A Path Forward for Connecting Public Lands With Wildlife Corridors

In pursuit of a migratory corridor running through the continent

By David Gessner

December 17, 2019


An animal overpass in Canada | Photo by AP Photo/The Daily, Tony Clevenger

We are flying over the great jagged peaks of the Bob Marshall Wilderness in northern Montana. It is June, but down below us snow runs like cake frosting over a great buttress of gray rock, which, as enormous as it is in itself, is just one parapet in the great fortress wall of mountains. To the north, along the Canadian border, mountain after mountain stretch all the way to Glacier National Park. A human being taking in these sights could try not to be exhilarated, but they would really have to work at it. Speaking of human beings, we have not seen one, or any human habitation, during the past 45 minutes of flying. 

Over the past three days, I’ve been taking a giant lap around the interior American West, circling from Colorado to Wyoming to Montana and back. My chariot is a prop plane; my pilot, and the only other person on board this single-engine Cessna 210, is Bruce Gordon, the president and proprietor of EcoFlight—an organization committed to helping environmental organizations get a literal overview of the lands they are trying to save. Bruce isn’t doing all this flying for me but for two environmental organizations, the American Prairie Reserve and the Yaak Valley Forest Council, a group dedicated to saving the last grizzlies in a remote patch of northern Montana. He has been kind enough, however, to let me hitch a ride.    

My own purpose is to see the land I have been writing about and to look at that land in a new way. I am in search of something big. Not hope. Something more concrete: a path forward in these dark times. 

Three days ago, we took off from the Aspen airport and flew north over Glenwood Canyon and into the Flat Tops Wilderness, Colorado’s second-largest wilderness area, made up of two national forests, where the average elevation tops 10,000 feet and over 100 lakes dot the landscape. Great volcanic peaks jut into the sky, and around one of these peaks curled a lake of green ice like an emerald necklace. It was summer in Colorado, but it could have been the dead of winter. It could have been a time before human beings entered this land of elk, bear, and moose. 

Over the past two years, I have been writing a book about Theodore Roosevelt and public lands. I want to find out if a larger Rooseveltian vision is still possible in these smaller, climate-withered times. If it is, I know it has to do not just with saving more public lands but with connectivity. The day before I got on the plane in Aspen, I paid a visit to the town of Paonia to meet Michael Soule, who is considered the father of conservation biology. Conservation biologists like Soule like to say that islands are where species go to die, and many parks have become islands. Connecting those parks and other public lands, creating migratory corridors, is still considered by some to be a radical idea, but so was saving parkland when it was first proposed. Imagine if parks became not just museums of remnant ecosystems but stopover points in a migratory corridor that runs up and down the continent’s spine. 

This was the idea that inspired Harvey Locke, the founder of the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative (Y2Y). His idea was to connect the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, with the world’s second, Canada’s Banff National Park, which is over 500 miles to the northwest. But the path wouldn’t stop there. It would keep going for almost another 2,000 miles right up to the Yukon. This is just the kind of park that Roosevelt would have loved. Big, bold, wild. A half-million square miles where wolves, elk, caribou, bear, bighorn, and bison still live and freely migrate thousands of miles to the north and south. As inspiring as the place is, the idea is equally so: evidence that boldness still exists in a limited and reduced time.      

Harvey was a visionary in the most basic sense: He had seen what others hadn’t and then he had shaped a story out of it.

“The story grew out of the science,” Harvey told me. “Parks were a brilliant idea, and without parks we would have not just lost land but species. Parks work. But conservation biology began to teach us that parks could be improved on. Parks were islands. For species like wolves and bears, who can migrate thousands of miles, parks are not enough. Conservation biologists taught us to think on a continental scale. We began to think of connecting the parks, the islands, and creating great pathways. Y2Y grew directly out of that idea.”

Y2Y now includes 11 national parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, provincial parks, wilderness lands, and increasingly, private lands. Dozens of overpasses and underpasses allow animals to cross over and under major highways, connecting one wilderness area to another. These are vegetated and wooded bridges that arc over the roads and equally green passages that tunnel below them; after some initial hesitation, animal migrants are warming to them. We are offering them a path, and they are taking it. 

