Wildlands Project update (1997)

Wildlands Project Update
September 1997 –

from Freedom.org

When The Wildlands Project first appeared in the 1992 Special Issue of Wild Earth, it made barely a ripple in the environmental community or the property rights community. Environmentalists thought the plan too radical, property rights advocates thought the plan laughable. By and large, the plan never gained public recognition. Those who discounted the plan were not aware that the underlying philosophy, and the basic principles of land management contained in The Wildlands Project were identical to the philosophy and land management ideas emerging through the United Nations. Some may think that it is an incredible coincidence that both The Wildlands Project and the Convention on Biological Diversity appeared the same year — which, incidentally, is the same year Al Gore chose to publish Earth in the balance.






In the last five years, The Wildlands Project has moved forward at an unbelievable pace. Much of the advancement, however, has been through federal and state agencies, NGOs, and international organizations that claim no connection with The Wildlands Project. At the heart of the project, is a land management system that seeks to restore and preserve ecosystems in core reserves of wilderness at the landscape scale — vast areas, 50-100 times larger that the average natural disturbance regime (fire, flood, etc.).1 These vast “core wilderness” areas are to be connected by “corridors” of wilderness which would be off-limits to humans, except for “benign” uses such as selective hiking, “ecological research and environmental education.” The core areas and corridors are surrounded by “buffer zones” in which human activity is severely limited and managed for conservation objectives. The buffer zone is surrounded by an outer buffer zone, or “zone of cooperation,” which serves as a transitional zone for the expansion of the buffer and core zones.

The evolution of this land management concept can be traced through three publications: World Conservation Strategy (1980); Caring for the Earth (1991); and Global Biodiversity Strategy (1992). All three books were published jointly by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP); the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF); and the World Resources Institute (WRI). The Man and the Biosphere Program of the United Nations Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (UNESCO) began implementing the concept in its Worldwide Network of Biosphere Reserves about 1980. All 328 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, including the 47 in the United States, are committed by agreement to this land management concept.2

The concept gained global stature when the Global Biodiversity Assessment endorsed The Wildlands Projects as “central” to the basic design necessary to conserve biodiversity as required by Articles 6 and 8 of the Convention on Biological Diversity.3 One of Al Gore’s first acts as Vice President was to establish an Ecosystem Management Policy, coordinated in the White House, and implemented throughout the various resource management agencies of the federal government. Workshops convened by the federal government for agencies of state governments have effectively transmitted

the concept of land management to the state agencies, who often do not realize that their land management plans are essentially The Wildlands Project.

NGOs, both those that are directly affiliated with The Wildlands Project, and others that prefer to maintain a distance, are busily implementing The Wildlands Project concept, whether called by that name or not. The Sierra Club calls its national plan “Ecoregions,” while The Wildlands Project uses the term Bioregions. UNESCO and the U.S. Man and the Biosphere Program refer to the same concept as Biosphere Reserves. The Department of Interior prefers to call these areas Ecosystem Management Areas. Whatever the name, they all describe the land management policy defined by Dr. Reed F. Noss in The Wildlands Project in 1992.

Just as the UN is using the existing 328 Biosphere Reserves as the first step toward a global implementation of The Wildlands Project, Noss and Dave Foreman, Chairman of The Wildlands Project (and a director of the Sierra Club), expect to use the existing network of Wilderness areas, national and state parks, and other federal lands as the first step toward implementation of The Wildlands Project in America.4 National and state parks, and the 100-million acres of designated wilderness in America represent only 12.6 percent of the land area now under some form of protection, according to the Global Biodiversity Assessment. Therefore, to reach the 50 percent threshold recommended by Noss, private lands must be brought under protection of The Wildlands Project concept as well.

Northern Forests

The Northern Appalachian Restoration Project, one of many NGOs coordinated by The Wildlands Project, is working to convert eight million acres of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont into a Headwaters Wilderness Reserve System. The area encompasses the headwaters of several rivers including the Androscoggin, Kennebec, Penobscot, St. John-Allagash-Aroostook, and Saco. About one million acres of the area are already publicly owned; the remaining seven million acres are privately owned by timber companies. Acquisition cost for the privately owned lands is approximately $2 billion — an amount equal to about two and one-half B-2 bombers, according to the Northern Appalachian Restoration Project.

The Headwaters project is seen as a “first step” in a plan that reaches to the Atlantic Ocean, which establishes corridors and buffer zones that will eventually encompass southern New England, New York’s Adirondacks, and reach up into eastern Canada. The time frame for completion of this project is 75 years, with bench marks at 10 and 25 years.


Since 1993, the Minnesota Ecosystems Recovery Project has been developing the Minnesota Biosphere Recovery Strategy. The Boundary Waters-Quetico region of northern Minnesota and southern Ontario represents about 1.1 million acres. The total area involves fourteen counties, more than 2 million hectares, that are said to be “roadless, or lightly roaded” which qualify for wilderness designation under the 1964 Wilderness Act. The Minnesota project would be the largest “statewide” reserve in the lower 48 states. Project designers recognize that the design is the easy part. “Educating and including local citizens at all levels of the process is imperative to its success.”

