Humans Only Need Half The Planet

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Unless you’re living in Alaska and are fond of rifles and bear matriarchs, you know that climate change is a problem. Its effects are clear and increasing and something must be done to stop it. But there’s another (though related) environmental problem that requires immediate and substantive action to prevent the sixth great extinction crisis: habitat loss as a result of ever-increasing urban industrialization.

Dr. E.O. Wilson, easily the world’s leading biologist and conservationist, has an ambitious plan to solve the extinction crisis. His proposal? Devote half the planet to wildlife and nature conservation–devoid of humans. It’s appropriately named Half-Earth.

A friend and fellow biologist to Wilson, Montana State Senator Mike Phillips is currently helping lead the way to realize Half-Earth. He is the director of the Ted Turner Endangered Species Fund (TESF), an organization devoted to biodiversity conservation with a focus on private land. Before TESF, he worked in the U.S. Department of the Interior, making him uniquely qualified to address the importance of conservation on both public and private lands.

One important conservation ranch he works on is the Flying D Ranch, which blends conservation and commerce into a sustainable model for biodiversity.

We spoke to Phillips about his work and his hopes for the future of Half-Earth.

BTRtoday (BTR): Tell me about the Flying D Ranch and the work that you do there.

Senator Mike Phillips (MP): It’s located on the outskirts of Bozeman. It’s a beautiful piece of ground–113,000, almost 114,000 acres strong. It’s the largest tract of private deeded land in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). Because it’s situated on the northwestern corner, it’s an important stepping stone from the heart of the GYE, Yellowstone Park, to areas in the north and to western Montana, and ultimately to Glacier National Park on into Canada. So it’s a nice piece of connective conservation tissue, if you will.

It illustrates vividly that an owner with a determined sense to blend conservation and commerce, an owner with a determined sense to make a wild, working landscape practical, can be an important part of the Half-Earth project (the brainchild of E.O. Wilson). I think Dr. Wilson would have you believe that if we don’t get it right with at least half the earth, we’re going to continue to get it deathly wrong for all of life.

BTR: Do you think he’s right?

MP: Of course he is. Matter of fact, if Ed’s wrong then [that means that] half is not quite enough. But it’s a hell of a good place to start. He’s not wrong with the science, he’s not wrong with the practicality of responding to the problem.

BTR: Do you think that Half-Earth is doable?

MP: Oh sure it is. For heaven’s sake, we can put a man on the moon and bring him back. We can take the heart out of your chest and put it back better than before. We can explain, with a fair bit of certainty, the existence of everything we know in the universe, down to the split moment before it all began. We have a pretty good explanation for all of that but we can’t better manage this place we call home? Of course we can. What we have to do isn’t complicated. It’s not a difficult intellectual puzzle; it’s a tremendously challenging social initiative. But can we do it? Sure we can.

The question is: why wouldn’t we? The only reason we wouldn’t is if people continue to deny.

BTR: Deny climate change?

MP: And other things. Let’s assume you got climate change right, that you and I could, today, stop emissions. Fairly soon, within decades and probably approaching a century, we could begin to really affect a stabilizing of atmospheric concentrations of CO2. That’s good, that’s a hell of a good start. But it does nothing to address habitat destruction due to the increasing humanization of the planet. Even if everything was run on clean green energy, we still put in more parking lots and more malls and more humanized landscapes.

That tears at the fabric of life. Habitat loss is still the primary driver in the extinction crisis. It’s not climate change; climate change has the capacity to surpass habitat loss but it [habitat loss] is still a profound problem. Invasive species are still a profound problem. If we can’t figure out a way to address all of these issues, life will continue to be marginalized.

BTR: So that’s where Half-Earth comes in? To deal with the loss of habitat and biodiversity?

MP: The wisdom of the Half-Earth project is that it’s foundational to all these other problems. How do you think you’re going to solve poverty? How do you think you’re going to make desperate people less desperate, so they stop doing desperate things, if you don’t have landscapes that can better support the needs of more? The only way to do that is to look at these landscapes differently. To see them as inviolate and have a different relationship so that we consistently value life.

I’m a white guy, I serve in the legislature and I would honestly probably support a bill that would say, “by law, white guys can’t serve in elected office for the next hundred years.” Because we’ve had our shot and we haven’t done very well.

As a collective have to be far more accommodating of life.

BTR: What about the effect on large urban areas? How would allocating half the planet affect enormous centers of human living? Would it radically alter existing urban landscapes?

