Wild-Eyed in the Wilderness

The Wildlands Project

Sure, life is wild in this country now, but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. With the support of major corporations, wealthy foundations, environmentalist groups and friends in government, convicted eco-terrorist Dave Foreman, a founder of the radical Earth First “Monkey Wrench” gang of professed saboteurs, is mapping a new “re-wilded” America that would be 50 percent “off-limits” to human occupation. This huge portion of the re-wilded U.S. mainland would be home to large carnivorous predators such as grizzly bears, jaguars, panthers, pumas and packs of wolves.

Ridiculous? Most Americans would have said the same thing only a few decades ago if told that every driver and passenger in a motor vehicle would have to be harnessed in or that cigarettes would be $3.50 a pack and harassed smokers would be huddled on sidewalks like derelicts.

Foreman’s self-proclaimed “baby,” the Wildlands Project, is more than a vision. It’s more than a plan. It’s an in-the-mill, happening thing.

The Wildlands Project (TWP) is “the most ambitious and far-reaching attempt yet to reinvent the North American” continent according to ecologically correct guidelines, says Matt Bennett of the Citizens With Common Sense monitoring group. “Wildlands will be core reserves of millions of acres connected by vast corridors following rivers and other migratory paths from west to east, from Central America and Mexico through the U.S. and Canada, using national forests and other government lands.”

Where government lands or trust lands owned by environmental groups are unavailable, private property will be acquired by regulatory decree or eminent domain. When you see a river, tract of land or whole region designated as a U.S. Heritage site, U.N. Biosphere Reserve, greenway, trail, path or some other special name conferred by environmentalists and their legislative and bureaucratic allies, “think Wildlands in the making,” warns Bennett.

Designating these areas as environmentally unique provides a foot in the door, “creating the impression that the area has some sort of holiness, some sort of mystical significance and really should be protected in a special way,” says Carol LaGrasse, president of the Property Rights Foundation of America.

LaGrasse should know: She lives in Stony Creek, N.Y., a rural hamlet in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains ordained a U.N. Biosphere Reserve without so much as local consultation. The spiritual aura that she sees implied in these designations discourages normal human uses of the land such as “modern home life, farming, forestry, mining, industry and commerce,” she tells Insight.

”Re-wilding” means that huge core areas in each region will be returned to prehuman conditions, connected by large roadless and unoccupied corridors maintained for migratory purposes. Extensive buffer zones will separate the completely wild areas from enclaves where humans may work and live. And that's just the beginning. The wild cores would be expanded as the buffers become depopulated and re-wilded.

Feeling a little claustrophobic? Well, you won’t get any sympathy from the Wildlanders. Telegraphing the united environmental front he represents, project founder Foreman says: “All of us are warriors on one side or another in this war; there are no sidelines, there are no civilians.”

Can this really be? You betcha! Activists involved in Wildlands planning in Nevada, for instance, see all but Reno, Las Vegas, the gold mines and the I-80 corridor as returned to nature. “I like the idea of taking it all and making ‘people corridors,’” Marge Sill, federal-lands coordinator for the Sierra Club, told High Country News. “Move out the people and cars,” says Foreman.

”No compromise” is another favored phrase, though Foreman and others in his group have expressed the belief that their overall re-wilding plans may not be fully realized for hundreds of years.

One reason to take the project seriously is the big money behind it. Major foundations fund TWP and its affiliates. Ted Turner’s foundation has been a source of heavy funding, according to Ron Arnold’s book Undue Influence. Other major funding comes from large donors, including the Pew Charitable Trusts and Patagonia outdoor gear. Because Wildlands is the nerve center for so many connected, cooperating regional groups, observers consider foundations providing those groups with funds, such as the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, to be Wildlands supporters.

Turner is of special interest because, when it comes to property rights, he has reason to be the country’s most outspoken advocate. The billionaire environmental crusader owns close to 2 million acres, more than any other individual. Yet he not only funds TWP but appears engaged personally in initiating it.

