If Dave Foreman were looking for signs of a healthy Chesapeake Bay watershed, he would look for cougars and wolves.

Stitch together enough pieces of wild land to support large predators, he argues, and you’ll be protecting enough area to preserve most of the bits and pieces of a region’s biodiversity.

“We know that large carnivores have an umbrella effect,” Foreman said at a recent Pennsylvania conference. “In other words, if you protect adequate secure habitat for wide-ranging species, you are protecting habitats for many other species as well, both plants and animals.”

Foreman heads the Wildlands Project, a nationwide effort aimed at preserving large chunks of wilderness, linking them together with corridors that allow the unfettered movement of animals, and ultimately forming vast networks of contiguous habitats.

Foreman may be best known as one of the founders of Earth First, the radical environmental group that waged a “monkey wrenching” war against development in the West during the 1980s. That ultimately sent Foreman and four colleagues to prison. Foreman has since renounced the use of such tactics.

Unlike Earth First, the Wildlands Project’s vision has been endorsed by many leading scientists. Michael Soule, a retired professor from the University of California, who is considered the “father” of conservation biology, worked with Foreman to start the organization.

Harvard Professor Edward O. Wilson, one of the creators of the theory of island biogeography and author of acclaimed books such as “The Diversity of Life,” calls the Wildlands Project “one of the great dreams, worthy of the millennium and of America.”

So far, the Wildlands Project has been most active in the West. Last fall, it released its a plan for the “Sky Islands Wildlands,” which would restore wildlands and native species to 10.5 million acres of southeastern Arizona, southwestern Arizona and northern Mexico.

Now, the group is looking at the East, where it would like to “re-wild” large areas — potentially starting with portions of the Bay watershed, where the Town Creek Foundation is supporting its work.

For the past year, members of the project’s staff have been meeting with conservation groups, scientists, government officials and others to form a plan for the Bay watershed. Ultimately, any watershed “wildlands” could be linked to a network stretching from Canada to Florida, with the goal of protecting species for the long-term.

The Wildlands Project is not connected to the Bay Program, but some goals are similar. The Bay Program’s Chesapeake 2000 Agreement calls for preserving 20 percent of the watershed as permanently protected open space. The agreement generally acknowledges that efforts should be made to promote “the expansion and connection of contiguous forests” but has not identified exactly how that should be done.

“We have similar interests to the Wildlands Project,” said Carin Bisland, associate director for ecosystem management with the EPA’s Bay Program Office. “Not necessarily in terms of introducing large carnivores or anything like that, but the whole idea of contiguous resource areas could play a role in how we are preserving our lands.”

The Wildlands Project hopes to complete a draft watershed proposal by this summer that would outline priority areas for protection and, in some cases, restoration.

Exactly how that land would be protected — and over what period of time — is unclear. “It may take generations for all of the pieces of the puzzle to be put down and connected,” said David Bynum, Eastern Coordinator for the Wildlands Project. “We are facilitating the creation of that vision, and helping to figure out what the pieces of the puzzle are.”

The Wildlands Project is based on the theory of island biogeography which states, in short, that as islands of habitat shrink and become isolated, they support fewer and fewer species. Those species that remain are especially susceptible to problems such as inbreeding, natural disasters and disease, which can ultimately lead to their demise.

To prevent that from happening, the Wildlands Project seeks to protect large “core” areas of habitat such as federal wilderness areas, state or national parks, and other large chunks of land that are relatively undisturbed by development and roads.

Those areas would be surrounded by buffer areas, which could sustain a higher level of disturbance. Corridors would connect core areas to allow the free movement of species so populations will not get cut off and become genetically isolated.

Exactly how big core areas would need to be in the Bay watershed isn’t clear. “I wouldn’t want to put a number on anything like that,” Bynum said. “But we are not talking about 40-acre preserves, or 100-acre preserves. We are talking about thousands or acres, or tens of thousands of acres.”

The rule of thumb for the Wildlands Project is big enough to support big predators, such as wolves and cougars. Thus, the Wildlands Project boils down to the three “C’s” — cores, connectivity and carnivores.

Once the lands are identified, work has to begin to protect them, either through purchase or easements. Bynum said the effort will require partnerships with others interested in preserving large pieces of forest lands, such as conservation groups, state agencies and the timber industry. “I’m certainly willing to work with anyone, as long as we find common ground,” Bynum said.

