|That's a tree? Hell yes, in the Land of the Giants it is!
There's a lovely, divided 4-lane highway that connects my town to Nanaimo in the south and Courtenay/Comox to the north and most people in my neighbourhood see that as their one and only corridor for transiting the island.
Sure, it's got gentle corners, uphills and downhills, plenty of trees and some mountain vistas but it's 4-lane asphalt, much as you might find anywhere. Most people I know have no experience of what lies just a mile or two inland of this vital highway, back on the old logging and forestry roads. You get back there and you get a taste, just a smidgen, of wilderness. It's spectacularly beautiful and, especially after a rain washes the gravel dust from the branches, you may remember that the real inhabitants of this place aren't human. It's an entirely different world than the world we've manufactured for our convenience. It's a place where we're not the top of the food chain, something that reminds me to take bring a rifle on my outings.
The world was once dominated by wilderness but the malignancy of human growth has claimed most of it. Here's a map showing what remains.
It's mainly Canada, Russia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Amazon and a few bits and pieces here and there. However, when it comes to all things natural these days, what wilderness does remain is in peril and a new study finds most of it could be gone in 50 years.
The world’s last great wildernesses are shrinking at an alarming rate. In the past two decades, 10% of the earth’s wilderness has been lost due to human pressure, a mapping study by the University of Queensland has found.
Over the course of human history, there has been a major degradation of 52% of the earth’s ecosystems, while the remaining 48% is being increasingly eroded. Since 1992, when the United Nations signed up to the Rio convention on biological diversity, three million square kilometres of wilderness have been lost.
According to the UQ professor and director of science at the Wildlife Conservation Society James Watson, senior author on the study, “If this rate continues, we will have lost all wilderness within the next 50 years.”
This wilderness degradation is endangering biodiversity, as well as the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle and pollination. And, says Watson, once they have been damaged or cleared, the wildernesses are gone for good; there is no scientific evidence that degraded eco-systems could ever return to their original condition.
These pristine wild places exist in inhospitable locations: the deserts of Central Australia; the Amazon rainforest in South America; Africa; the Tibetan plateau in central Asia; and the boreal forests of Canada and Russia.
The wilderness is life. The Amazon rainforest, for example, has created its own climate, its own hydrological cycle that has been the primary source of freshwater for major cities such as Sao Paulo. The Amazon has provided the rain water that filled the reservoirs on which Sao Paulo and Rio depend. Now, after decades of illegal logging, those reservoirs are running dry.
The wilderness is also a carbon sink. The trees and vegetation draw CO2 out of the air for photosynthesis and return badly needed oxygen.
The Australian wilderness is being particularly hard hit but Canada's is anything but immune to encroaching human activity and climate change. The lodge pole and mountain pine beetle infestations that have devastated pine forests across the west can be traced directly to warmer winters where the beetle populations are no longer held in check by extended winter freezing.
In Canada, where the majority of our population centers hug the American border, we tend to take our wilderness for granted. It's up there somewhere. Besides, if we want that we can go to a national or provincial park. Only that's about as close to wilderness as the woolly mammoth in the natural history museum is to the real thing.
Isn't it time we sat down and developed some long-term policy to protect this bountiful wilderness that Canada enjoys - while there's still time?