Controversy Trails in the Wake of “Rewilding”: Explore the Nuance

The clarion call of the ‘90s to “save the trees” wasn’t too far off base… but we’ve learned so much more now that we’ll have to adjust our processes a bit.

You see, one thing that ecologists, biodiversity experts, climate scientists, and conservationists can agree on is that nature in its purest, least molested form has incredible carbon sequestration capabilities. After all, carbon doesn’t only come from fossil fuels, Nature has had its own way of regulating climate since the dawn of time.

That method depends heavily on intricately connected ecosystems.

And bit by bit, man has teased those ecosystems apart for one reason or another. 

We did away with apex predators like wolves and lynxes because they were threats to our livestock, which we needed in order to sell animal products and support our families.

We deforested trees to clear paths for homesteads, and used the lumber to build our shelters.

We’ve disrupted the migratory patterns of birds with our pesticides, destroyed biodiversity in favor of cash crop monoculture, robbed the world of valuable carbon sinks, and threatened our pollinators with extinction.

And when we think of all that we’ve changed about nature’s complete design, “planting trees” feels like it doesn’t quite cover all manner of sins.

Although “rewilding” contains a multitude of meanings depending on the listener (more on that further down), simply planting trees isn’t going far enough towards restoring ecosystems, sequestering carbon, or preventing extinction.

Here’s why.

Planting Trees is Only the First Step

When the World Economic Forum announced in January of this year that they were launching a global initiative to plant one trillion trees within the coming decade, activists and civilians alike rejoiced.

That’s a big number – the planet will surely benefit enormously from one trillion more trees, won’t it?

Possibly… but there are caveats.

For starters, tree planting has the strongest effect when it’s done in urban areas, and that’s because urban centers are carbon hotspots without the possibility of being “rewilded”. Vacant lots behind movie theaters don’t have the potential to be returned to their original states as thriving wetlands or grasslands or whatever they were before we paved them…

But a perimeter of trees where there was previously only concrete can have a more powerful effect than zero trees. And we need to plant them there, otherwise they won’t grow because there aren’t natural seed sources nearby to carry seeds on the wind or through animal excrement.

However, planting trees doesn’t often result in full forest regrowth. We’re only planting a handful of species, and usually without consideration of what’s native to the area. 

That means that the trees grown where humans have planted them might not restore the original ecosystem at best, and at worst may actually harm the species still living there.

Plus, tree diversity encourages animal and insect species diversity, which welcomes more life.

There are several different ways to bring about the return of trees where we’ve previously decimated them. 

Afforestation, for example, is a method of planting trees where a forest had not existed in the past. It’s laying the foundations for nature to create a new ecosystem.

Reforestation is planting trees where a forest did exist, up until relatively recently.

Natural forest regrowth, however, is simply removing obstacles to trees, such as invasive species, grazing animals, or pesticides, which involves less up-front cost than a massive tree-planting campaign.

Rewilding, of course, is its own beast.

The Nature of Rewilding

Rewilding became an expression in the 1990s, coined by American environmentalist Dave Froman. It’s garnered criticism for a few reasons.

For one, some of its critics take issue with its emphasis on low-human involvement, interpreting the movement as one that excludes the inevitability of human contact.

Proponents of rewilding insist that their aims are to rewild ecosystems in such a way that humans can interact with it in harmony. As discussed, those living in the countryside or who have livestock feel trepidation about the reintroduction of predator species. But when wolves returned to Yellowstone in the ‘90s, for instance, several things became possible:

  • Elk population decreased, which meant plant diversity flourished.
  • When plant diversity flourished, beavers and other natural environment reshapers returned and built dams and other structures.
  • Ponds and other new features increased diversity for the species that thrive in those conditions. 

Rewilding has been used to mean “productive land abandonment”, as in literally just letting nature take over and recreate its own systems, “releasing captive-bred animals into the wild”, as with predators and carnivores that can control things like deer population so that plant species don’t go extinct from their grazing, and many more.

David Attenborough himself is a huge supporter of rewilding.

The best way to go about it, according to prominent researchers, is a threefold approach, all hinging on balance. 

  1. Build redundancy into the ecosystem by making sure that there are enough different species throughout each level of the food chain. Predators, pollinators, decomposers, herbivores, etc. This ensures that all roles will be fulfilled.
  1. There need to be enough interlocking species that can connect ecosystems, such that every plant, animal, and insect is relevant to more than one cascade of effects.
  1. We must remove ourselves as stewards regarding natural occurrences like floods and fires, as those occurrences strengthen natural resiliency and preserve the balance of species against each other.

Rewilded grasslands, forests, marshes, wetlands, and other biomes have such a high potential to sequester carbon, save species, and restore biodiversity that it belongs at the top of an any ecological strategy to fight climate change. 

As Attenborough says, “we must rewild the world.”

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