By Scott Steen
I FEEL ALIVE IN THE WOODS and wholly present. The smell of damp earth, the leaf-filtered light, the distant cracks and shuffles of hidden creatures going about their daily lives — each demand my attention, wake up my senses and clear away the mundane concerns of my indoor world.
And, while the forest always works its magic on me, those distant cracks and shuffles also remind me that I am a visitor here. Most humans are. We may be a part of nature and dependent on it, but never quite as truly or deeply as the wildlife that live, feed, mate, give birth, raise their young and die here. They are utterly dependent on these places and at our mercy — as either caretakers or destroyers of the ecosystems in which they live.
Right now, there are more than 1,600 species listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered or threatened in the U.S. Eighty percent of plant and animal terrestrial biodiversity occurs in forests, which means the vast majority of land animals live in forests. But, a significant amount of forest habitat here in the U.S. is in danger. As a result, the wildlife that live in these places are disappearing.
In the Southeastern U.S., gopher tortoises that live in longleaf pine forests are being buried alive to make way for development. In the lower 48 states, grizzly bears have recovered slightly from their historic lows, but only about 1,800 remain. In South Texas, critical bird and ocelot habitat is being cut into smaller and smaller chunks, replaced with farms and housing. While the total amount of forest tree canopy in the U.S. remains stable, healthy, intact forest habitat is declining for wildlife across the nation.
To answer these challenges, American Forests has launched a new initiative designed to deepen and expand our work in seven ecologically important and threatened forest ecosystems in North America. I am incredibly excited about this program.
The Wildlands for Wildlife initiative focuses on these seven critical regions. Each of these systems provide key environmental functions to their regions, support one or more threatened or endangered wildlife species and sustain countless more plant and animal species.
During the next several years, Wildlands for Wildlife will help restore forest habit in the Southeastern U.S.’s longleaf pine ecosystem, home to both the gopher tortoise and endangered red-cockaded woodpecker; the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas, a biodiversity hotspot that supports hundreds of migratory bird and butterfly species, along with the endangered ocelot; the whitebark pine ecosystem in the Northern Rockies and Cascades and its threatened grizzly bear population; the wildfire- and drought-plagued Sierra Nevada Mountains of California; the Hawaiian Islands, which are now known as the extinction capital of the U.S.; the jack pine ecosystem in the Northern Great Lakes, home of the Kirtland’s warbler, one of the rarest birds in the country; and the Central Appalachians’ red spruce forests that support endangered wildlife, while also acting as a carbon storage powerhouse.
Our Wildlands for Wildlife initiative in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas is working to restore habitat for the endangered ocelot
During my six years at American Forests, I have had the privilege of visiting many of these systems, seeing first-hand both their splendor and the challenges they face. I’ve walked through fire-devastated forests in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, tens of thousands of acres of once thriving habitat laid to waste. I saw more bird species in a few days in the Lower Rio Grande Valley than I had in my life, but also witnessed the agriculture and development incursions that have left the forest habitat broken. I’ve seen the valiant attempts of our partners north of Yellowstone to find and grow disease resistant whitebark pine, a keystone species in the region and an important food source for grizzlies.
All of these places are remarkable. All are threatened. And, all need human intervention to bring them back to health, along with the wildlife populations they support.
With the Wildlands for Wildlife initiative, American Forests will make long-term commitments to protect and restore these forest ecosystems to health — through coalition-building, research and planning, advocacy, large-scale tree planting and other onthe- ground restoration activities. You will be hearing a lot about these efforts in the coming years. We hope we can count on your continued support.