In the summer of 2011, I spent a week trekking across California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. The seventy mile hike took me through groves of giant sequoias, across flowering meadows, and over high passes where the only signs of life were tiny pungent flowers growing from cracked rocks. I slept beside alpine lakes, where my tent was illuminated by the light of the Milky Way. But more remarkable than what I experienced was what I didn’t experience: for the entire week, I didn’t see a building, hear a car, or cross a road. The land was wild, unmanaged, self-willed – as it had always been. A few centuries ago, nearly all of the United States was like this, but today the pristine wilderness ends at the park boundary.
America’s primal wilderness has disappeared. The country’s endless expanses of forest and grassland have eroded to islands. Old-growth forests have been replaced by tree farms with rows of identical trees. Prairies have been plowed into cornfields. Our largest, wildest animals have been killed in vast numbers and replaced by livestock. As America’s material and economic prosperity has grown, its wilderness has been pushed out of the way. We have come to think of undeveloped land not as a place where wilderness is, but as a place where civilization isn’t. In 1964, the Wilderness Act defined wilderness as land that retains its “primeval character and influence” and that “appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable”. But today, only 2.7% of the contiguous United States is classified as federal wilderness. A horizon without the silhouettes of buildings or power lines is a rare sight.
If you want to see true wilderness in the contiguous U.S. – land where large, wild animals roam expanses of land unbroken by roads or fences – you have to go north. Go to the North Cascades of Washington state, where cougars, wolves, and grizzlies wander the mountains and old-growth forests. Or to the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, where the same species are joined by bison and pronghorn on the high plains. After you’ve seen those places, the rest of the country feels tame in comparison, even in otherwise well-preserved parks and forests. The big animals – a primeval source of fear and wonder – are gone. As cinematographer Lois Crisler, who’d spent years filming Arctic wolves, put it, “wilderness without animals is dead – dead scenery.”
There’s another place in the United States where big animals still haunt the wilderness, a place far from the snow-capped peaks of the Rockies and Cascades. In the southern tip of the Florida peninsula, away from the urban sprawl of Orlando and Miami, is the much larger sprawl of the Everglades: swamps, meadows, pinelands, and mangroves where alligators, crocodiles, and bears still tread. The Everglades are the site of the Fakahatchee Strand, a long, shallow swamp that forms the core range of the Florida panther. The Fakahatchee was made popular in Susan Orleans’s novel “The Orchid Thief” and Spike Jonze’s movie based on the book, “Adaptation”. “The Fakahatchee has a particular strange and exceptional beauty,” Orleans wrote, “The grass prairies in sunlight look like yards of raw silk. The tall, straight palm trunks and the tall, straight cypress trunks shoot up out of the flat land like geysers. It is beautiful the way a Persian carpet is beautiful – thick, intricate, lush, almost monotonous in its richness.”
There is a stop along Highway 41 between Tampa and Miami where visitors can take a boardwalk a half-mile into the Fakahatchee Strand. Elevated just a few feet above the swamp, the boardwalk takes you through an undisturbed subtropical forest of ferns, palms, and cypress trees. Orchids grow on branches and eagles nest in tree tops. Most of the Fakahatchee remains in its natural state, from its origin in a mosaic of pinelands and freshwater sloughs in the north, to its mouth, where it flows into the Gulf of Mexico through the mangrove-cloaked Ten Thousand Islands in the south. It is, in fact, part of a sweep of wild land that extends a hundred miles from Lake Okeechobee to the southern tip of Florida. This wildway – and others like it along Florida’s length – might some day be linked to create a wilderness corridor from the Gulf of Mexico to the Georgia border, a project called the Florida Wildlife Corridor.
