Rewilding in an unlikely landscape [Northeast USA]

You are welcome to republish this story through the Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Where republishing conditions differ for images, this is noted in individual captions. (See this page for more information.)

By Jon Leibowitz

Jon is Executive Director of the Northeast Wilderness Trust.

What if someone told you a rewilding story that took place on a grand scale—the size of entire countries? As the story goes, a primeval forest disappears practically overnight (geologically speaking) leaving a landscape reminiscent of modern-day Scotland. Entire forests are brought down, first for lumber and charcoal and then pasture and farms. Carnivores like wolves and cougars are driven out. Even the most common prey, deer and turkey, are extirpated. The land is unwell.

Then something miraculous happens. In a matter of decades, a forest is reborn. It begins passively. Humans depart in droves, leaving fields to naturally return to forest at a pace nearly rivaling the axe work that cleared them. Governments establish great protected areas. The birth of the modern land trust movement happens.

Today, this place not only is home to rich biodiversity—from large wild cats, to six-foot-tall, thousand-pound ungulates, to flying squirrels, and over 2000 species of plants and trees—it’s also home to tens of millions of human inhabitants. It is the only forest of its kind that has regrown and expanded within the past century.

Would you believe such a story?

This story, though simplified, is true. It is the story of the Northeastern United States—or, the Northern Forest. This mix of temperate forest and boreal forest stretches from New York’s Tug Hill Plateau and the vast and wild Adirondack Park across to Maine and down to Connecticut. It is among the greatest and largest examples of rewilding on Earth.

What remains to be written is how much of this recovered forest will stay forest, and how much of that will be wild—free from active management so that the beings composing the lifeblood of the forest may live their lives as they choose. While the Northern Forest has indeed recovered, its recovery is incomplete. Unfortunately, the forest is shrinking again for the first time in a century due to development. At the same time, precious little of it has been protected from logging—only about five percent.

It is now up to us to continue the work, and the story, of rewilding the Northern Forest. Rewilding can be an inclusive process that takes on different forms depending on location, ecosystem, and local human communities. This work can be active, such as restoring a wetland, removing a dam, or introducing a lost species, or passive, such as protecting lands as forever-wild and allowing nature the time and space to heal on its own good wild time.

Rewilding began across the Northern Forest passively for the most part, largely due to economic factors that ushered in mass abandonment of farms. Simultaneously to that process, however, three noteworthy intentional events marked the rise of diverse wilderness areas from the stumps of industrial overuse, and thus bolstered the foundation for rewilding the region.

First: The Adirondack Park was created in 1892 and today protects 2.9 million acres as forever-wild. Second: Baxter State Park was created in 1931 in Maine, which has since grown to include 182,000 acres of forever-wild land. Finally: the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 has resulted in 473,781 acres of Federally protected wilderness across New England.

In the intervening years, wildland protection on private land (versus public) by non-governmental organizations (NGOs or NPOs) has grown steadily, with about a quarter of all wildlands in the Northeast conserved by NGOs. Today, conservation organizations are actively working to protect more land than government agencies.

One such example is the recently established Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve in Vermont. At 6098 acres, Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve is the largest non-governmental wilderness area in the state of Vermont. 

Before it was purchased by Northeast Wilderness Trust in 2021, the majority of this land was owned by a local timber company. Though managed for timber, the forest was in excellent condition thanks to thoughtful multi-generational local management.

Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve

The Preserve includes headwater streams of two major rivers—the Lamoille and Winooski. It is an example of a stunning and relatively intact northern hardwood forest and includes a diversity of wetlands, vernal pools, and 39 miles of headwater streams. The Preserve sits directly at a crossroads for far-ranging wildlife. To the west lie the Worcester Mountains—the only remaining undeveloped mountain range in Vermont. To the northeast is Vermont’s Northeastern Highlands, also called the Northeast Kingdom. The area between them is known as the Worcester to Kingdom linkage. The Preserve lies at the heart of this linkage and is sandwiched between three intact forest blocks that total 85,000 acres just north of Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier. Because rewilding has so much to do with returning the land to wildlife, and because wildlife relies on connectivity, geographic context is critical to land protection. In that regard, Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve is at an exceedingly well-connected location in Vermont and will serve wildlife well.

Like the Northern Forest, the wild denizens of Woodbury Mountain represent a story of recovery. Most recently, Northeast Wilderness Trust partnered with a local wildlife rehabilitation professional and helped relocate a pair of beavers to the Preserve. Beyond intentional reintroductions, the Preserve is home to moose, bobcat, coyote, deer, fisher, black bear, fairy shrimp, newts, and countless interior forest birds such as Canada warblers and winter wrens. Many of these species were extirpated from much of the Northern Forest a century ago but have since returned. Some, like the black bear, have recolonized their former homelands naturally. Others, like the feisty fisher, were intentionally reintroduced in places like Vermont. In all cases, as forests grow in age and complexity, they often also increase in species richness. Over time, places like Woodbury Mountain will be become a refugia for creatures large and small who rely on niche habitats.

Click for trail-cam footage of a coyote (plays in new tab or downloads)

Click for trail-cam footage of a moose (plays in new tab or downloads)

While its location is prime, wildlife abounds, and the forest is in good condition, Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve is a far cry from the primary forest that once stood. Two unpaved public rights-of-way traverse the Preserve, legally protecting motorized access. Some may consider such realities to disqualify the Preserve as both wilderness and rewilding.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The value of rewilding through wilderness protection lies not in the history of these land uses, but on the commitment that conservationists and local communities are making to such places moving forward. Indeed, rewilding through wilderness protection can occur on both old growth forest and recently logged land—like Woodbury. And, the beautiful thing about rewilding is that it’s both scalable and adaptable. Rewilding in New England need not look the same as it does in the Velebit Mountains of Croatia or the Thaka Valley of South Africa. Rewilding occurs wherever humans decide to give nature space and time; to trust her innate ability to react, adapt, and evolve. To set her free.

Deeply embedded within the idea of rewilding is a simple message: healing and hope. Our world needs a heavy dose of both. Here in Vermont, Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve is an example of rewilding at a parcel scale and it joins hundreds of thousands of other acres being protected in a similar fashion by NGOs and public agencies around the region I call home. Rewilding can happen anywhere and it ought to happen more. The story of the Northern Forest isn’t done. Those of us working in conservation—and those who simply care about wild nature—are writing a chapter right now with our actions and choices. Ensuring that rewilding plays a central role in how our and our children’s future—and the future of cubs, kits, chicks, and tadpoles—all unfolds is in our hands now. What do we want our chapter to say?

Location of Woodbury Mountain Wilderness Preserve