Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with John Davis

Find out what continental habitat connectivity and fragmentation looks like on a 4,500 mile trek from southern Florida to California.

By Amy Nelson

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Writer, adventurer and naturalist John Davis recently began TrekEast, a 4500-mile journey along what is being called the “Eastern Wildway,” an envisioned, continental-sized wildlife corridor along the East Coast of North America. Intent on using mostly human power, John is hiking, paddling, cycling and skiing through the spectacular and biologically diverse lands and waters stretching from the southernmost points of Florida to the Acadian forests of Maritime Canada.

John is the former editor of Wild Earth magazine and former Biodiversity Program officer of the Foundation for Deep Ecology. He is one of the founders of Wildlands Network, and he has served on the boards of numerous organizations dedicated to protection of wildlife and wild places. Throughout his twenty-year career as conservation leader, this Adirondack native with an indomitable passion for nature has supported continental-size wildlife corridors. His hope continues to be that more people will awaken to the important role Wildways play and that we will find respite in the existence of these large landscapes.

John hopes to complete TrekEast by cross country skiing through Canada’s Gaspe Bay Peninsula by the end of November. He is writing about his journey on the TrekEast Blog. We caught up with John a few weeks after the launch of the trek.

What is the purpose of TrekEast?

TrekEast has a triple purpose. One is that it’s a physical adventure. I love exploring wild places on foot, in a canoe or kayak, or by skiing or pedaling. A second reason is reconnecting with old colleagues. When I was the editor of Wild Earth magazine I befriended some of the greatest naturalists in the world. Although we have kept in touch, I have not seen many of them in years. So a second motive for me was seeing these important conservationists and colleagues. The most important aim of TrekEast, however, is to communicate the significance of wildlife and wildlife habitat connectivity–the importance of big, wild creatures and the big, wild places they need.

Tell us about the Eastern Wildway you are traveling. Is it real? Envisioned?

At this point, the Eastern Wildway is more of an idea, a value, a dream. We hope it will be a protected mosaic of natural habitats running north, south, east and west across the eastern U.S. This will take decades and will be the work of our children and grandchildren.

Although it will include national wildlife refuges and national parks, most of it will be private land, at least for the foreseeable future. It will include managed lands which are harvested for timber or crops. It will include land holdings of families who just want to enjoy and protect the woods. It will include all levels of protection and all manners of ownership. Privately owned lands will be protected voluntarily. The goal will be to protect a wild enough and wide enough area of habitat across the eastern U.S. that we can provide plenty of room for all native species, including wide-ranging species like wolves, panthers, bears and otters.

The Eastern Wildway is a dream, but it is achievable. We have many pieces in place. We already have national wildlife refuges and parks. They are all vitally important, but they need to be bigger, and they need to be better connected. Part of what the Eastern Wildway is about is identifying the gaps between the existing protected areas and getting them protected in one way or another.

I understand that the Eastern Wildway is one of four North American continental Wildways that Wildlands Network is striving to complete (Western, Pacific & Artic/Boreal). How does the condition of the Eastern Wildway compare to that of the others?

At this point, the Eastern Wildway is the most fragmented and the hardest to put in place in the short run. It will need many additional wildlife corridors before we really have continuous, protected wildlife habitat. The eastern U.S. is very heavily developed and densely populated, but it’s not too late. If you look at aerial photographs or satellite imagery, you realize that there is still a lot of semi-natural habitat and open space across the eastern U.S. With very modest changes on the ground, we could actually reconnect and expand wildlife habitat. In order of wildness, I’d say the Eastern Wildway has the farthest to go.

The wildway that’s probably closest to being in place now is the Artic/Boreal Wildway. Most of Canada’s Boreal forest is still relatively intact. There, it is not so much a matter of restoring as it is protecting what we now have on the ground and trying to avert catastrophic climate change.

The Western Wildway, the Rocky Mountain “spine of the continent” is probably the second wildest or most intact.  I’d guess the third most intact is the Pacific. In parts of Pacific Wildway, we just need to keep things in place, but there are parts where active restoration will be needed.