For one thing, his huge holdings - located in the Northwest, Southwest, Midwest and South - are described as “a swath,” indicating that he is building his empire in cooperation with the corridor concept. Conservation easements already are in place on several of his largest properties. While Turner dismisses concern that his lands will be given to the government as parks to be re-wilded, he told Progressive Farmer magazine that he can’t guarantee what will happen in a hundred years. For now, the plan is for the Turner lands to go to foundations and trusts.

TWP’s broader strategy calls for using existing parks and land trusts and acquiring the rest through methods some critics consider stealthy. Foreman explained the concept to Derrick Jensen, author of Listening to the Land, published by Sierra Club Books. “If we identify, say, a private ranch in Montana that’s between two wilderness reserves, and we feel that 50 years from now it will be necessary as a corridor for wolves to go from one area to another, we can say to the rancher, ‘We don’t want you to give up your ranch now. But let us put a conservation easement on it. Let’s work out the tax details so you can donate it in your will to this reserve system.’ When it’s needed for a corridor, it will be there.”

Conservation easements can take various forms, the key being that they essentially prohibit any kind of development. In some instances, such as Foreman’s example, the land may be used agriculturally for the lifetime of the farmer or rancher, then become a conservation area. Other arrangements simply prohibit future human use other than farming or ranching, eliminating development value but keeping the property private until some advocacy group or government agency sees it as vital to the cause. Usually, the owner at least has to agree to develop wildlife habitat on the private land, setting the stage to call for further “preservation.” All such easement arrangements are subject to legal challenges by interested parties trying to upset the agreement one way or another, be they heirs or conservation organizations.

Bennett tells Insight that conservation easements are a major part of the Wildlands plan. As he sees the process, it’s almost diabolical. Government, acting on behalf of environmental zealots, puts economic pressure on rural communities through restrictions on logging, ranching, mining and farming. “As the economic opportunities decline to the point that it is impossible to make a living, a conservation easement or even donation of land for some kind of tax credit may make sense to a landowner,” he says.

LaGrasse agrees. Speaking of those who convey title to land trusts, she says landowners often believe - or often are led to believe - that land will remain in agricultural use and will not fall into government hands. “But land trusts acquire land mainly with the specific purpose of reselling it to the government rather than holding the title themselves to keep the land as a private preserve,” she maintains. “And they often make fabulous profits when the land is rolled over to the government.”

Transactions monitored by her group included markups of 22 percent to 155 percent in sales of trust lands to government, with profits of as much as $5 million. Critics say acquisitions of easements or properties in their entireties promise to become a more common practice with passage last year of a modified version of the Conservation and Reinvestment Act (CARA). It created a huge federal slush fund for park purchases and maintenance. With bipartisan support in Congress and the backing of major environmental groups, a full-fledged, fully funded CARA stands a good chance of getting through this year.

Foreman has his own spin on property rights, which he is trying to abrogate, attacking “so-called conservatives today who prattle on about property rights without any sense of responsibility. With rights come responsibilities and accountability.” His is an umbrella organization for more than 30 regional environmental groups that have adopted his terms, polemics and goals as their own.

Because its headquarters is in Tucson, Ariz., many who are aware of the Wildlands effort mistakenly believe it is limited to the West. Instead, there are active groups and plans from Maine to Florida.

Allied covert operations with similar agendas shy away from direct identification and talk in more vague and general terms of wilderness preservation, forest-land protections or stewardship programs. “There is a significant amount of synergy among various environmental groups and the Wildlands Project,” according to monitor Bennett. “Different, and often independent, groups work on their own projects and in an indirect way make TWP more likely.”

Bennett, whose group maintains a Website at www.wildlandsproject.org, calls TWP a “rethinking of science, politics, land use, industrialization and civilization. It requires a new philosophical and spiritual foundation for Western civilization.” Bennett calls it nature worship “on a mission from God or Gaia,” the term used by New Age eco-spiritualists for the living Earth or pagan Universal Mother of the ancients.

