by Michael D. Pulliam
REWILDING CANADIAN FARMS
Topsy Farms on Amherst Island, Ontario, Canada, has rededicated an acre of their sheep pasture to the wild plants and animals that used to live there.
“Rewilding” is a growing trend around the world of land stewards restoring and maintaining native plants and habitats for local animals to repopulate, especially keystone species. In 2020, Nature magazine released an international study detailing the positive impacts of restoring natural ecosystems: if we rewilded 15 percent of the world’s farmland (in specific priority areas), we could prevent 60 percent of expected species extinctions while capturing and storing almost 300 gigatons of carbon dioxide—that’s nearly one third of the world’s total emissions since the Industrial Revolution.
Topsy Farms has fenced off a long, narrow corridor through their sheep pasture for rewilding. The fenced area includes 500 newly-planted trees, along with native shrubs, a snake habitat, an intricate irrigation system, and wildflowers throughout. There’s a break in the corridor that allows the sheep to cross without getting access to all the delicious new plants. Topsy is one of a number of farms in Ontario working to return parts of their land to native habitats. Some of the proven benefits are the return of birds and pollinator insects, ground water filtration, and reduced soil erosion.
The Topsy Farms team explained that an invasive species of beetles has been boring into the ash trees around their land, which ends up killing the trees and destroying the natural wind barrier they provide; without the windbreak, a lot of the farm’s topsoil blows away. They plan to build a large hedgerow in addition to the mid-pasture corridor. Topsy Farms site coordinator Rachel Hawkshaw said, “A lot of the choices that we made were about what was pre-existing here and also can act as a permaculture food forest. The foraging serves us, the flock, but also anything else that’s out and around. It’s a good buffet and shelter for all the birds and the little critters.”
In an academic sense, the term “rewilding” generally refers to large-scale restoration projects that tend to involve multiple watersheds, habitat for large mammals, and the reintroduction of apex predators. Professor Stephen Murphy studies restoration ecology at the University of Waterloo and had this to add: “Whether one wishes to say, is that rewilding, restoration, or something else … these are individuals who are taking a stance and making a really positive difference.”
MEXICO’S REEF INSURANCE
In October 2020, Hurricane Delta hit the Mexican fishing and tourist town of Puerto Morelos and the enormous, vibrant coral reef that lives offshore; a long stretch of this reef is the world’s first natural asset protected by its own insurance policy.
The Mesoamerican Reef is the second-largest barrier reef system in the world, stretching along 700 miles of Mexico’s Caribbean coastline. The region hosts a network of ‘Guardians of the Reef,’ brigades of volunteer conservationists who tend to the reef’s well being. Soon after Hurricane Delta, a team of about thirty Guardians dived in to quickly assess and repair the underwater damage. Timing was key, since detached coral systems can die in less than a month. At first, the Guardians worked 12-hour days for almost six weeks; after a few months they were able to stabilize over 2,000 coral colonies and reattach more than 13,000 coral fragments.
Their restoration work was made possible by an innovative funding approach: insuring the economic value of nature to help pay for its own conservation. This insurance model was created by collaboration between the local government, hotel owners, an international non-governmental organization, and a pair of ambitious insurance companies.
Researchers at global nonprofit The Nature Conservancy (TNC) calculated a dollar amount of what the reef’s absence would cost the region’s tourism industry. The Mesoamerican Reef plays a fundamental role in the ecology and economy of Caribbean Mexico, attracting loads of tourists and marine life. Reefs also significantly affect stormy waters: a healthy reef can cushion around 97 percent of a wave’s energy before it hits the shore, and losing one meter of height off the top of a reef can potentially double the amount of damage delivered to local homes and businesses. These and other of “nature’s services” form the basis of devising an insurance policy for the reef. In 2018, TNC, local stakeholders, and insurer Swiss Re created the Coastal Zone Management Trust, funded by the government through taxing hotels for beach use. In 2019, the Trust took out the landmark insurance policy from a Mexican insurer, with Swiss Re serving as reinsurer.
The policy paid out $880,000 for restoration after Hurricane Delta. Mark Way, TNC’s director of Global Coastal Risk and Resilience, said, “It was a very significant milestone in our work to explore the use of insurance as a mechanism to protect at-risk coastal ecosystems. [It’s] a win for nature and a win for the coastal community, and it will drive further interest in conservation finance and the need to protect marine ecosystems across the globe.”
Volunteer Guardian Arcelia Romero Nava said, “The community here [in Puerto Morelos] realizes how important the reef is for fishing and tourism, and are fully behind this program. We get new volunteers every day, and all up this coast, towns are setting up their own brigades. Something big has started here.”
BIPARTISAN NAT’L PARKS FUND IN ACTION
After a strong bipartisan push, former President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) in August 2020. The GAOA permanently authorizes the1964 Land and Water Conservation Fund which uses profits from offshore oil and gas leases to maintain and improve America’s public lands, from National and State parks to neighborhood playgrounds and schools.
Shoshone National Forest (WY) has already had a worn-out bridge replaced; Devil’s Canyon campground at Manti-La Sal National Forest (UT and CO) has new roads; Umatilla and Malheur National Forests (OR and WA) have a scenic byway and drain culvert replacement underway; National Forests like Daniel Boone (KY), El Yunque (Puerto Rico), George Washington-Jefferson (Appalachia), Ozark St. Francis (AR), and all National Forests in Florida and North Carolina are set to receive new bridges, campgrounds, roads, trail upkeep programs, wastewater treatment systems, and more.
Montana got a hefty share of funding for over 50 at-large maintenance projects throughout the state, in wilderness and recreation areas including the Bitterroot Mountain Range and Flathead Lake. Zion National Park (UT) has $11 million dedicated to campground restoration, and Sierra National Forest (CA) is getting a number of roads and campgrounds redone. On top of all that, the inimitable Pacific Crest Trail, which crosses through 25 National Forest easements in California, has some restoration on the calendar.
The GAOA passed with massive bipartisan support, authorizing $1.6 billion in annual funding for five years to tackle deferred maintenance programs on public lands and at Tribal schools. The bill also assured permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund, allotting an annual $900 million for parks, forests, lakeshores, campgrounds, roads and other infrastructure, including small local parks and playgrounds. The Department of the Interior expects to invest in over 18,000 jobs, contribute over $2 billion to America’s gross domestic product, and direct many of the benefits to underserved communities and schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Education.
All of the above restoration and maintenance projects were greenlit in just the past year; many more will follow in the years to come!