These wildway protection efforts will almost certainly require–especially here in the East—active restoration efforts. It’s very good to see a growing conversation between restoration professionals and conservation advocates.

Based on what you know and have experienced so far on this trek, what strikes you as being the dominant cause of habitat fragmentation along the Eastern Wildway? 

From a standpoint of wildlife safety, the number one enemy is roads. Roads are associated with many different types of land uses, but in the East, the dominant land use that encourages the building of roads is inappropriate development. It is possible to put in housing developments in a sensible way and not fragment much habitat, but generally speaking, housing and commercial development in our country has not been thoughtful or well-planned. It has caused a lot of habitat fragmentation and it continues to do so.

You launched TrekEast on February 3rd by paddling and snorkeling John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida. Tell us about the significance of this coral reef.

All coral reefs are important. The rainforests of the sea, they are incredibly rich–not just in species numbers, but in beauty and color. It’s important to emphasize that it’s not just abstract terms like ecosystem integrity and habitat connectivity we’re trying to protect here. It’s also natural beauty.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park is protecting the largest coral reef in the contiguous U.S. It is also one of the oldest marine protected areas in the world. It is still wild and wonderful to my eyes, but I gather it has been hard hit by development and the resulting influxes of nutrients and chemicals. Apparently, it is not what it once was in terms of richness and diversity.

I heard that you were greeted almost immediately by a manatee. True?

It is true. I launched with a number of friends and colleagues, and almost as soon as we went out, a manatee surfaced. The manatee just browsed in the sea grasses for a while before we paddled away. It felt like a very favorable omen.

From Key Largo, you headed to Everglades National Park. What types of ecosystems did you travel through on that journey?

I bicycled around Key Largo to Flamingo at the southern end of the Everglades. I traveled through pinelands, a very flat, fire-dependent ecosystem, but one that is surprisingly rich in species. To an outsider like me, it looks like a fairly simple ecosystem, but the herb layer in these pinelands is actually very rich in species.

I went through the famous River of Grass, which is a sawgrass marsh or plain, a very wet ecosystem during the rainy season. I went past dwarf cypress stands, which were 10-15 feet high. I passed hardwood hammocks, a very rich botanical community.

What sorts of interesting critters have you seen?

Many, many big birds: wading birds, diving birds, herons, cormorants, bald eagles and osprey. I’ve also seen alligators. Once I got to Flamingo {District of Everglades National Park], I saw crocodiles and manatees. Later, as I paddled north through the Everglades along the Wilderness Waterway, I saw an even greater diversity of bird species, including spoonbills, night herons, egrets, ibises.

Unfortunately, the abundance of water birds in the Everglades is way down from historic numbers. It is depressing, but amazing to me at the same time. I come form the North, where I feel lucky if I see two or three Great Blue Herons in one day. In the Everglades you see, a dozen at a time, white pelicans, brown pelicans, Great Egrets…an amazing abundance and diversity of birds. Yet despite the big numbers we saw, apparently only about 10% of the historic numbers of water birds are still there because of the disruptions of natural water flows and past over hunting. There have been a couple of waves of destruction of water birds in South Florida. Back when it was fashionable to wear feathers in hats, the millinery trade caused the decimation of many bird species throughout the Eastern U.S. Later, there were all the disruptions of natural water flow. Both of those took a terrible toll on these birds.

Let’s talk about the disruption of natural water flow. How have the man made canals in the Everglades impacted connectivity?

I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but as I understand it, these abrupt, steep-sided canals can pose an unnatural barrier to the movement of some small species. For example, farther north in Florida, gopher tortoise, will not cross fishing channels or canals. In addition to being barriers to movement, [the canals] can serve as conduits to the spread of invasive species.

In general terms, unnatural connections like roads and canals tend to encourage the spread of invasive species. We all know that weeds follow roads. Exotic clams and fish tend to follow canals and channels. Something that may serve as a connection for an exotic species may be a very harmful thing for an ecosystem because it may be a barrier for some native species. On the other hand, natural habitat connections tend to favor the movement of native species.

Have you encountered any imperiled species, like the Key Largo woodrat or the Florida panther?