The area has long been prized by the environmental activist community. In 1984, the area was nominated for inclusion in UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve Program. As has been the practice, the nomination had already been made before the local community knew about it. More than three years of investigation and negotiation by local citizens resulted in the withdrawal of the nomination by the State Department in 1987. That withdrawal was the first time a Biosphere Reserve nomination was blocked by informed citizens’ involvement. Since then, nominations in the Catskills, and the Ozarks were also stopped by informed citizens’ action. The initiative did not die when the Biosphere Reserve nomination was withdrawn. It is alive and well, and being pursued under the name Minnesota Ecosystems Recovery Project.

Greater North Cascades

The Greater North Cascades Ecosystem includes more than 10 million acres Washington and British Columbia. The Northwest Ecosystem Alliance and the Sierra Biodiversity Institute are the coordinating NGOs for this area. Data collection, analysis, and mapping are the first steps toward designing a reserve system within a bioregion. The U.S. Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Heritage Programs, and state resource management agencies provide most of the information necessary for the design process.

Klamath/Siskiyou Region

The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) has declared this area to be of Global Botanical Significance, one of seven such areas in North America and 200 worldwide. An effort is being made to designate the area as a UN Biosphere Reserve, according to The Wildlands Project. The NGO coordinating the work is the Klamath Forest Alliance; Reed Noss, author of The Wildlands Project, was selected to direct the work. The project seeks not only to develop a successful bioregional plan for Klamath/Siskiyou, but also to develop methods for planning and implementation that are transferrable to other regions. The area covers approximately four million hectares, about one-third in Oregon and the balance in California. The project is funded by the W. Alton Jones Foundation, the Foundation for Deep Ecology, The Wildlands Project, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.5

Road RIP (Road Removal Implementation Project)

A common characteristic of core wilderness areas and interconnecting corridors is the absence of roads. Road RIP is an NGO dedicated to removing existing roads and preventing the construction of new roads. Their work is prioritized and coordinated to coincide with the priorities of The Wildlands Project. Their vision is “…of a North American wilderness without roads — wilderness unbroken by asphalt or gravel or bare stripped earth, uninvaded by industrial machinery or recreational motor vehicles.”

Road RIP has prepared handbooks for local activists that describe step-by-step procedures for challenging road construction and “Six Steps to Close a Road.” Sample letters, a comprehensive flow chart of the procedure and sample forms are provided to the organizations chapter’s. The author of the work, Keith Hammer, is credited with forcing the Forest Service to remove or commit to remove more than 1000 miles of roads in the Flathead National Forest.

The group is not content to close only roads in the national forests. Their ambitions run much higher:

“The best road density goal for maintaining and restoring ecological and evolutionary processes is ZERO — NO ROADS AT ALL. And what we call a road includes everything from interstate highways down to two-track logging roads, off-road vehicle trails, and snowmobile routes. They are all swaths of ecological destruction.”

Private Property

One of the more insidious aspects of The Wildlands Project is the strategy to incorporate private property into the biosphere reserves that are now being designed and implemented. In a word, the strategy is simply to redefine the legal parameters of private property rights. The strategy arises from a 1972 decision by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. In Just v. Marinette County, the Court ruled that “An owner of land has no absolute and unlimited right to change the essential natural character of his land so as to use it for a purpose for which it was unsuited in its natural state.”

On its face, the ruling could have profound implications for private property rights. Historically, land owners have been free to do with their land as they wish, so long as the use does not “harm” others. The Wisconsin ruling goes much further to say that the owner may not “harm” the land itself. Environmentalist were hopeful that the Wisconsin ruling would usher in a whole new understanding that land could not be violated just to accommodate the desires of its human owner.

A series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings, however, dashed the hopes of environmentalists, as case after case was decided in favor of the land owner.

Nevertheless, the idea of expanding the legal definition of “harm” took hold. Land owners have always been prohibited from using their land in a way that harms their neighbors. The Wildlands Project, and other environmental organizations, are campaigning to “educate” the courts and the public that what they consider to be inappropriate land use “harms” others. For example, when a wetland is filled, others are harmed by excessive run off and by the loss of the run off to the aquifer. When private property is clear cut others are harmed by the loss of biodiversity, according to the thinking of The Wildlands Project. The recent Sweet Home decision is an example of how the Supreme Court is expanding the definition of harm. Once it is established that land owners can harm the land itself, rather than only others, or that “others” may be unidentified souls who are, or may be indirectly impacted by the loss of some imagined benefit, private property ownership will be nearly meaningless. Moreover, government will be able to impose preemptive restrictions to prevent harm, even in the face of uncertainty as to whether harm will actually occur.

The United Nations, too, is working to expand legal protection for land and natural resources — and alter the traditional concept of private property rights. The United Nations Environment Programme believes:

“We should accept biodiversity as a legal subject and supply it with adequate rights. This could clarify the principle that biodiversity is not available for uncontrolled human use. It would therefore become necessary to justify any interference with biodiversity, and to provide proof that human interests justify the damage caused to biodiversity.”6

Another facet of the strategy to strip property rights of its meaning is expansion of the use of conservation easements. The Wildlands Projects instructs its various NGOs to first design the reserve system within the biosphere reserve. Then determine the appropriate uses that may be permitted in the buffer zone and the zone of cooperation, “…and then translate these use rules into the language of new types of conservation easements.”

