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The East Hampton Star “Talks To”

Spine of the Continent: Nature Needs Help

The most ambitious wildlife conservation project ever undertaken.

By Christopher Walsh | September 11, 2012

Mary Ellen Hannibal writes about how important connected spaces are to wildlife in “The Spine of the Continent,” just published by Lyons Press.

The year 2012 has brought record-setting temperatures, deadly heat waves, freak storms, devastating wildfires, and prolonged droughts. While the scientific community has heretofore been reluctant to tie individual events to global climate change, a consensus is building that these phenomena are in fact manifestations of a warming planet, and harbingers of even more extreme weather events.

Scientists also say the world is entering a sixth “mass-extinction” event, in which species loss will occur at a rate and magnitude on par with the Cretaceous-Tertiary period, in which dinosaurs disappeared.

But even as climatologists issue ever more dire warnings, there is some heartening news. In her new book, “The Spine of the Continent,” just published by Lyons Press, Mary Ellen Hannibal describes “the most ambitious wildlife conservation project ever undertaken.”

A conversation with Ms. Hannibal, who was born in East Hampton and now lives in San Francisco, may cover topics from pesticides to evolution, species distribution to science class at East Hampton High School, grizzly bears to transnational corporations engaged in the extraction of oil, gas, and coal. But the word “connectivity” — an essential component not just of wildlife habitat but to nature in its entirety — is sure to be sprinkled liberally throughout, as it is in the book.

The project, the Spine of the Continent, involves the coordinated efforts of some 30 nonprofit organizations to reconstruct a 5,000-mile-long network of connected landscapes stretching from Alaska and the Yukon down along the Rocky Mountains and associated ranges, including basins, plateaus, and deserts, all the way to the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in Mexico. The goal is to let wildlife roam free, even as climate change alters their habitat.

Ms. Hannibal became interested in the project as she researched her 2009 book, “Evidence of Evolution,” which included interviews with members of the California Academy of Sciences. “They’re taxonomists. They’re putting new species on the tree of life, and they do this by examining the morphology, or body form, of different species,” she said. “I was interviewing mostly men in their 50s and 60s, and while I was interviewing them, three of them cried. Their study subjects are disappearing, and the places where they study them are changing too fast.”

Change is a constant in nature, she continued, “but human impacts are accelerating environmental changes so that species cannot adapt, and that’s changing biological relationships. On one hand, it’s creating this extinction crisis that we’re in, but another reverberation is that it’s affecting all of these species’ relationships. That’s between pollinators and flowers, and it really has the potential to very negatively impact very basic services that we depend on from nature, like feeding us. Connectivity goes all the way down to the soil, the vegetation, and the waterways, and keeping the processes that nature depends on functional.”

Dr. Healy Hamilton of the California academy does species-distribution modeling, mapping habitat and areas where species are likely to live. “She showed me that she was doing this on behalf of this long-term conservation initiative to create linked landscapes and preserve connectivity between wild areas, so that plants and animals can find new habitat as the climate is changing,” said Ms. Hannibal.

The connectivity concept also represents an important evolution in how we think about conservation. The “national parks” approach, Ms. Hannibal said, is outdated: “It turns out that this not only doesn’t work but is in some ways negative, because plants and animals need to move in order to renew their genetic viability.”

Fortunately, she said, there is still adequate wilderness to realize the goals of the Spine of the Continent. “It is not only possible, it’s really necessary, because these places won’t persist without a full complement of species on them. And we need nature doing its thing. Just think about sequestering carbon, creating oxygen, providing habitat for pollinators and birds as they’re passing through. We really need some part of the earth to be sustained as wild.”

Awareness of the importance of connectivity is greater in the Western states where the Spine of the Continent initiative is based, she said, but everyone can do something to help. “You don’t really have wilderness in East Hampton, but you do need to think about connectivity in terms of waterways and keeping the health of the water. When there’s zoning board meetings or any kind of land-use decision, go to the meeting and have connectivity in mind. Become environmentally aware: Try not to buy plastic water bottles, use recyclable containers, don’t idle your car.” “We have to view ourselves as co-inhabitants on this earth,” Ms. Hannibal said. “It’s not going to matter how rich anybody is, or how many jobs there are, if all of these systems collapse. I wrote my book hoping to help people understand what nature is up against and how we can help.”

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