I’ve seen quite a few. Florida has a long list of state and federally listed endangered species. The list is long partly because Florida is so rich in species and has many endemic species, but also because Florida has become so badly fragmented. Among imperiled, not necessarily listed endangered species, we saw American alligator and American crocodile. Both of these species are conservation success stories. Both have rebounded from past decimated populations. The crocodile is not doing as well as the alligator, but it’s doing better than it was 30 years ago.

We saw spoonbills and wood storks, which I believe are listed. In Big Cypress, still in the Everglades ecosystem, but north of Everglades National Park, I saw a Big Cypress fox squirrel, which I understand is recognized by some biologists as a distinct and, unfortunately, imperiled subspecies of the fox squirrel.

I probably saw some endangered plants, but I could not even identify them. I was hoping to find some of the rare orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand, but I was by myself then, and I’m just not a keen enough plant observer to find them. There are about 47 species of orchids in Fakahatchee Strand!

Some scientists think of the bald eagle in Florida as being the Southern bald eagle, a distinct subpopulation. We did see quite a few bald eagles. Although I don’t think ospreys are considered biologically imperiled in Florida, they are elsewhere. We saw scores of osprey. In fact, in the Everglades, that was the most common raptor. Every major water body seemed to have a pair of osprey.

We saw a smalltooth sawfish, which is possibly the most bizarre looking fish I have ever seen. It’s a long, flattened fish with a nose that looks like a chainsaw. The one we saw was modest in size, only three or four feet long. It was on the bottom of a sandy creek near a part of the Wilderness Waterway aptly called “The Nightmare.” It’s a very windy, dark tunnel through the mangroves and it’s a wonderful paddle. We saw this fish in a creek leading into that area. It was a rare sighting these days because unfortunately, these have been overfished and probably suffered from habitat destruction as well. Their numbers are way down and there are not many big ones anymore. Apparently, sawfish used to attain lengths of twenty feet. Imagine a 15-foot long flat fish with a five-foot chainsaw for a nose!

To what is the rebound of the American alligator and American crocodile attributed?

For the alligator, the main thing was to stop the persecution. When it was listed under the Endangered Species Act, that killing was greatly reduced, and that has allowed their numbers to rebound. While this is also true for the American crocodile, it is important to emphasize that they have also benefitted from continued habitat connectivity, mostly marine. They have apparently three somewhat distinct populations, but with interchange between them. There is a distinct population near Turkey Point nuclear reactor, oddly enough. There’s one at Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge on north Key Largo, and there’s one in the Everglades. Crocodiles have been able to move back and forth, which has kept them genetically healthy and allowed their numbers to increase once the direct killing stopped. The Endangered Species Act has worked.

You paddled through Everglades’ Wilderness Waterway. What highlights can you share from that experience?

That “Nightmare” section that I mentioned before was a real highlight. It was really fun paddling through this mangrove tunnel. It was not at all eerie or creepy the way you might imagine it. Though we did not see any snakes, reptiles or amphibians, we did see many herons, egrets and beautiful, showy birds.

You mentioned snakes, which makes me think of the Burmese python, a well-known invasive species in the Everglades. What are some of the most threatening invasive species in the Everglades, and did you see them?

The Burmese python is considered to be a real problem. It out-competes other snakes and it’s a very effective predator. It’s probably simply taking prey from other, native predators. We kept our eyes out for Burmese python, but we did not see any. The lionfish, which is highly invasive, is in the Everglades and other waters around Florida.  Feral hogs, which are related to wild boar, run rampant across many parts of Florida.

Melaleuca, an invasive tree, is considered to be a huge problem in the Everglades ecosystem, but we did not actually see any. We did see a lot of Brazilian pepper, distinguished by their bright red berries. They are spreading along some waterways and, unfortunately, displacing some native species. They are a big problem. I gather that water hyacinth is a problem in southern Florida, but we did not see any.

The ornamental plant trade and highway departments that use exotics in their planting efforts tend to be the main sources of invasive plant species. Ironically, some plants that have run amok were initially used with good intentions like erosion control. It’s another example where good intentions not backed by enough ecological knowledge can lead to harmful consequences. Most exotic species were not introduced for malicious or greedy reasons. It’s usually a well intentioned effort that goes afoul.