Conservation easements can be as flexible as they need to be, they can be amended, they are inexpensive, and they are forever. Many agencies of the federal government are following the advice of The Wildlands Project by offering a variety of flexible conservation easements that allow the owner to retain title to the property — and continue to pay taxes — and forego specified uses of the property forever. Land owners who are victimized by this scheme usually receive a pittance for their property rights — and rob future generations of all the wealth that is turned over to the easement holder. The Nature Conservancy and other land trusts are exploiting this technique of separating resource utilization from the bundle of rights which traditionally have been considered private property rights.

The concept of land management being implemented by The Wildlands Project, UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves, and the Department of Interior’s Ecosystem Management Policy is one and the same — regardless of the name applied to it. It is the land management concept required by the Convention on Biological Diversity. But is it a valid concept?

The UN and the Department of Interior have accepted the concept whether it is scientifically valid or not. Congress has never considered the concept nor enacted legislation to authorize its implementation. The scientific community is quite skeptical. Even within the recently created specialized branch called “Conservation Biology,” most scientist are reluctant to embrace Noss’ land management concept. The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) was created by Reed Noss and Michael Soule, and Noss is editor of its journal. Noss says:

“…many conservation biologists have been leery of The Wildlands Project. Their hesitancy to get actively involved is not surprising. Scientists have been trained to separate fact and value (which is, ultimately, impossible) and to be totally objective…. Bold advocacy scares scientists.”7

Conservation biology is advocacy science — by Noss’ own admission. It is a science that readily accepts data that supports the desired conclusion, and ignores the data that does not. Noss presented The Wildlands Project at the annual meeting of the SCB in 1993, and asked for a critique. He was told — by the group he founded — that the project made “wildly utopian assumptions about the future; that the values were not shared by other citizens; and that the benefits of corridors and roadless areas were insufficiently validated to form the basis of the approach.”

That is a scathing critique from a group of scientists who are supposed to be dedicated to conservation biology. Regular biologists, who are not members of the SCB, or advocates for a political cause, have even stronger comments. Why, then, has the UN and the Department of Interior embraced the concept? Perhaps the answer lies in the value pursued, since it is apparent that objective, scientific fact is not that value.

The “Values” of The Wildlands Project

There are those among us who believe that all life forms have equal intrinsic value (biocentrism). There are others who believe that the value of human life is superior to all other life forms (anthropocentrism). Noss, Dave Foreman, and the supporters of The Wildlands Project, are among the former. They believe that humans have taken from the other species unfairly because of the insatiable human appetite for consumer goods. They are convinced that human technology has produced the capability of depleting biodiversity to the point of no return, and consequently, the entire human race is in jeopardy. The only way to save the planet, and the human population, is to force humans to return to a more balanced relationship with the other species.

Noss believes that when a conflict arises between human needs and the needs of the non-human community — the needs of the non-human community must prevail. That’s what The Wildlands Project is all about. Noss has determined that non-human species need at least half the land area in North America returned to its pre-settlement condition of wilderness in order to maintain viable populations of species. Humans must be forced to behave in ways that are not destructive to the non-human community if they are to be allowed in the buffer zones surrounding the wilderness areas. These objectives can be achieved only by forcing humans into “sustainable” communities where their behavior can be managed to achieve the biological value that drives The Wildlands Project.

Noss, and those who agree with him, have little patience with dissenting opinion. He complains bitterly that the opinions of Al Schneberger, former Executive Director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association, were given “equal weight” by the press with those who are “educated” in matters of conservation biology. He considers scientists who disagree with his concept “less reputable” than those who do. Those who share the biocentric view frequently consider themselves to be “enlightened.” Those who cannot be converted are ignored, if possible, and if not, they are ridiculed and discredited. It is a technique that is commonly used and quite widespread.

The land management concept enshrined in The Wildlands Project is moving forward despite the absence of scientific validity, in pursuit of a philosophical or, perhaps, a religious value, wrapped in robes of political correctness by Al Gore and his federal agencies and the elite of the United Nations.

eco-logic staff


1. Reed F. Noss, “The Wildlands Project”, Wild Earth, Special Issue, 1992, p. 20.

2. “Biosphere Reserves: The First Twenty Years,” The Seville Strategy for Biosphere Reserves, March, 1995, p. 1.

3. Global Biodiversity Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme, (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 993.

4. Dave Foreman, “Wilderness Areas and National Parks,” Wild Earth, Winter 1995/1996, p. 60.

5. Wild Earth, Op. Cit., Winter 1995/1996, p. 56.

6. Global Biodiversity Assessment, Op. Cit., p. 787.

7. Reed F. Noss, “Science Grounding Strategy,” Wild Earth, Winter 1995/1996, p. 17.

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