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The Wilderness Campaign

In the fight to restore the American wild, conservation biologist Jonathan Adams is trying to bring the war home.

By David Dudley

The photograph is so striking that the man who took it, an Arizona rancher named Warner Glenn, autographs posters of it. Crouched atop a scrubby bluff, lips tensed over a pair of massive skull-crushing canines, is a stocky adult jaguar, a male, glaring balefully at the camera. Glenn took the picture in March 1996 while hunting mountain lions in the remote Peloncillo Mountains, near the Mexican border. It's believed to be the first photograph ever taken of a living wild jaguar in the United States.

Jonthan S. Adams
Photo by Chase Photography
The largest cat in the Western Hemisphere once ranged deep into the American Southwest, but hunters and trappers all but eliminated the jaguar by the dawn of the 20th century. When Glenn's photo was first displayed at a conservation biology conference, it was received with an audible gasp. "It was the sense of possibility," says Nature Conservancy biologist Jonathan S. Adams, A&S '86 (MA), who was in the room. He pulls up a copy of the photo on his laptop computer. "The thought that occurred to me was, It's not too late. There's a jaguar in Arizona. A jaguar in Arizona! Anything is possible."

The deeper resonance of that image — a glimpse of the untamed pre-Columbian continent — lingered with Adams, who opens a chapter of his new book, The Future of the Wild: Radical Conservation for a Crowded World (Beacon Press, 2006), with the jaguar encounter. Its significance, he believes, lies not only with the cat but with the photographer. Glenn is a wiry fourth-generation cattle rancher, a man who augments his income by guiding mountain lion hunters. In the typical conservationist narrative, such a character is the enemy. But Glenn didn't live up to his role: He reached for a camera instead of a rifle. What if, Adams wonders, this was the way all ranchers and farmers behaved when confronted with a top predator trying to restake its claim?

Such is the scenario envisioned in The Future of the Wild. The book serves as both a pocket history of the emerging science of conservation biology and a hopeful guidebook for negotiating a rapprochement between humanity and wilderness in the 21st century. It's also a window into the workings of Adams' employer, the Nature Conservancy, the giant Virginia-based organization known for purchasing and protecting parcels of open land around the country. One of the wealthiest and — until recently — least contentious forces in the environmental movement, the Conservancy has rattled some supporters in recent years with its practices, which include reselling land to private owners and building relationships with corporations, extractive industries, and agriculture. It's a change in tactics that proponents such as Adams defend on scientific grounds as a necessary redeployment of resources. "There was this realization that the scale in which we were doing conservation was completely wrong," Adams says. "Thinking, effectively, one backyard at a time isn't going to cut it."

The Nature Conservancy found itself in the midst of what Adams calls "a gestalt shift" during the 1990s. Science had begun to suggest that preserving patches of wilderness might be futile. In conservation biology parlance, the idea is called "island biogeography." Lacking access to migration corridors and links to other breeding populations, species marooned in reserves — particularly large animals such as bears, wolves, and mountain lions — face inevitable genetic deterioration. Even the largest parks are little more than cageless zoos unless they can be forged into a functional ecological network, a massive "bio-region" that may span hundreds of thousands of acres. In The Future of the Wild, Adams explores key sites — among them Yellowstone National Park and Florida's Everglades — where efforts are under way to link these islands together and protect shards of fragmented wilderness from the increasingly populated world that surrounds them. The key is engaging the human habitat beyond park boundaries. "You look at a map, and you see all the protected areas, and the first thing you recognize is how tiny they are," Adams says. "There's all this other land that's never going to be set aside in any meaningful way. So, who's going to own it? What are they going to be using it for? What do they care about?"

"There are folks who say this is entirely misguided, that we have to build walls and make a stand," Adams says. "But I think we have to look more broadly. We don't have the troops. We can't make this into a war." Adams advocates creating a world where farmers, ranchers, loggers, and other intensive users of the physical landscape participate in a civil community conversation about resources, and where the continent's surviving megafauna are allowed to return and roam unmolested along the corridors that humanity has allowed them. The vast dimensions of these linkages — one key connection runs the length of the Rocky Mountains from Yellowstone deep into Canada's Yukon — would require a massive public commitment to making the developed world less hostile to wildlife, and a strategic détente between the conservation-minded and the forces they typically battle. "We have to recognize that we're not from different planets," says Adams. "I think the fundamental differences aren't that great, especially when it comes to valuing the land and thinking about how land should be used. There's a far greater connection to the land among farmers and ranchers than among urban environmentalists."

Adams himself is something of an archetypal representative of the latter. Lanky and spectacled, he grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where his psychoanalyst father taught at Yale. His formative experiences with nature involved National Geographic TV specials, not forays into the untracked wild. At the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars' science writing program in the mid-1980s, he studied under Horace Freeland Judson, scientific historian and author of The Eighth Day of Creation, which chronicled the birth of molecular biology.