The Florida Wildlife Corridor project comes from research begun in the 1980s as parts of Florida were rapidly being lost to development. Conservationists envisioned a network of natural lands spanning the state that would preserve the state’s biodiversity, ecosystem services, and natural heritage. By preserving wildlife corridors between natural areas, they could allow plants and animals with large ranges to survive in areas that would otherwise be too small. Of particular concern was the Florida panther, whose population had dropped in the 1970s to only twenty individuals. Today the panther’s population has rebounded to over one hundred, but it is still relegated to Florida’s southern swamps. By establishing a corridor through the state, the panther’s range might one day extend to the Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia border.
In January of 2012, two scientists, a photographer, and a filmographer began trekking north from Florida’s Everglades. Over the next hundred days, they paddled, biked, and hiked across the state’s backcountry to the Georgia border, a distance of one thousand miles, on an expedition to raise awareness of the Florida Wildlife Corridor. Because nature reserves along the corridor were sometimes far apart, the expedition had to cross private cattle ranches to get from one reserve to the next. Remarkably, in the two years the team spent planning the expedition, they encountered no resistance from ranchers whose land they needed to cross. Because there is so much private land within the corridor, it could never be completely turned over to parks and preserves. Rather, the corridor’s existence depends on private landowners managing their land to make it wildlife friendly. “I don’t care how many times you’ve seen a panther before,” said one rancher, “each time I see one it still takes my breath away.”
Roads endanger wildlife in several ways: they are a conduit for pests and weeds, they spread pollution created by automobiles, and they provide easy access for hunting, logging, and development. But more importantly, they kill the animals that try to cross them. Even as parks and ranches cooperate to preserve land, vehicle collisions continue to kill animals as they try to travel from one patch of land to another. Florida has made highways in the Everglades safer for animals by constructing dozens of underpasses beneath them. These underpasses are used by panthers, bobcats, deer, and alligators. But roadkill on secondary roads is still a threat: of Florida’s one hundred sixty panthers, seventeen were killed by vehicles in 2012.
In the early twentieth century, after a series of catastrophic wildfires burned millions of acres and killed hundreds of people, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward forest fires. They set up fire crews throughout the national forests, built thousands of lookout towers, and put out fires as soon as they spotted them. By the 1960s, they’d reduced the land area burned annually by wildfires by ninety percent. But this fire suppression had dramatic consequences for America’s landscapes. Meadows and grasslands, formerly maintained by regular fires, shrank as fire-intolerant shrubs and trees expanded their ranges. Elk, bison, and bighorn sheep lost habitat as the grasslands on which they lived became smaller. Wildfire fuel, in the form of leaves and woody debris, accumulated until it erupted in intense fires that permanently changed the landscape. The purpose of fire suppression was to protect property, timber, and lives, but where there were no structures to protect, no trees to be logged, and no human lives to save, fire suppression did more harm than good. Today, the attitude toward fire is changing, and in some places – in particular federal wilderness areas – wildland fires are now allowed to burn themselves out, letting land return to its natural cycles.
In 2010, American farms produced three hundred sixteen million tons of corn, ninety million tons of soybeans, and sixty million tons of wheat. Producing all this food requires an enormous amount of land: 1.5 million square miles, an area ten times that of Montana. Today, the Great Plains hold most of America’s farms, but the Plains’ first settlers did not realize their potential for cultivation. “The country is more beautiful than any I could have imagined,” an eighteenth-century traveler said of southern Illinois. “Extending beyond eyesight are large prairies covered with buffalo and other game, varied by groves of trees that appear like islands in the sea.” In time Americans realized that the Plains’ farmland was some of the most fertile in the world, and by 1950 most of the grasslands had fallen to the plow. The scale at which grasslands were destroyed was stunning: before settlement, grasslands covered 60 percent of Illinois and 85 percent of Iowa; today they cover 0.01 percent and 0.02 percent, respectively. The grasslands’ characteristic large animals – bison, antelope, and elk – vanished, as did a variety of grassland birds. To this day, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska – the four states in the heart of America’s tall and mixed grasslands – have no national parks.