You mentioned the goal of having wide and wild enough corridors for keystone species like wolves, panthers and bears. What are your thoughts on the reintroduction of keystone species in general? Are there keystone species along the Eastern Wildway that you hope to encounter?

I was discussing this recently with Wildlands Executive Director, Margot McKnight, and she made a good point. We don’t really want to get to the point where reintroduction of missing species is necessary. It’s much better to protect enough habitat so that the native species stay here all along or can re-colonize an area after being lost from that area. Rather than having to actively bring red wolves into the Southeast, for instance, we should protect and restore enough habitat so they can get there on their own. But that’s not always feasible. There are some areas and some species for which active reintroduction probably will be necessary. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether an active reintroduction should be done or if it’s better to simply protect habitat and hope that the species will return on its own.

For the Florida panther, I think the main thing is to restore habitat connectivity northward. Right now, they are limited to a small breeding range south of the Caloosahatchee River. We need to provide safe passage across highways and across the artificially dredged Caloosahatchee River so panther populations can spread northward and I would hope, eventually spread back across much of the eastern U.S.

The red wolf is now restricted to a tiny range on the coast of North Carolina. Its native range is supposed to take in much of the southeastern U.S. and possibly some of the northeastern U.S. as well. Again, I think the emphasis should be on protecting and restoring habitat connectivity, but it may be worth considering some additional active restoration. We would not have any red wolves in the wild right now were it not for an earlier reintroduction effort at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. It has been a very successful effort, but so far limited to a very small part of coastal North Carolina.

In general, I think conservationists need to be very open to the idea of actively reintroducing missing species. But before we take that step, which tends to be very expensive economically and politically and tends to be divisive, we need to protect and restore connections between wild places.

As far as keystone species I hope to see or see sign of and write about in TrekEast…

I was fortunate enough in Big Cypress to see what I’m fairly certain were mother and kitten panther tracks. Needless to say, if I actually saw a living panther in the wild, I’d be beside myself with joy. That’s not very likely, as they’re highly elusive animals.

I would love to see a red wolf. I will be getting up to red wolf habitat in North Carolina. The chance of seeing one in the wild is pretty slim because their numbers are so small, but there is a chance.

Some of the more common, charismatic keystone species include the black bear, which I think I’ll have a good chance of seeing. I think I have a good chance of seeing river otters, which I see back home in the Adirondacks. Like mink, river otters are an indicator of aquatic ecosystem health. In Kentucky, where there have been successful elk reintroduction efforts, I hope to see some of those animals. Farther north, I hope to see moose. I think there’s a good chance of that. Moose are another conservation success story. They have re-colonized much of northern New England and New York, thanks to their protection and to the strands of wider areas of continuous habitat connectivity through the northern forests.

There are also less well-known species that are important to talk about, like the gopher tortoise here in Florida. Its burrows in the ground apparently provide habitat for scores of other species, including the indigo snake, which is another important, wide-ranging species very sensitive to habitat fragmentation. So it’s not just about big mammals. I’ll also be talking about songbirds, snakes, turtles, salamanders, fish and a whole array of important species.

What kind of attention has TrekEast received from public officials?

In terms of public officials, I’d say we’re just beginning our outreach. At the launch, Steve Klett the superintendent of Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge, gave a very nice talk and emphasized habitat connectivity.

We’ve had good conversations with David Rabon, who is in charge of the red wolf recovery effort in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. I’m hoping to visit him in eastern North Carolina this spring. These are just the beginnings of many conversations we hope to have with federal, state and other wildlife officials to see how conservationists can help their efforts and to encourage their support for habitat protection and recovery efforts.

In terms of media, we’ve had quite a bit of interest from local radio stations and some newsletters and magazines, and we’re very encouraged by that. The media seems to believe that their readers and listeners are interested in wildlife issues and in a trek that explores those issues.

What can people do to support TrekEast and the larger issue of continental connectivity?