A few years later, Adams found writing work at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), an experience that led to his first book, The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation without Illusions (Norton, 1992), written with WWF African program officer Tom McShane. The book takes a critical look at the state of conservation efforts in Africa, arguing that Western scientists — besotted with the romantic image of Africa as an untouched wild — fail to take into account the continent's millions of human residents. "Thousands of scientists go [to Africa], do their research, and leave nothing behind," Adams says. "Then they write their papers, almost all of which end by saying, 'Oh, and this is all real important for the conservation of wildlife in Africa.' But they ignore the fact that there was no capacity in Africa to do these things. They completely ignore the Africans. It got me thinking that this is a bigger topic. What is the role of science in conservation, and why isn't it being done well, and is it being more effectively done elsewhere?"

To answer those questions, Adams obtained a graduate degree in conservation biology from the University of Maryland in 1997. At that point, the young field was literally redrawing the map to reflect not political boundaries but ecological ones. The fundamental unit of such a map is the ecoregion, a collection of interwoven ecosystems that sprawl untidily across state and national borders. This new organizing principle signaled a dramatic change for many conservation organizations — most, like the Nature Conservancy, built around individual state chapters.

"Some people felt that these things didn't really exist — you can't tell when you've crossed the border from one ecoregion to the next," says WWF biologist Kent Redford, a former Nature Conservancy program director and a key architect of its change in planning philosophy. "There was also a sense that these things were meaningless to people: You don't have license plates that say 'Northern Tallgrass Prairie.' They say 'Iowa.'"

The shift to ecoregional thinking was a significant one for the Nature Conservancy. For decades, the group had squirreled away parcels of donated land, bought up failing farms to fend off subdivisions, and attempted to lock up as much undeveloped landscape as possible. Now the mission was to build linkages by promoting so-called "compatible development" — which could include logging, ranching, and even oil wells. It is this suggestion — using rather than preserving land — that has stirred the greatest controversy.

To some, partnering with agriculture and industry to encourage more ecologically enlightened land stewardship looks more like a conditional surrender. "The Nature Conservancy has basically become a private version of the U.S. Forest Service," says veteran conservation activist Dave Foreman. "Right now, most Conservancy lands are managed for logging or grazing or energy production."

Foreman, a former Nature Conservancy board member, was a founding member of Earth First!, the controversial activist group well-known for using industrial sabotage to combat development and logging. After breaking ties with the group in the early 1990s, he co-founded the Wildlands Project, a far more moderate organization that advocates establishing a continent-wide network of interconnected wilderness. To Foreman, the Conservancy's embrace of what he calls "resourcism" reflects a fundamental philosophical schism — a hands-off, "wilderness for wilderness' sake" approach versus a policy of limited, sustainable resource use. When conservationists shake hands with loggers or ranchers, something essential is lost.

"This notion that we have to be extracting economic value from landscapes is a slippery slope," Foreman says. "You're buying into the other side's value system."

Adams is familiar with the argument over resourcism. "There's definitely a side of the environmental movement for which this approach is too accommodating," Adams says. "There are folks who say this is entirely misguided, that we have to build walls and make a stand. But I think we have to look more broadly. We don't have the troops. We can't make this into a war."

The life Adams leads seems to reflect that accommodation. He resides with his wife and two kids in a trim colonial in Rockville, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. It's the sort of sprawl-intensive subdivision that chops habitat into useless strips of lawn and gives conservationists fits. His writing is equally short on natural grandeur: Instead of a purplish paean to vanishing wilderness, The Future of the Wild is a practical-minded procedural. Adams' intent is not just to rail against the wasteful folly of humanity but to grope toward a solution, even if it may be an imperfect one. "There's a current in some environmentalism that says people are the cause of all our problems, and therefore anything people do deserves condemnation," Adams says. "We are bad, and we have to stop being bad. There's some justification for that, but it's not conducive to solving problems."

One recurring theme in his book is the rise of what Adams calls "the radical center," a loose confederation of ideologically disparate individuals allied by their concern for the land and their neighbors, individuals such as Warner Glenn. Glenn is a founding member of the Malpai Borderlands Group, a consortium of local ranchers that formed an alliance with the Nature Conservancy in the mid-1990s to create a "working wilderness" — one that can accommodate both agriculture and wildlife. The ranches of the Malpai, coursed by migrating animals and periodically swept by uncontrolled fires, serve as something of a living laboratory for the principles that Adams advocates.

"You need to find people in the community with whom you can at least begin the conversation," Adams says, "and then they become the ambassadors to their neighbors."

Is it working? "Maybe this is part of my tendency to look at the optimistic side as a means of self-preservation, but I do believe you're beginning to see changes," Adams says. "People are beginning to understand that our actions have implications, on a global scale, forever."

Critics such as Foreman are less certain. Successful working wilderness projects such as Malpai are the exception, he says, and he doubts whether the principle could be exported to less remote areas. "We need to be very careful about broad-brushing these common values," he says, "because in lots of cases it's just not there."

But to Adams, practicing modern conservation biology means accepting some hard ecological and human realities — and perhaps learning to love a wilderness less wild. "We're not going to recreate the world of the 17th century — it's not possible," he says. "But we can create a resilient system that allows animals to move about and can adapt to climate change or development. Making a dogmatic stand that we have to have an untouched system at this point is not terribly realistic. There isn't a single untouched system on Earth. We've touched everything. Pretending otherwise is wishful thinking."

David Dudley, A&S '90, is an editor at Cornell Alumni Magazine.

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