Once you start thinking of open space as a place where there is wilderness, rather than as a place where there is no civilization, you begin to see the world in a different way. When I drive through a prairie or a forest, my wife scolds me when I get distracted and the car swerves. When I plan a vacation, I scour maps of the the National Wilderness Preservation System to pick a destination. In western Europe, where hardly a scrap of wilderness remains, I felt suffocated. Where could I leave the world of man behind? Where could the big animals live? Where could I see the full expression of the natural landscape? Nowhere, that’s where. When we replace wilderness with farms, plantations, roads, or buildings, wildlife loses a place to live, communities lose a place to relax and play, and the world loses a bit of beauty and wonder.
Interstate highways span the country from west to east: Interstate 90 connects Seattle to Boston; Interstate 80 connects San Francisco to New York City; Interstate 10 connects Los Angeles to Jacksonville. But as we built these stretches of continuous pavement from one coast to another, no one thought to preserve an equivalent stretch of continuous earth. A corridor of wild land from the Pacific coast of California to the Atlantic coast of Virginia would be about three thousand miles long. If it were six miles wide – wide enough that a person standing in the middle of it would see a natural landscape out to the horizon on the Great Plains – it would cover eighteen thousand square miles, an area a bit larger than America’s largest national park. While this might seem enormous, it is only a fraction of the forty thousand square miles of open space that the U.S. Forest Service predicts America will lose by 2030. The Florida Wildlife Corridor is an example of what can be accomplished and what will happen more often in the future. If a wildway can be established along the four-hundred-mile length of a state, is a three-thousand mile wildway from ocean to ocean really far out of reach?
Several years ago, I had an experience that changed the way I think about wild land. My parents and I were in Rocky Mountain National Park, a wilderness encompassing hundreds of square miles in the heart of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. We had left the tourist town of Estes Park and driven up Trail Ridge Road beyond the sight of any buildings. My parents, who had lived in the suburbs of New Jersey for most of their lives, saw an unfolding landscape that was unlike anything they’d seen before – pristine and endless. We parked the car and walked out to the edge of an alpine meadow. It occurred to me that this simple experience, that of being in an expanse of wild land without human artifacts, is something foreign to many Americans. A marmot watched us from behind some rocks. My parents looked out over the green valleys and snow-streaked peaks and just said, “Wow”.
More and more, Americans are moving to urbanized areas. We shop in them, we work in them, and at the end of the day, we go to sleep in them. After spending nearly all of our lives in the trappings of civilization, we begin to think that everything is becoming urbanized, and that wilderness is being lost to high-capacity roads, dense housing, and office buildings. But a closer look reveals that dense urban areas, in fact, create wilderness. Consider California: it is both the most populated state in the country and the most urban – of its thirty-seven million people, ninety-five percent live in cities. Yet it also has more federal wilderness than any other state in the contiguous U.S.: 23,400 square miles. It might seem paradoxical, but wide-open spaces exist precisely because people live in highly dense urban areas. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans living in urban areas increased by 12.1 percent from 2000 to 2010, and today over 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. As America’s population shifts from rural to urban, this trend of rural abandonment and expanding wilderness will continue.
America’s big predators – cougars, grizzly bears, wolves – have always been rare. Consider the cougar. He sustains himself by eating other animals, all of which are widely scattered and difficult to hunt. He needs a large range just to find enough prey to stay alive. “The largest predators are spread thinly on Earth,” says David Quammen, science writer and author of “Monster of God”, “because energy, in forms they can harvest, is limited and broadly dispersed. They must travel distances. They need to hunt and compete desperately. They must be bold, prudent, stealthy, opportunistic, and lucky. Their meals are few and far between. Big fierce animals are inherently rare.” A change in the landscape that reduces the range of a predator can put its population at risk. A wide and dangerous highway can cut an animal’s range in half. Farms and towns create conflicts where the animal often ends up dead. A recent study of the areas surrounding national parks in the western United States found that the parks with the highest extinction rates of large mammals had the highest human population density near their borders.