First of all, go to Wildlands Network’s web site. We are building a list of specific actions that leaders and supporters of conservation can take. To the extent we can, after I travel through a place and write about it, specific action steps will be profiled on the Wildlands Network web site and through links to our conservation partners like the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Adriondack Council, RESTORE: The North Woods and many more groups that are involved in these efforts. So getting on the Wildlands Network web site is a good first step to take.

In a more general sense, people who are interested in wildlife and protecting the natural heritage in their area, should learn about the natural history of their area. Get some background so you know some of the threats to habitat and the opportunities for protection. Join some local conservation groups. Join a land trust or a regional conservation advocacy group. Every conservation organization throughout the country can point supporters to specific actions they can take.

The sorts of things that concerned people should be pushing for through letters, talking with neighbors, and voting are: safe wildlife passages across roads; requiring new developments to cluster housing in already developed areas rather than breaking into natural habitats; slower nighttime speed limits on some roads where road kill is a big problem; establishing wildlife corridors between existing protected areas; designating wilderness areas; extending National Wildlife Refuges. There’s a whole host of actions people can take.

I’m sure most Leaf Litter readers are very advanced in conservation and restoration thinking and will know what to do. But many Americans value wildlife and natural heritage and want to do the right thing and but really don’t know much about what they can do.

Unfortunately, many people only care about an issue when it directly impacts their day-to-day lives. How is connectivity relevant to humans?

That’s a very important question. I preface my answer by saying that I always like to remind myself and others that wildlife has value in its own right, and that natural habitat is good in and of itself. Even if it doesn’t obviously provide benefit for people, it’s a good thing to protect wildlife. It’s a good thing to have big, wild spaces out there. It’s good for us as a people to have wildness around us. I really believe that.

But there’s a growing science of ecosystem services, where biologists and others are studying the benefits we derive from ecosystems. There is a very, very long list of ecosystem services without which civilization as we know it would not function nearly so well. There are things such as pollination, filtration of air and water, carbon sequestration, and the list goes on and on. These services depend on healthy, connected, wild habitat.

There are specific situations where it becomes evident that habitat connectivity matters. For instance, deer in the eastern U.S. have become unnaturally abundant in many places. They have become, it is fair to say, a pest. I love deer. They are beautiful animals, and they do belong here, but they probably do not belong here in such great numbers. If we had natural predators like wolves and cougars, deer would be less of a problem for farmers and gardeners, and they would be less of a problem in the form of carrying ticks that bare diseases like Lyme disease. It may not be easy to prove a direct correlation between Lyme disease and habitat destruction, but I think it’s fair to say that fragmenting habitat and eliminating the top carnivores like wolves and cougars has made it easy for some of the former prey species of some of these top animals to become unnaturally abundant and become pests to gardens, farms and our health.

What is the most resilient aspect of ecosystems that you have observed?

The success stories I mentioned earlier. The bald eagle, American alligator and American crocodile were species protected under the Endangered Species Act and the act worked. Those species’ numbers have rebounded. They’re not back up to their historic numbers, but they are back to healthier levels and they are playing the roles they should be in their ecosystems.

Farther on into my journey, I spent a couple of days in a wonderful preserve called Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park  in central Florida with the brilliant biologists Reed Noss and Paul Miller. They taught me quite a bit about the importance of fire in that natural prairie. It’s a 54,000-acre prairie that very few people even know exists. Most people don’t associate Florida with prairie, yet much of southern and central Florida was wet or semi-dry prairie. Fire is vitally important in these prairies.

One of the most endangered birds in North America is the Florida grasshopper sparrow. Reed Noss says this bird is possibly the most fire-dependent animal species on the continent. It needs frequent fires to sweep through grasslands every few years to maintain the open runways along which it can run. It evades predators by running rather than flying. This bird is highly imperiled because fire has been suppressed in most Florida ecosystems, and most ecosystems in this country. Fortunately, Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is a big enough swath of intact, natural prairie that they are able to work on restoring the natural fire regimes. The results have been wonderful. The natural prairie is being restored and it’s beautiful to behold. The Kissimmee prairie is another conservation-even restoration-success story.

What’s been one of the most surprising things you’ve experienced or seen so far on this trip?

