When Henry David Thoreau wrote “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” he could not have imagined that his statement would become the blueprint for confronting two great global crises of our time: human-caused climate change, and the rapid extinction of plants and animals.

John Lee helps track atmospheric carbon flux as site manager at the Howland Research Forest. In 1988, when Lee started working there, CO2 was around 360 parts per million, he recalls. It surpassed 400 ppm – seen as a climate change tipping point – in 2016. Photo by Zack Porter, Northeast Wilderness Trust

Championed as “Natural Climate Solutions” by superstar activists Greta Thunberg and Bill McKibben, preserving and rewilding the world’s natural habitats offers a potent, hopeful path toward a more sustainable future.  With roughly a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions globally coming from agriculture, logging and habitat destruction, wilderness recovery offers a powerful complement to efforts to reorient the energy economy toward renewables and implement regenerative agricultural and forestry practices.

A short distance from Maine’s Penobscot River and the route Thoreau followed north to Mount Katahdin in the summer of 1846 (an adventure chronicled in “The Maine Woods”), I recently stood in an unassuming wooden shed at the 550-acre Howland Research Forest. Protected as forever wild in 2007 by Northeast Wilderness Trust, the Howland property – unknown to nearly everyone outside a small circle of climate scientists – has led a double life as one of the wildest and, simultaneously, most closely studied patches of ground in the United States.

Hidden under the canopy of a rare old-growth forest of hemlock and white pine, some of which were already middle-aged when Thoreau passed by, University of Maine researcher and Howland site manager John Lee has been quietly churning out groundbreaking data about climate change and carbon sequestration. Lee and partners at the U.S. Forest Service, NASA and other institutions have created one of the world’s best records of atmospheric carbon flux, or “forest breathing,” as he likes to call it.

Flashing across a computer monitor, the Earth’s atmospheric carbon pulses up and down with the daily and yearly rhythms of Howland Forest’s carbon intake and output. “When I started here in 1988, we were at about 360 parts per million on average of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” says Lee. Today, the screen flashes 412 ppm, measured in real time by sensors placed above the treetops. Four hundred ppm had been the clear red line scientists used to symbolize a new danger zone of climate change. It was surpassed in 2016. The numbers on the screen are a sucker punch to the gut. This is the future that our children will inherit.

But the story of Howland is one of hope. Just as carbon measurements at Howland confirm that the Earth’s atmospheric chemistry is in trouble, the research also demonstrates the unparalleled capacity of old, wild forests to reverse that trajectory and help stabilize the climate. In fact, research conducted at Howland shows that there is perhaps no more effective or cost-efficient way to mitigate the effects of human-caused climate change than to allow forests to grow old, wild and remain undisturbed. Setting aside ancient forests naturally stores large amounts of carbon in both the soil and vegetation, and preserves unique biodiversity often found only in untrammeled, unmanaged landscapes.

The latest science from Howland Forest confirms that the “miracles of technology” alone cannot save us from the dual threat of climate chaos and extinction catastrophe. One of the most cost-effective and rapidly scalable solutions to both of these crises is startlingly low-tech: Conserve more wild forests.

Northeastern wildlands can be the lungs of a healthier planet and bastions of biodiversity if we choose to protect them today, but there must be renewed public enthusiasm and commensurate philanthropic support. The intentional act of setting aside such places is one of humility and acceptance that we cannot and should not control everything, everywhere. In return, we will be rewarded with the natural climate solutions that wilderness offers.

In “My First Summer in the Sierra,” John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” America’s wilderness is more valuable and relevant today than ever before. The future of Earth’s climate and biodiversity are inextricably hitched. It’s time to act together to secure a wilder future for forests – and people – across the globe, starting right here in the Northeast.


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