What I am wondering about, as I fly over the American West, is whether or not we can do the same thing down here. Do we have the will, the imagination, the money, and, most importantly, the remaining land? So far this trip has offered up a complicated answer. We have looked down at thousands and thousands of trees, our great ally in the fight against climate change. But we have also looked down at hundreds and hundreds of dead trees, some dead from recent fires, others from beetle kill past and present. That is how this trip has gone: I find myself constantly batted back and forth between hope and despair. Hope because the land is so vast and unscarred. Despair because much of it isn’t. The starkest example of this came after leaving the Flat Tops, flying through the Red Desert, and then entering Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline, a landscape dotted with hundreds of gas pads and pumps for fracking and spiderwebbed with roads connecting the pads. Retention ponds and pipelines propagated in the shadows of the magnificent white-peaked Wind River mountain range, and in this wet spring the olive-colored Wind River spilled over its banks and flooded the pads. Flying over the Flat Tops, it was easy to imagine connecting vast swaths of the West and to picture animals freely migrating through these lands, but Pinedale told a different story: a great roadblock to migration standing in the way of the ancient migratory route of the pronghorn antelope.  

The trip had all the West in it. The beauty. The exhilaration. The emptiness. The scars. The exploitation. Before I could despair too much about Pinedale, Bruce had pointed the plane northwest toward the Grand Tetons, where it had snowed the night before. We flew through an ocean of clouds right up to the mountains, a thousand feet below their peaks, and what we saw was a sharp and cutting sight. Fresh snow over gray jagged rocks and the peaks themselves so snow-covered and close, they shone like sharp chunks of ice. 

From the Tetons, we had flown to Libby, Montana, close to the Canadian border, where we had spent two nights in the Yaak Valley. From there we headed here, to “The Bob,” as the Bob Marshall Wilderness is called, just the sort of wild place that we desperately need to hold onto. Down below us no machines (including bicycles) or roads are allowed (at least not yet), which allows for our country’s densest grizzly bear population outside of Alaska and thriving populations of moose, lynx, mountain lion, bighorn, and wolf. The land, over a million acres, is made up of national forests designated as roadless areas under the Wilderness Act of 1964, and no mining or logging is allowed. It stands as something of a miracle in these crass and commercial times.

We fly down over the snow-capped peaks of the China Wall, a 22-mile-long landform that arcs like a dragon’s back, guarding the wilderness, and down into the grasslands of central Montana. Bruce and I land in the town of Lewiston, where we take the courtesy car, the keys left for overnighting pilots like Bruce, over to the Super Eight. In the morning, we take off with a small group of journalists and environmentalists and fly along the Missouri River over the American Prairie Reserve, a corrugated landscape of hills and grasslands that runs east toward Roosevelt’s Badlands. The purpose of the reserve, once again, is to connect, and the first thing that the APR hopes to connect is people to the land. Here, along the Missouri Breaks where Lewis and Clarke paddled, 10 million acres of public land is landlocked by private ranch land, and the goal is to open that landscape up to we, the people. But the other goal is to return all the native animals to the prairie, and thanks to the group’s efforts, hundreds of buffalo now roam these hilly grasslands. There is another more secret but grander ambition as well: to connect this prairie wilderness to The Bob and to Glacier National Park to the west and north and to Yellowstone in the southwest, creating a great triangle of connection for wolves, bears, and buffalo. This seems absurdly ambitious, but there is already evidence that it is happening, with wolves, those great roamers, leading the way, and grizzlies tentatively coming down out of the mountains to reinhabit their ancient homeland on the plains.   

I understand that the western landscape is injured, battered, threatened, all of that. There is no sense claiming it isn’t. But it is still glorious. It still holds not just hope but possibility. Imagine what would happen if humans simply left it as it was for a year. Imagine if we did it for two years, or five. Imagine the resilience and wildness of a place like this, still even today, and the possibility that we could connect it to other wild, resilient places. 

Tomorrow we will start our return flight, and I can go back to feeling pessimistic about how human beings have damaged this great world.

Today I will let myself feel we have done something right.