 - the long-term goal of the Wildlands Project "is nothing less than a transformation of America from a place where 4.7 percent of the land is wilderness to an archipelago of human-inhabited islands surrounded” by wilderness.

Noss suggests in the Master Plan that “at least half of the land area of the 48 conterminous states should be encompassed in core reserves and inner corridors zones within the next few decades”. That is assuming, of course, that “most of the other 50% is managed intelligently as buffer zone”.

Although this appears to be a very ambitious plan, it does not go far enough for a few Wildland proponents. Some have called for as much as 89% of our nation’s land mass to be set aside in these reserves – set apart from human activities.

For supporters and affiliates of the Wildlands Project, Noss also discusses how to select a reserve site and draw boundaries; how large a core reserve should be; how a core reserve should be managed; the primary functions of a “multiple-use zone”; the primary functions of corridors; and design and management criteria.

Under “restorative management” techniques, he suggests; replanting with native species; thinning of fire-suppressed stands of forest types; reintroduction of fire; road closures; control or (where possible) elimination of exotic species (including livestock); and reintroduction of large carnivores.

The Wildlands Projects’ Master Plan also calls for reserves to be managed by nongovernmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy. Dave Foreman even suggests “Nature Conservancy staff should be plugged in so that gaps in reserve networks can become priorities for acquisition”.

Noss continues, “[s]ympathetic agency personnel should be recruited” to bring together “professional ecologists and other scientists who understand the local ecosystem and wildlife as well as the principles of conservation biology”, and “grass-roots conservation activists who understand the mechanics of public land management” to help design the preserves.

A few years ago, I heard the president of a local ranching organization state that “conservation biology was the only pure science”.  He contended the science used by land grant universities to improve rangeland, “had been compromised because it was funded by the ranching community”.

I felt the rancher was very naive to believe organizations like The Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society and Sierra Club are truly altruistic, unbiased and their science uncompromised.

I’m not alone in questioning conservation biology’s unbiased science. Biologists around the continent question whether there is really any science to support the Wildlands Project.

Richard Hobbs, author of “The Role of Corridors in Conservation: Solution or Bandwagon?” strongly implies the theory that ‘natural corridors’ enhances the free movement of species between reserves is on shaky ground. This concept, “along with other principles of reserve design, have been quoted in policy documents and textbooks, despite being supported by few empirical data at the time, and being subject to considerable debate since.”

Other scientists have been even more challenging, preferring to call it pseudo-science.

Next week: The Wildlands Project – Dave Foreman

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