Healthy waters are dependent on healthy land. Healthy land is dependent on big, healthy forests. And healthy forests, in turn, depend not only on sun and rain and fertile soil, but also on a broad array of wildlife — animals that, when allowed to roam throughout their natural habitat, perform much of the unseen heavy lifting in a thriving forest ecosystem.
Yet today, on the mountainous slopes that feed the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay, these important balances are threatened. Development, mineral extraction and poor forest management have combined to eat into and isolate great swaths of the critical wilderness that are important to the entrapment of sediment and the sequestration of nutrients — creating serious questions about what the great deciduous woodlands of the mid-Atlantic will look like, or if they will even exist, in the centuries ahead.
In 2011 environmentalist John Davis, co-founder of the Wildlands Network and former editor of Wild Earth, trekked 7,600 miles over 280 days — by foot, bicycle and canoe — from the Florida Everglades to the tip of Quebec, taking inventory of the remaining wilderness areas along the Eastern Seaboard. His subsequent book, Big, Wild and Connected, explores the benefits of what Davis has termed an “Eastern wildway” — an unbroken chain (emphasis on unbroken) of protected forestlands. This vast stretch of connected wilderness would, in time, restore a natural balance of insects, amphibians and mammals and go far toward protecting the woods and waters of the East Coast.
Indeed, the benefits would extend far beyond the wildway itself. “An old-growth forest is one of the best things you can do for the Bay,” Davis said in a recent interview. “It reduces pollution going into the watershed, captures more of the nutrients and reduces sedimentation.”
There are patches of old-growth forest up and down the East Coast, but a wildway would join them with forestland — protected both through public acquisition and incentives for proper stewardship of privately owned lands. It would broaden the canopy and also allow for predators at the top of the food chain to wander and breed in lands where they were once plentiful.
More wolves and big cats, of course, would reduce and scatter the outsized and destructive populations of white-tailed deer in the region, sparing the forest understory. When deer eat the seedlings of oak, hickory and maple, Davis said, the forest floor is denuded, habitat is destroyed and the forest’s very existence is threatened. “[That] is bad news for the songbirds, bad news for the salamanders and bad for the forest itself,” he wrote. It has also led to the spread of diseases, most notably the recent explosion of lyme disease.
Joining the forests in an Eastern wildway, Davis acknowledged, will be difficult and time-consuming. And to be politically viable, he said, it will need advocates from all walks of environmental life — not least the people and organizations that are already working for a healthier Chesapeake Bay. Two important parts of the potential Eastern wildway lie at the outer edge of the Bay’s watershed in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
West Virginia, notwithstanding its reputation for mutilated and lopped-off mountaintops, has much to contribute. “[It is ] one of the most intact states in the East,” Davis said. “It’s critical to an Eastern wildway.” With most of the coal mining in the western and southern parts of the state, the West Virginia’s eastern forests in the Potomac Highlands already have a degree of protection through the Monongahela National Forest and various state parks and recreational sites, including the popular Seneca Rocks, Lost River, Canaan Valley and Spruce Knob.
Momentum for an all-encompassing, half-million-acre High Allegheny National Park has, unsurprisingly, stalled under the Trump administration, but Davis said that a more modest Headwaters of the Nation national monument (a designation for federal parkland that has cultural or historic significance) could at least help to protect the Potomac River watershed.
Pennsylvania is more problematic. As drivers on Interstate 81 have no doubt noticed, the state’s forests have been hit hard by gas, oil and coal extraction. Saplings struggle for a toehold in mountains of mineral wastes. Much of this high-sediment land remains in private hands, which is why Davis said he believes there must be incentives for landowners to allow for the return of wild forests.
Properly done, an Eastern wildway would not be cheap, nor should we expect it to be. In addition to the land set-asides, wildways require infrastructure — safe crossings for animals and amphibians under or over the high-traffic roads that are deadly to wandering wildlife. But a wildway should be considered as an investment. Not just a boon for wildlife, it would also protect economically important fisheries, absorb the ill effects of climate change and wall off diseases that multiply when natural predators are denied their traditional migration patterns and hunting grounds.
Wildways are not a pipe dream; they have been developed and proven to work. In New England, for example, a moose can wander across a frozen Lake Champlain from Vermont to New York, then nibble its way unmolested for miles along the Split Rock Wildway into the heart of the Adirondack Mountains — and by doing so reclaim its ancestral stomping grounds.
It is true that, in this political atmosphere, environmental gains of national significance cannot be expected. But these spirited times are quite simply the death throes of an outdated era. Rather than fret, we should be using this time to organize, plan and support land conservancies. A new day will be here before we know it, and what better way to celebrate than with a national wilderness corridor that will protect all living creatures, from grasshoppers to human beings, for generations and centuries to come?
The views of columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.