“Safe Passage”

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The Story

“Safe Passage”
by Ben Goldfarb
Orion, November/December 2015

The Pitch

Nancy Newhouse swings her truck into a rutted pullout alongside Highway 3A, the two-lane ribbon that winds northward through eastern British Columbia, and four people step out into the drizzle. Logging trucks spatter our legs with mud as we trudge along the road’s shoulder. After a hundred yards, Newhouse stops.

“There it is,” she says, gesturing to the west. “That’s the linkage.” Below us, in the Creston Valley, a few acres of inglorious hayfields are just visible through the rain. There’s no signage, no fanfare whatsoever, to suggest that we’re overlooking one of the most important sites in a vast international conservation strategy.

Those fields, says Dave Hilarie, director of the Kootenay Conservation Project, comprise the Frog-Bear Conservation Area — a parcel of land purchased by Newhouse’s organization, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, from a local sawmill last summer. The valley doesn’t look like much, but years of tracking have revealed that British Columbia’s grizzly bears, whose populations have long been fragmented by civilization, use the area to move between the Purcell Mountains and the neighboring Selkirks. With the Frog-Bear corridor safe from subdivision and development, Newhouse says, isolated pockets of bears will at last be able to mingle and mate. This humble, 306-acre polygon of hay and oats — NCC leases the fields to a local farmer — could be the difference between survival and extinction for some of BC’s scattered clusters of grizzlies.

Tom Swann, NCC’s director of land securement, surveys the gray valley. Yellowstone National Park, it ain’t. “Amazing, isn’t it,” he says. “You protect all that land, and it comes down to this.”

The Frog-Bear connection isn’t just important for British Columbia’s grizzlies — it’s a crucial piece in the world’s biggest conservation puzzle. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, or Y2Y, is a growing network of contiguous protected areas and wildlife corridors that may someday allow animals to wander unhindered through lands the size of France, Spain, and the United Kingdom combined. Y2Y’s advocates dream that the effort will allow caribou to resume historic migration routes, link dwindling pockets of wolverines, and help species of all sizes flee northward in the face of climate change. Across the planet, from Australia to Africa to
Florida, conservationists are awakening to the promise of such large-landscape projects — none of them larger than Y2Y.

Y2Y also embodies a vital new conservation paradigm. Since the days of John Muir, environmentalists have focused on protecting scenic places — the peaks and ridges that define, say, Glacier National Park — at the expense of valley bottoms, the fertile areas where we grow crops and build homes. But today, biologists recognize that lowlands like Frog Bear provide prime habitat for elk, bears, and other wildlife. The most crucial work within Y2Y is being conducted at these fragile margins — the populated valleys where animals and human development collide. If towns, ranches, forestry lands, and highways render land impermeable to wildlife, all the parks in North America won’t be enough to preserve functional ecosystems.

I spent two months this fall traveling from the Yukon to Yellowstone, discovering how Y2Y and its partners are making human activities compatible with wildlife movement. I visited organizations like the Yaak Valley Forest Council, a group that works with timber companies and the Forest Service to promote wildlife-friendly harvesting and decommission logging roads. I toured ranches in Montana with landowners who are altering their operations to accommodate grizzlies now recolonizing the prairies. I drove roads like the TransCanada Highway, once nicknamed “The Meatmaker” for its astronomic roadkill rates, and met with biologists who are spending millions of dollars to make these death traps passable to migrating animals. Of course, the threats to Y2Y are constant and protean: there’s the fracking boom in British Columbia; the creeping industrialization of Canada’s national parks; the oil and gas development that surrounds the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem; the mining plan just approved for the Yukon.
Every time Y2Y surmounts one impediment to connectivity, another emerges.

I propose to write a feature for Orion that identifies the places in which Y2Y is succeeding, as well as where, and why, links haven’t been forged. This story is a distant cousin to the lovely “Lone Wolf” piece that ran in Orion this fall; but where that story concluded on a disheartening note — the west-wide slaughter of wolves, and OR7’s doomed and lonely existence — mine is a story about solutions, about how a quixotic vision becomes reality, and about a project whose successes and failures will influence the future of conservation.

I’m a freelance writer whose work has appeared in OnEarth Magazine, Earth Island Journal, High Country News, Green Futures Magazine, and elsewhere. Full clips available at http://www.bengoldfarb.com. Thanks for considering this pitch.

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