Thursday, April 14, 2011

Trekking 5,000 miles to connect man and wildlife

By Steve Almasy, CNN
April 13, 2011 8:32 a.m. EDT

Atlanta (CNN) -- On a good day, John Davis will hike 15 miles. On the best days, he may only travel only two.
Sound backward? You should know Davis is on no ordinary trip.
Davis is using human power to travel 5,000 miles on a 10-month trek from the Florida Keys to Canada. He's hiking and biking, canoeing and kayaking, and as he gets to more northerly climes, he'll be skiing, too.
His mission isn't soul-searching in nature, it's searching for nature's soul.
He's exploring the parks and wildlife refuges of the East Coast, learning more about the problems encountered by the animals and plants with which we share the planet.
On those short trips, he takes his time to really get to focus his attention on nature, he said.
Davis hopes the media gives him some attention to his message that humans need to take better care of the Earth. He's written about the environment for all of his adult life, but his journey into the wild is part educational.
"It's important to learn about the land, to appreciate it, and to understand the threats to it and the opportunities to better protect it," he said recently during a rest day from his journey, officially called TrekEast.
Of those threats, which is the biggest? Man?
"It's uneducated man," he said. "I don't think we are inherently destructive, but I think we as a civilization are right now are living at odds with the wildlife. We need to change our patterns, or we will lose our natural heritage."
Davis has been keenly sensitive to wildlife issues since he was a child. At 10, an aunt gave him a young adults' book to read -- "Beasts, Brains and Behaviors" -- which sparked his interest in animals as intelligent creatures. His parents also encouraged him to be a conservationist.
After college in Minnesota, he embarked on a career as a writer and editor with an eye on the environment. In 1991, he joined the journal "Wild Earth," and he helped co-found the Wildlands Network, a nonprofit conservation group based in Titusville, Florida.
The Wildlands Network is sponsoring the logistics of the trip, helping him with equipment, but his journey isn't very extravagant. He camps often, doesn't have a fancy support vehicle and relies on the kindness of volunteers and peers to help facilitate the other parts of the trip.
Along the way, he stops to present slide shows to people who want to learn more about nature. He promotes the concept of an Eastern wildway to physically connect America's state parks, conservation areas and forests so wide-ranging animals such as bears, wolves and eagles can roam freely.
He talks about the endangered panther, whose tracks he was encouraged to see in Florida. But the animal, which should be found from the Sunshine State all the way to Canada is confined by civilization to Florida.
He tells people how they can get involved -- join a land trust, donate to a conservancy group and write lawmakers to let them know the environment matters.
He voices his support for new animal crossings. Not the kind denoted by signs next to the road, but underpasses and overpasses. Not only would they save animal lives, but they would save human lives, he said.
As he biked in Florida (which actually has been progressive in putting in crossings), he saw too often animals that has been slammed into by cars and trucks. Two of them were river otters, which broke his heart.
"It made me aware of the lack of protection and realize what dangers animals face," he said.
In part, the trip has helped him reconnect to the land, something he hopes more Americans will do.
"My friend and mentor Dave Foreman said years ago that support for conservation is typically a mile wide and an inch deep," he said. "Right now it's not a key issue with most Americans. Our challenge in the conservation community is to make a top issue like the economy."
So with his lofty goal and sparse equipment, he goes from river to prairie to forest to swamp, discovering things along the way.
One of those surprises came during a visit to Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle, where he went to see the old-growth long-leaf pine forest. He was unaware that the military's practice bombing can set off fires, which actually helps the ecosystem's growth cycle.
The Department of Defense is a good steward of its land, Davis said.
"They have some of the most important wildlands in the country," he said. "They deserve a lot of credit for treating their land well."
Unfortunately, not everyone does. Davis saw clear cutting in Alabama and man-made forests with only one type of tree. The lack of diversity was upsetting, he said, as was the short life span of the trees. They eventually will be cut down and shipped to paper mills.
"We need to change tax incentives and other financial incentives to make it rewarding for landowners to conserve and properly steward their lands," he said. "Right now, the incentives tend to favor exploitation and damaging the land."
Davis still has thousands of miles to travel, months to go and a lot more wildlife to see. Along the way, he hopes to meet plenty more people. He'd love to see children come out and be inspired by nature. Maybe one of them will even be a young boy who'll grow up to dedicate his life to conservation projects.
This project ends in November, but there's already talk of another similar journey in the West. Kinda seems like the natural thing to do.

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