Even if extermination and habitat loss don’t threaten species’ populations, they can still threaten their migrations – one of Earth’s most ancient spectacles. Bison once migrated across America’s Great Plains in herds numbering of millions of individuals, but the species was nearly brought to extinction before its migration routes were recorded. Pronghorn antelope have migrated between Wyoming’s Red Desert and Teton Range – a distance of two hundred miles – for over seven thousand years. But today, roads, gas wells, and residential development threaten to close off their route. Chinook and sockeye salmon have migrated from the Pacific Ocean to the mountains of central Idaho – a climb of over seven thousand feet and a distance of over nine hundred miles – for thousands of years, but this migration is now blocked by a series of dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, making their journey more difficult and dangerous than ever. As animal populations dwindle and their migration routes disappear, Quammen continues, “people will find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread, and kingly, prowling free among the same forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans used by humanity.”
After finishing the High Sierra Trail, I traveled across the United States from California to North Carolina. I camped in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where I woke up before dawn to hike up to the Continental Divide. I circled a lake that was still black in the twilight, entered the pine forest, and began climbing. By sunrise, I was among stunted, wind-pruned alpine trees. By nine in the morning, I had reached the summit of Hallett Peak. Standing at 12,713 feet on the Continental Divide, I could see everything from emerald meadows to active glaciers. Hidden in the landscape below were bighorn sheep, black bears, cougars, elk, and even moose and wolverines – an impressive list, but one missing two important species: the wolf and the grizzly bear. Colorado’s last wolf was killed in 1943, and its last grizzly in 1979. Will they ever return? A population of grizzlies is a long way off. But in 1995, wolves were introduced to Wyoming’s Yellowstone after an absence of seventy years. They hunted deer and elk, reducing their numbers and changing their behavior. With fewer ungulates eating the leaves and twigs of trees, the populations of aspen, cottonwood, and willow rebounded. The trees grew taller and their crowns filled the canopy. This set off a cascade of remarkable effects: there were more bison, more beaver, and even more songbirds – the latter taking advantage of the forests’ increased structural complexity. Migrant wolves from the Central Rockies are occasionally spotted in Colorado, and a mating pair might once again make Colorado its home.
In the Great Plains of eastern Colorado, I stopped for a walk at Paint Mines Interpretive Park. I was on the western short grasslands, an arid landscape of horned lizards and rattlesnakes under a big sky. The plains were flat and treeless, exposed to powerful winds and violent storms that barreled down from the Rocky Mountains. You could build a wind gauge there, locals say, from an anvil on a length of chain. These were frontier counties, a term coined by the United States census in the late nineteenth century to describe counties with two to six inhabitants per square mile. As America grew, the thinking went, these frontier counties would mark the changing boundary of its westward expansion. But something unexpected happened in the western Great Plains. Most of the counties never exceeded the frontier population density. In fact, rural areas of the Great Plains have lost a third of their population since 1920. These counties are part of a larger trend as the United States’ population moves to urban areas and leaves rural areas depopulated. The best hope for the short grasslands now, many believe, is ecological restoration. A plan called the Buffalo Commons would return native grasses to the land and repopulate it with bison. Without any government planning, and against most people’s predictions, the land is becoming wild again.
Somewhere in Kansas, I left the American west and entered the American east. The high plains of eastern Kansas slowly yielded to the buff, undulating grasslands of the Flint Hills. The Rocky Mountains became a faint memory of dry air, bright sun, and pine forests. The air was hazy with humidity and the valleys held trees whose broad leaves rustled in the wind. When settlers first arrived in the Flint Hills, they found them underlain by flint-specked limestone that resisted plowing, so instead they used the hills for cattle ranching. The upshot was that, after most of America’s tall grasslands were converted to farmland, the Flint Hills remained in their natural state. The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve was created from Flint Hills ranchland in 1996 and today covers about seventeen square miles. I walked out into the preserve’s hills, where waves of waist-high amber grass rolled under a flat gray sky. Sprays of violet flowers bloomed on the crests, and ripples of yellow goldenrods shimmered in the troughs. Chirping insects hid in the grass and a herd of bison roamed beyond the horizon. In the valleys, groves of trees concealed trickling creeks and lush vegetation, foreshadowing the forests farther east.