Just protecting the land isn’t enough, though, according to the Wildlands Project. After land is preserved, it calls for a process of “healing the wounds.” That means identifying ecological problems — such as invasive species, overgrazing by deer or pollution — and working to eliminate them.

Healing some “wounds” could be controversial: The absence of fire could be considered a wound and require experimentation with controlled forest burns in some core areas to spur the regeneration of fire-tolerant species.

While many may agree the wildlands concept could be ecologically justified, the notion of stocking the Bay watershed — or other Eastern areas — with mountain lions and wolf packs could be a harder sell.

“In a largely populated area like this one, the reintroduction of large carnivores isn’t something that I think is going to be met with open arms for most people,” Bisland said. “But the focus on habitat and hubs and corridors is something that people can identify with.”

Bynum acknowledged that talk of carnivores puts off some potential allies. “There have been conservation groups that want to work with us that do not want to talk about cougars or wolves or bears — which are already here — because it is seen as too controversial and a way to lose funding,” he said. “But these carnivores are truly functionally important.”

The Wildlands Project cites studies that have found native songbirds survive longer in suburbanizing canyons around San Diego when coyotes are present. The reason: coyotes eat foxes, opossums and house cats that otherwise would eat the birds.

Other studies suggest that in the East, the declines of some forest birds are caused in part by the absence of large predators such as cougars and gray wolves. Their absence allows a greater abundance of foxes, raccoons and other small predators that prey on birds and their eggs.“We feel if we don’t start talking about these things, then we never will talk about them,” Bynum said. The reintroduction of predators, he added, would probably be one of the last steps in the “re-wilding” process and could be a century or more away.

Others think the question of reintroduction is moot. “Cougars are already coming back,” said Bob DeGroot, who heads the Maryland Alliance for Greenway Improvement and Conservation, citing ongoing claims of cougar sightings in Eastern forests. “The wolf isn’t coming back at this point, but they’ve been reintroduced in a lot of the United States, and they’re coming back in a lot of places. So is it doable? Sure. It’s a matter of public opinion, and how you frame your public opinion.”

DeGroot, who is among those who have been meeting with the Wildlands Project, agreed that achieving a regional system of linked lands is a long way off, “but you’ve got to get started somewhere.”

The idea seems to catching the imagination of some. A January conference on wildlands in Pennsylvania attracted more than 100 people. Another conference, sponsored by DeGroot’s organization, is scheduled for April in Maryland.

Although the wildlands concept originated in the West, Foreman said “re-wilding” the East is equally important. In fact, the Wildlands Project headquarters is in the process of moving from Arizona to Vermont.

But the West is easier because it contains vast amounts of public land, which are separated by comparatively few tracts of private land that are often controlled by a handful of ranchers or others. Securing easements for buffers or corridors means working with relatively few landowners.

In the East, habitats such as forests are much more fragmented. Establishing suitable habitats may require forest restoration in some areas. Outside public lands, ownership is often divided among many people, making the task of building corridors, buffer zones and other protected areas far more daunting.

“It is more straightforward in the West,” Bynum acknowledged. “In the East, there is such a greater number of smaller parcels that we are talking about that it may mean that getting real connectivity is more difficult.”

Accomplishing the network, he said, will take time. But the Wildlands Project doesn’t intend to do it alone. Once it envisions what the network should look like in the watershed, Bynum hopes to have other conservation groups or government agencies assume either the whole job, or particular components.

Foreman describes the project as “trying to organize networks of people protecting and restoring networks of land.” Achieving the vision, he said, will ultimately require “folks who care and love nature coming together to protect it, to defend it, to restore it.”

In a recent essay, Harvard’s E.O. Wilson acknowledged that at first, the Wildlands “dream” seemed “beyond the limit,” of what was possible. But, Wilson wrote, “as I gave the idea serious thought, I was converted. With imagination and will, I firmly believe, it can be done.”

Whether it can be done here remains to be seen.

Appalachians Wildlands

A Conference to Create an Appalachian Wildlands Preserve, sponsored by the Maryland Alliance for Greenway Improvement Conservation, will take place 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 7 at the National Institutes of Health Campus, Natcher Building, 1495 Wisconsin Ave., in Bethesda.

The conference fee is $20 per individual, $30 per couple, and $10 per student. A late fee of $25 per person will be charged after March 15.

For information, contact Doris Fausey at 301-949-5057 or doris719@aol.com , or contact Bob DeGroot at 301-340-8348 or BobDeGroot1@cs.com