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Tucson Weekly Call Of The Wild

The 'Rewilding' Movement Has Big Plans

By Tim Vanderpool

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  AMERICA SPENT ITS first two centuries blasting, trapping and poisoning large predators into oblivion. So it's a tad ironic when that same national zeal--enlightened by our late 20th-century taste in coffee-table books--has turned towards restoring bears, wolves and big cats to their former haunts.

But if Arizona's recent, bitter experience with the Mexican gray wolf lends any lesson, it's this: The outback just ain't what it used be. Not the same in acreage, not the same in habitat diversity, not the same in terms of buffers against burgeoning mankind.

That's exactly where The Wildlands Project comes in. Spearheaded by former Earth First! firebrand Dave Foreman, the Tucson-based group aims to establish broad, connected swaths of wilderness across North America. The first would snake through our own backyard, from Arizona's Mogollon Rim all the way into northern Mexico. Those wilderness beltways would then become home to large "focal" predators, which would act as ecological barometers to each region's health.

It's one very big vision, and it's about to hit the ground running.

Rod Mondt calls such "rewilding" the next bend in an ecological learning curve stretching back to old John Muir. Like Foreman, Mondt is also a former EF! hell-raiser. He now directs the relatively sedate Wildlands Project, which he views as blending the aesthetics of wilderness with the calculations of cold, hard science.

"First, we wanted to have all our ducks in a row, to have the most scientifically formed vision we could," Mondt says. "It's like a picture on a jigsaw puzzle box: We've drawn our biology based on that picture. Now we're reaching out to people and saying, 'Okay, how can we put these pieces in place?' "

The answer involves stitching federal, state and private land into large regional habitats. "It's not exactly rocket science," he says. "Humans need the ability to get from point A to point B, and so do animals. It was the mid-'80s when conservation biologists started realizing the need for these big stretches of land, because wide-ranging predators and ungulates (hoofed prey animals like deer and antelope) couldn't survive without them. That's also when we saw the natural marriage of the activist and scientific communities."

Their hard-forged relationship is steeled for its first test, as the WP unveils what's officially called the "Stewardship Proposal for the Sky Island/Greater Gila Nature Reserve Network." Taking in roughly 70,000 square miles, the network would provide space for returning large carnivores, ungulates and other species to the region. To make sure they stand a fair chance of survival, the plan includes the elimination of non-native plants and animals, and rejuvenation of remaining forests, woodlands and watersheds.

The Arizona effort has relied heavily on assistance from the Sky Island Alliance, a group formed by conservation biologists to protect high-altitude niche habitats. Alliance volunteers and staffers have chipped in with scientific muscle and mapping expertise.

Fortunately, the Wildlands Project is also backed by a $1 million budget, coming from a heavyweight list of contributors including the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and outdoor clothing giant Patagonia, Inc.

That makes the Gila Reserve plan economically feasible. But it doesn't make it a political snap. Nor does it ease pressure from donors to make things happen. "There's no way in the world to change the direction of agri-business, public policy and the attitudes of land managers overnight," Mondt says. "These things are like guiding a giant warship--you've got to start turning it 20 years ahead of time. And nobody is under the illusion that this change, this turning, is going to be completed in our lifetime."

Still, "the plan is proactive, which is different from the old environmental battles when we were always saying 'no' to things like logging or habitat destruction," Mondt says.

That could also help it sink roots in a steadily shifting political landscape marked by proposed curbs on urban sprawl and the wolf reintroduction. "You think that 20 years ago anybody in Arizona ever conceived of putting an urban growth initiative on the ballot?" he says. "And I never truly believed--and neither did Dave Foreman, who was raised in New Mexico--that we'd ever see the Mexican wolf back on the ground. Granted, it's gone through one helluva battle to remain. But it's there."

UNDERLYING THE WOLF fight is rural resentment of federal intrusion, which Mondt calls pure hypocrisy. "There are lots of economic issues rural folks face, so they tend to go after easy targets, whether it's wildlife, or the feds."

He singles out Alpine, the little northern Arizona town at the heart of anti-wolf sentiment. "The truth is, Alpine, not unlike almost every other rural community in the American West, gets far more government money coming in than they ever give out," he says, "for subsidies for Social Security, education, highways--really a million different things."

On the spectrum's other end are progressive elements like the Malpai Borderlands Group, a groundbreaking conservation effort between ranchers and environmentalists in southeast Arizona. "In the Southwest, you see these groups starting to pop up, because they realize the writing is on the wall," Mondt says. "(Ranchers) realize they can't simply keep doing business like they did for the last 100 years. Now you're starting to find some who've become pro-wolf. They've even started marketing predator-friendly beef products."

The pay-off can be profound, he says. "It's the whole reason we came up with this concept of 'rewilding.' It's not just about the rewilding of wildlife, but also internal rewilding, of making humans realize there's a real value in wild landscapes, and in the critters that need those wild landscapes."

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