MP: It wouldn’t radically alter existing urban landscapes. The alterations that would come with Half-Earth would make those urban landscapes far more habitable, far more magical, far more inspiring, because if you all of a sudden got the park system right in an urban area, so that it was servicing more than just the needs of humans, those parklands would be a part of the Half-Earth project as well.

There’s no way you get the Half-Earth without stitching together just about every piece of ground possible and every patch of water possible, with a focus on the living world. With a focus on biodiversity.

So parks would become more magical, more important. The urban landscapes would contribute with the alterations that you would see. People would look back and say “holy mackerel, this park was nice a decade ago but it’s just fantastic today.”

It would require that we just rethink some of these areas.

BTR: What are your thoughts on public versus private land? National parks versus private conservation land?

MP: They’re easy to compare because they’re both very important. They’re easy for me to compare because I’ve spent a lot of time–about half of my career, which now spans almost 40 years–as a civil servant, working for the United States Department of the Interior (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, specifically) on public landscapes. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where I did grizzly bear research, Yellowstone National Park, where I led the effort to restore gray wolves.

I hold public land in very high regard. It is critical to the health of this country. Yellowstone is the birthing place of waters that quench the thirst of millions of Americans. So I know from my own work that public lands really matter.

The other half of my career has been spent celebrating the importance of private land. I actually left Yellowstone National Park, a really great job that I had coveted since I was 12 years-old, to help Ted Turner make clear beyond doubt that private lands could serve as beachheads of security. Principally, Ted and I came together on imperiled species: rare things like black-footed ferrets and gray wolves. Also to illustrate that private lands could be managed with nature in high regard. So I know from the second half of my nearly 40-year career that private lands really matter too.

They both matter. They both fill a very important role and both will be central to Ed’s Half-Earth project.

BTR: There’s also hunting on the Flying D, correct? How does that factor into conservation?

MP: Certainly there’s an outfitting business that operates on the Flying D Ranch and you can buy an opportunity to hunt elk on the ranch. It’s really best viewed as a wild working landscape.

What’s the “wild” part? Gray wolves would be a part of the wild part. Grizzly bears use the ranch, black bears use the ranch, elk use the ranch, deer, coyotes, badgers–The Flying D is as complete a setting as when Lewis and Clark came through this country so long ago.

The working part of the Flying D Ranch would be big game hunting, bison ranching, etc. Ted Turner thought that his unique contribution for long-term conservation could be to illustrate with his ranches that they can be managed as wild, working landscapes. That they can be used to balance the tension between conservation and commerce.

BTR: What do you think the first steps are in the Half-Earth project?

MP: If you don’t get a bunch of money, Half-Earth is dead in the water. There are two great universal solvents of relevance to humankind. Water–water will dissolve just about anything–and the other solvent, which can dissolve just about any problem, is money.

BTR: Any idea for a timeline?

MP: Oh forever. It should have started yesterday. Ed’s been working on this most of his career. He’s begun this work in earnest by drawing attention to the wisdom of the idea; the practicality, the simplicity, the beauty, the elegance of the idea.

What I know they’re doing, and in my own small way I’m helping, is assembling capacity so that the dream can become a reality. It’s essential to the future. If people are only motivated by humanity and don’t care so much about the other things: it’s essential to peace, prosperity, and justice for people, forget about all the other living forms we share this planet with.

BTR: How do you explain this to people that don’t believe it or do anything to change the status quo?

MP: Here’s an easy way to look at it: if you’re a person of faith, I would assume that if you love the Creator you have to love the Creation. It would seem to me that you are morally compelled to do all you can to arrest the extinction crisis and conserve biological diversity. It would seem to me that around the world people of faith would gravitate to act on the Half-Earth project.

Conversely, if you’re a secular humanist and you believe that above all else, facts, data, logic, and empiricism are what matters, okay. The science is clear. The most reliable knowledge we have is clear. It’s the health of the landscapes around the world that provide for the needs of humanity. So you should be equally compelled to engage on behalf of Half-Earth.

No matter how you slice this, there’s a rationale that would bring forth action. No matter what your own personal sensibilities are, it should trigger action. It should trigger confidence that there is a way forward for your kids and grandkids.

We are firmly in the grip of the world’s sixth great extinction crisis. There’s no doubt about that. The rate of loss is profoundly high and it connects to the entire planet. When you have that pulse of loss, you can begin thinking about how current times fit against the five previous extinction crises that are documented clearly in the fossil record.

Last time I checked, despite the best efforts of our really good minds over the long sweep of human history, we’ve not found life anywhere else. The cosmos is really big but we’ve really looked. So why in the world would you take any chances with this place?