Not surprisingly, Bennett’s Website is, in turn, under attack by TWP. A note at its site, www.twp.org, accuses Bennett of using “scare tactics in an attempt to create unwarranted public fear about TWP’s proposals” through display of “altered maps, quotes taken out of context and false information.” Foreman’s group says it is “exploring legal options as a remedy for the confusion and fear being spread” by Citizens With Common Sense.

Lucky for Bennett and his group that Foreman has mellowed since his arrest on charges of plotting to sabotage several nuclear facilities in the West by downing power lines serving the plants. He pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy charges and received a suspended sentence. Involved since 1971 in radical efforts to reduce population and restructure the approach of Western civilization to technology, ideology and economics, Foreman was for many years the chief Washington lobbyist for the Wilderness Society.

After six years with Earth First, he says, he became disenchanted with its “hippie, countercultural” image. The real nature of the split seems to have been between left-wing activists who include “social justice” in their ecological agenda and those such as Foreman who just want to “re-wild” the planet. Not only is the Foreman contingent little concerned about humanity’s woes, but its attitude is the less humans the better. Foreman says he sees “eating, manufacturing, traveling, warring and breeding” by humans as causes of “the greatest crisis in 4 billion years of life on Earth.”

Today, Foreman calls those who practice the eco-terror tactics he once espoused “idiots.” He says he’s “never been a liberal or a leftist, which makes a lot of my friends in the conservation movement unhappy.” He describes himself as a registered Republican and “redneck,” a great-great-grandson of New Mexico homesteaders. His opposition to immigration - an outgrowth of his desire to limit population growth - also is a cause of friction with those on the left.

But this man is a member of the board of directors of the Sierra Club, the most influential left-wing environmental group in the country. It was Foreman who led it to endorse replacing the 50 states with 21 “bio-regions.” But the actual “how-to” for that particular scheme is presented as the work of TWP cofounder Reed Noss, a conservation biologist.

The plan is complex, requiring a hefty 50-page document to present, but it stems from belief that the current “parks” system to protect nature for scenic and recreational purposes doesn’t work. Because the parks are “islands” remote from each other and are used by humans, many types of wildlife are doomed to extinction, Noss explains. What is needed is “connectivity.” To have the connectivity vital to migrating species, particularly large carnivores, many other types of land “from the highest to the lowest elevations, the driest to the wettest sites, and across all types of soils, substrates and topoclimates” will have to be linked to the parks.

The way to do this is through creation of bio-regions or eco-regions for planning purposes. The regions also have psychological value in selling the idea to locals because they “often inspire feelings of belonging and protectiveness in their more enlightened human inhabitants.” Each of the regions would have large reserve areas restored to a primitive state, providing “connectivity” to other regions for the benefit of migrating wildlife.

The fact that many of these regions now lack huge swaths of primitive land suitable for wildlife migration gets to re-wilding - the core mission of the project. Noss advises activists to get busy now mapping local areas, with cornfields and parking lots of less interest than “roaded landscapes that are relatively undeveloped and restorable, especially when adjacent to or near roadless areas.” It’s that kind of thinking that makes rural-property holders more than a little nervous.

Having identified where corridors will exist in their areas, activists following Noss’ plan identify obstacles ahead. These include private property to be acquired, “land and mineral-rights acquisitions, road closures, road modifications, cancellations of grazing leases and timber sales, tree planting, dam removals, stream dechannelization and other restoration projects.”

One question that comes to mind is how these grizzlies, panthers and wolves will know to stay within their reserves and corridors. But that’s really no big problem, TWP statements assure us: “People can coexist with wolves, bears and other wildlife, just as they have for thousands of years in many parts of the world, including North America. In most cases, humans can easily learn to safely coexist with wildlife by making minimal lifestyle changes.”