Wildlands, the natural answer to climate change

New report calls for tripling amount of protected forest land

NEW ENGLAND is not immune to the global ecological crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, which both threaten human health and safety. With little time to act, we are racing to make up for decades of inaction and are leaning heavily on technology and intervention, from industrial-scale wind generation on mountain ridgelines and off our coasts, to large solar installations and electric transportation. Corresponding efforts are underway to reverse the decline of wildlife by evolving forestry and farming to support native species while actively managing for invasive species.

There’s no question that technology and intervention have a role to play to address these urgent crises, but they are only part of the solution.

We propose focusing on a natural solution–one that stores and removes carbon from the atmosphere efficiently while simultaneously providing co-benefits, from sustaining rich biodiversity, to producing clean water, to safeguarding places that benefit people’s mental and physical well-being.

This solution is the conservation of wildlands stretching from Maine to Connecticut.  Wildlands are forests, wetlands, meadows, and other areas permanently protected from development and active management, where natural processes are allowed to unfold with minimal human interference. Protected as forever-wild, these special places have the potential to develop the unique qualities, structure, and ancient trees of the old-growth forests that once dominated our region.

Wildlands in New England, Past, Present, and Future is the latest product of Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities, an initiative begun at Harvard nearly 20 years ago. The study shows that while 81 percent of the six-state region is covered in forest, only 3.3 percent is conserved as wildlands. This gap presents tremendous opportunity and a call to action for policy makers, conservation organizations, funders, landowners, and citizens.

The first study in the US to document all forever-wildlands in a single region, our report calls for at least tripling the extent of wildlands across New England, complementing actively managed forests and farms, and sustainable communities. The report is meant to inform and support land conservation policy by providing data, context, and rationale to meet an urgent need to assemble a thriving forest mosaic that secures nature now and in the future.

Among Earth’s most diverse and valuable ecosystems, forests are essential to combat the climate and extinction crises. While their conservation is widely acknowledged as critical for the planet, not all forests are equal. How we treat them matters. Indeed, while actively managed forests provide many benefits, our report and recommendations are based on growing evidence that allowing forests to mature naturally with minimum human interference is one of the most effective and lowest cost options for counteracting carbon emissions and supporting the greatest diversity of species. Wild places also have intrinsic value—they simply have a right to exist and thrive.

The priority New England has placed on wildlands differs sharply from that of neighboring New York, where almost half of the 6 million-acre Adirondack Park is constitutionally protected as “forever wild.” By contrast, New England’s 1.32 million acres of wildlands are disparate, ranging from remote state and federal forests and parks to small pockets of woods and wetlands near cities and suburbs—and the future is precarious for one third of these. Our report shows that various mechanisms work to safeguard New England’s wildlands, but the strength of these tools is inconsistent. Thirty-five percent are protected only through self-oversight by government agencies, organizations, or private landowners, the weakest level of protection.

Wildlands in New England makes a compelling case for substantially improving the legal protection of the region’s existing wildlands in perpetuity, while doggedly pursuing the goal of increasing the total acreage to at least 10 percent or more of New England’s total area. The report also highlights that we will be investigating what it would take to increase that amount to 20 percent by 2060.

Produced in collaboration with over 100 regional conservation organizations and public agencies, the report is accompanied by a continuously updated open-source database and a web map of all wildlands and protected conservation land in New England—providing a vital baseline that highlights opportunities for future conservation. Looking ahead, we plan to employ these tools to advance wildlands conservation and science. The report will inform and strengthen advocacy for improved wildlands policies at local, state, and federal levels, and calls for increasing funding to support an integrated approach to land planning and conservation—of both wildlands and woodlands.

Meet the Author

David Foster

Ecologist / Director emeritus, Harvard Forest
Meet the Author

Elizabeth Thompson

Former director of conservation science, Vermont Land Trust
Meet the Author

Jonathan Leibowitz

Executive director, Northeast Wilderness Trust
Permanently protecting wildlands is a potent strategy for preventing further ecological harm and mending damage already done. The concept of protecting wildlands is not new. It’s a strategy that echoes sentiments of the late renowned naturalist E.O. Wilson: “There can be no purpose more inspiring than to begin the age of restoration, reweaving the wondrous diversity of life that still surrounds us.”

David Foster is an ecologist and director of the Harvard Forest whose research on the benefits of integration of forest and farmland conservation with resilient community development led to the founding of the Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities initiative in 2010. Elizabeth Thompson is a Vermont-based ecologist and botanist and former director of conservation science for the Vermont Land Trust. Jonathan Leibowitz is the executive director of the Northeast Wilderness Trust and a member of the Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands & Communities steering committee.