In Illinois, the cornfields in the center of the state gave way to dense forests in the south. These were the Mississippi lowland forests – the ribbons of cypress swamps and bottomland forests that follow the Mississippi River from southern Illinois down to its delta on the Gulf of Mexico. I visited the Cache River State Natural Area, site of North America’s northernmost cypress swamps. Parts of the Cache River basin have never been logged, and along the natural area’s trails you can find cypress trees over a thousand years old with trunks twelve feet in diameter. I stepped out for a hike. The air was warm, humid, and still. I walked next to the Cache River, through a forest of oaks and sweetgums, until I reached Heron Pond, where the trail became a boardwalk that led out over the water. A sheet of emerald duckweed floated on the swamp, broken only by the sinuous tracks of cottonmouth snakes and the flared bases of bald cypress and tupelo trees. A pair of barred owls hidden in the canopy called back and forth, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”
I spent the next several days in the Great Smoky Mountains. The Smokies are a pristine wilderness today, but in the early twentieth century their valleys were cleared for agriculture and their lower slopes were logged clean. By the 1920s, conservationists, fearing increasing destruction, began campaigning for the establishment of Smoky Mountains National Park. They purchased thousands of small farms, bought lumber rights from logging firms, and removed entire communities from the valleys. In 1934, the federal government established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the land began to restore itself. Today, elk and bear wander the former townsites and mature forests cloak the hillsides. While I was in the park, I hiked through a valley that had been cleared a century ago. A lush cove forest had regrown. Its trees – tuliptrees, hickories, magnolias, silverbells – were some of the tallest in the eastern United States.
In North Carolina, I found Umstead Park wedged between the cities of Raleigh and Durham, hemmed in by an airport on one side and highways on the other three. In the 1930s, the area was still farmland. But it was unproductive and impoverished, so the government declared the land submarginal and began purchasing it to form a park. In the intervening eighty years, the park’s five thousand acres have become a dense forest of oak and pine. On the morning I visited, the park’s tall, mature trees rose silently into the morning mist – reminders that nature can heal itself quickly if given the chance, and that nature is never far away, even in cities. Because four out of five Americans live in or near cities, the built up landscape is all most of us ever see. From our point of view, there doesn’t appear to be any room left for a wildway. But the reality is that, of all the land in the contiguous United States, urbanized areas account for only three percent.
The last stop of my trip was Pleasure Island on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina. The sandy beaches on the island’s eastern shore had been built up with hotels, boardwalks, and ice cream parlors, but the marshes and forests on the western shore were protected by a jigsaw puzzle of military and park lands. I drove to the southern end of the island, where a mile-long trail led to a lookout on the edge of the marshes. The hike began in a dwarf forest of redcedar and waxmyrtle buzzing with mosquitoes. I rushed through, emerging on a marsh where a steady breeze kept the bugs away. I was on a boardwalk. To the left was the rumbling Atlantic Ocean; to the right was the silent Cape Fear River. Next to the boardwalk, tiny white periwinkle snails clung to every blade of cordgrass. I reached the end of the trail, where a viewing platform looked out over the edge of the continent. I thought back on the route I’d taken to get there: the crystalline peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the storms rumbling over the Rocky Mountains, the smell of the prairie in late summer, the buzzing swamps, the silent forests. These places, it occurred to me, are all wilder today than they were a century ago. Are they exceptional, or are they a part of something more? Are they the last remnants of the continent’s wilderness? Or are they the beginning? Creating an interstate wildway may take centuries, but “a civilization becomes great,” the saying goes, “when men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”