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A Breath of Fresh Air: Rewilding in Action

Nature provides us with inspiration and better health. Discover some large-scale projects that seek to expand and protect this vital resource.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Jun 29 2018

How often do you find your mind wandering to the image of a lush pristine forest? Or plan a trip that takes you far out of the city to a place where your ears drink in birdsong and the trickle of streams?

George Monbiot’s book Feral argues for the essentiality of these kinds of experiences. They reinforce the sense that we are a part of these natural systems and can impress us with their awe-inspiring splendor.

Monbiot also discusses the benefits of rewilding, that is, allowing nature to reclaim tracts of land without human intervention. These kinds of projects take place on a variety of scales, from wetlands or bays set aside through the efforts of grassroots campaigns, to whole rivers and sections of mountain ranges supported by philanthropic business owners and local governments.

This isn’t to say that humans would be cut off entirely from these places during the process of rewilding or afterward. After all, spending time in nature has been shown to have a range of benefits. In terms of health and happiness, a trip to the outdoors does us a world of good. Even our creativity gets a boost. In a recent episode of the Simplify podcast, Alan Lightman mentioned how the composer Gustav Mahler would take walks in the woods while he worked on his symphonies (Fun Fact: the opening of Mahler’s first symphony is his musical description of nature waking up).

The push to allow portions of the environment to rewild has been gaining momentum in South America, the US, and Europe. A few such projects are described below:

The Elwha River Restoration

The Elwha River on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula became the target of restoration efforts in the early 1990s. Damming for hydroelectric power in the early twentieth century resulted in severe disruptions to the local flora and fauna. The actual removal of the two dams did not begin until 2011, coming to completion in 2014.

As the concrete came down and the ecosystem revived, local, national, and international news outlets covered the developments. What impressed many of the experts interviewed was the rapidity with which native species have reclaimed the newly opened wild. Once-pent-up sediments have formed beaches at the delta which otters, bears, hikers, and clammers can all enjoy.

Patagonia National Park

A project of nearly unparalleled scope, the former CEO of the clothing company Patagonia has worked with the governments of Chile and Argentina, as well as founded an NGO, to preserve, protect, and nurture natural spaces in the Patagonia mountain ranges.

What was once grazing land for sheep now feeds guanacos, a llama-like animal native to the region. And additional species have been selected for focused efforts to improve their numbers. Nearly twenty years into the project, the work continues. While the grasses and flowers repopulating the fields are signs that things are moving in the right direction, the ultimate goal is to establish a Patagonia national park that allows visitors to enjoy the vistas in person.

Rewilding Europe

With philanthropic and royal support across seventeen different countries, Rewilding Europe has taken the initiative to reintroduce species and improve existing natural habitats. This isn’t to say they have not had their detractors. Bringing back a carnivore such as a wolf often causes friction with locals, similar to debates that have also occurred in the United States.

Not every rewilding project is so grand in scope. Chances are there are smaller-scale versions in the works near wherever you happen to be reading this. Whether rewilding is an unadulterated good is up for debate. The pros and cons of these initiatives will continue for as long as such projects are proposed. However, to have protected spaces allows us to contemplate both the workings of nature and our own humanity.

Suggested Further Reading

The Hidden Life of Trees

Peter Wohlleben’s book explores how trees have adapted to deal with many of the same environmental stresses that people encounter. Like us, they compete for resources, communicate with one another, and play host to a range of additional organisms. Despite their seemingly stoic silence, trees are very much dynamic beings.

Origin Story

By taking a top-level view of the developments of the world and societies, David Christian’s book showcases how humans have relied upon the planet to reach this point in our history. As such, it also creates an argument for preserving these systems which allow us to flourish.

The Common Good

Robert Reich’s diatribe against egocentric individuality may seem contrary to popular notions of progress. However, the argument for a system more attuned to the good of all people represents a possible direction for our thinking and development. Rewilding represents just such a view towards the long-term, the idea that there will be people, beyond just those currently alive, who will be able to enjoy these wild spaces some day.

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