When you walk in a Northeast forest, it can feel like the woods go on forever. But we all know they don’t. Hike far enough, and you’ll cross a road or run into shops and housing. It begs the question: How much land in our region is really protected from development?
Two new studies, one published by AMC and the other co-authored by AMC Assistant Research Director David Publicover seek to answer that question. Together, the studies present a mixed picture of land conservation in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Many states in the region are well on their way to conserving 30% of land by 2030, a conservation goal known as “30 by 30.” However, the share of this land that is permanently protected Wildland is more limited.
Ultimately, there’s still work to be done by legislators, nonprofits, and readers like you to conserve land, protect biodiversity, and realize the potential of the region’s forests as a “natural climate solution”.
Publicover was one of 18 co-authors of a study called Wildlands in New England published by the Wildlands, Woodlands, Farmlands and Communities initiative, a partnership led by Harvard Forest and the Highstead Foundation. The report details where all of New England’s Wildlands are, who owns them, and how they are protected. It’s the first report in the U.S. to document Wildlands across an entire region.
AMC’s paper, “State-level Progress Towards the ‘30 by 30’ Land Conservation Goal,” takes a broader approach. Rather than look at just Wildlands, which is a specific land use designation, the study collects data from twelve states’ Geographic Information Systems (GIS) agencies about all land permanently protected from development. The paper is co-authored by Publicover, AMC Vice President of Conservation and Recreation Advocacy Heather Clish, and former AMC staff member Jared Kannel.
What is a Wildland?
The word “Wildland” is used in many ways. But for Publicover and his scientist peers, it has a specific meaning.
Wildlands are spaces that have been given protections designating them as “forever wild lands.” This means that the landowners and managers have chosen to take an intentionally hands-off approach to the natural environment. The land must have a protection mechanism that is “explicitly intended to allow natural processes to prevail” and guarantees it will remain in that way for future generations.
Notably, Wildlands don’t need to be entirely free of human presence. However, humans must exist on the land with an extremely limited footprint and without “intentionally altering [its] structure, composition, or function.”
“The concept of Wildlands embraces the enduring presence of Indigenous groups in New England, living for millennia in reciprocity with the whole land community, including old and majestic forests that allowed the full diversity of life to thrive,” the report continues.
Both Wildlands and mixed-use conserved areas can help reduce greenhouse gases by acting as a “carbon sink,” where plants and healthy soil store carbon as organic matter. Wildlands can offer other ecological benefits, too. Long-term land protection allows trees to age and more complex ecosystems to develop. This can enhance the biodiversity of a region and create landscapes that are more resilient to the impacts of climate change.
The study identified 426 properties in New England as Wildlands, totaling about 1.3 million acres. These include large, well-known areas like Baxter State Park as well as local properties as small as 10 acres. The total only includes land explicitly protected as natural areas but not those set aside for other purposes, like recreation. This leaves out places that are effectively “wild,” like some state parks and areas in the White Mountain National Forest.
“So, the amount of true wild land is somewhat bigger,” says Publicover.
Working Towards 30 by 30
AMC’s 30 by 30 report includes all kinds of conserved land, not just Wildlands. The study offers a wide-ranging snapshot of how much of the region has been protected from development, and where improvements can be made.
There are reasons for hope in the report. Across the 12-state region, about 22.5% of land has been conserved. New Hampshire has already reached the 30 by 30 benchmark, with 35% of its land conserved. Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, and Delaware are all well on their way. Each is over the 25% threshold.
According to the Wildlands in New England report, 81% of the region is forested, but only 3.1% is protected as Wildlands. That means there are huge swaths of land, especially in northern New England, that haven’t been developed yet and could be permanently protected.
These studies can make a difference by giving decision-makers the information they need to advance land conservation. Before the Wildlands & Woodlands report, there was “only a general sense of the extent and characteristics of Wildland properties in New England.” Now, advocates have concrete data that demonstrates the need for additional Wildland conservation. Likewise, AMC’s report gives decision-makers hard data on where the region is on the path to 30 by 30 and lets them know that it is a realistic and achievable goal.
AMC Wildlands at Work
The Appalachian Mountain Club isn’t just supporting conservation through research, but also through land protection. In fact, AMC is one of the primary nonprofit landowners of Wildlands. Through its Maine Woods Initiative (MWI), AMC has conserved more than 100,000 acres in the Maine North Woods. Over 27,000 acres of MWI are Wildlands. Among nonprofits, only The Nature Conservancy and the Northeast Wilderness Trust own more Wildland acreage in New England.
“Advocating for the conservation of wild areas has been part of AMC’s work since its founding… Now we are trying to ‘walk the talk’ on our own Maine Woods Initiative lands,” says Clish.
Publicover agrees. Describing his mission as a scientist with AMC, Publicover paraphrases the biologist E. O. Wilson:
“Our job as conservationists is to build a lifeboat, to carry as many species as we can through this 21st-century bottleneck to whatever is on the other side.”
Publicover pauses, then adds.
“New England, and especially northern Maine, has an opportunity to be a pretty darn big lifeboat.”