The Kissimmee Prairie was a big surprise. I knew about the existence of grasslands, but I didn’t have the sense of their size. It’s almost like a western landscape, but more lush. Grassland as far as the eye could see. I didn’t expect to see that in Florida. Within that area, I was surprised to learn that the last place [now extinct] Carolina parakeets were ever documented as nesting was in a place called Gum Slough in the midst of this prairie. I had no idea that Carolina parakeets might be found in a small wooded area in the middle of a vast prairie.

In general, the almost southwestern feel of central Florida has surprised me. It’s hot and sunny in the afternoon and the humidity, by eastern standards, is relatively low in winter and early spring. In some of these scrub pine habitats through which I have walked, I almost feel like I’m in the Sonoran Desert.

Perhaps most important, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there are still big blocks of natural, or at least semi-natural habitat in Florida. The opportunities for protecting and restoring habitat in Florida are still tremendous. Reed Noss assured me that more than a fourth–27%–of the state has been preserved at least to some degree. There are some big, big areas in Florida that are unprotected, but still semi-natural. A lot of those areas are ranches, which are a very big part of Florida’s culture and economy. Getting conservation easements on some of those big ranches before they are lost to subdivisions is vitally important.

If you had enough money and power to restore one major broken habitat linkage somewhere along the Eastern Wildway, what would you restore and why?

I think I would answer that question differently each time I enter a new region. I know when I’m back home in the Adirondacks, I feel like the most important things to do are provide safe passage across Interstate 87, which cuts through Adirondack Park, and reconnect Adirondack Park with wildlands outside the park.

Now that I’m traveling through Florida, it seems like the most important thing to do is provide safe passage across the major roads. There are some wildlife crossings, but there are many major roads, including the Tamiami [Trail Scenic] Highway (U.S. 41), Route 27 and the Florida Turnpike, which do not have safe wildlife crossings. That’s a top priority.  Also, that barrier I mentioned earlier, the Caloosahatchee River. Pretty much the whole breeding population of panthers is south of this river.  Apparently the males are willing to venture across, but females are not crossing. They do not want to cross this big area of running, open water. The Caloosahatchee used to be narrow and swampy, and animals could travel back and forth but now that it has been dredged, the females will not cross. We somehow need to provide a safe way for panthers to get back and forth across this river so they can re-colonize areas of northern Florida and beyond.

Where are you headed next?

I am next going to the Green Swamp State Forest northeast of Tampa. Then I’ll pedal west to the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge on the west coast of Florida, where there’s a mostly isolated population of black bears trying to hold on, and great shorebird and wading bird habitat. From there, I’ll head to the Ocala National Forest.

Think big. Ecological restoration efforts on the ground are absolutely critical, and they will be even more so as they tie together and put in place on a larger landscape level and even a continental wildways level.

I’m very encouraged by the increasing dialogue between ecological restoration practitioners and conservation advocates. I encourage more conversation and collaboration between the conservation and restoration communities. Both are equally needed in the effort to protect and restore our natural heritage.

A Tribute to Mary Byrd Davis

Sadly, John’s mother, Mary Byrd Davis, died of cancer shortly after he began TrekEast. A tireless advocate for world peace and environmental protection, and author and editor of books on both subjects, Mary Byrd Davis played a key role in the protection of old-growth forests in the Eastern U.S. Her books Old Growth In the East: A Survey and Eastern Old-Growth Forests: Prospects for Rediscovery and Recovery  includes the most complete survey to date of old growth forests in the Eastern U.S. The book not only enabled conservationists to locate these forests, but it also helped call attention to the need to protect them. In 1990, Mary Byrd Davis, along with John and colleagues Dave Foreman, Reed Noss, and David Johns, started Wild Earth magazine. Published until 1997, Wild Earth blended conservation biology and wildlands activism. Mary Byrd Davis also produced a great deal of research and writing on the nuclear industry, particularly in France, where she was well known for her expertise on the subject. Along with John’s father, Bob Davis, Mary Byrd Davis fostered in her children a love of and connection to nature and a passion for protecting wild places. All of us at Leaf Litter mourn the loss of Mary Byrd Davis and celebrate her contributions to all living things.

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