The question would send me across the States, to a bison ranch in Montana and to emerging wildlife corridors in New England, but according to Wilson, the pathway to a planet permanently half-protected—something he thinks we could accomplish in half a century—begins right beyond our cottage near the town of Freeport, Florida, in a forest being created by M.
Davis, a multimillionaire who grew up in a Panhandle trailer and as a young man raised his first stake playing poker. Davis is a tireless, elaborately courteous Southern charmer.
But Wilson himself is quick to point out a difference: The longleaf pine forest once covered 90 million acres, or about 60 percent of the land, in a virtually continuous 1,mile stretch across nine states from Virginia to East Texas.
That forest has been reduced by 97 percent, and there are about three million acres of it left. But for the past decade he has been spending half a million dollars a year planting longleaf pine trees and another half million on other parts of a longleaf forest. Davis remembers his awakening. The next day I gave those ladies enough money to keep going for another two years, which I think scared them, it was so out of the blue.
Then I asked them for a book environmental reading list for me, for my education. Then I started buying up land to see what I could do. An adult male black bear roams across perhaps a hundred square miles of land. North Florida already had some good-sized clusters of publicly owned longleaf—national forests, state forests, wildlife management areas and, in the western Panhandle, Eglin Air Force Base, a huge facility that back before World War II had itself been a national forest.
The problem was that 70 miles separated the first two protected longleaf forests—and it was another 95 miles to the third. Without any human intervention, here is a forest with tall, straight trees that are rather widely spaced, plenty of sunlight and lots of open, grassy meadows. Below the branches is empty space a hawk can glide through. The available land was close to people, just a few miles inland from the sugar-white sands and high-rise condos of Gulf Coast beach towns.
There was nothing, however, even remotely upscale about the land Davis had his eye on. It was dismal-looking rather than dazzling, a series of abandoned peanut farms and unproductive pulpwood forests with low asking prices. Davis bought 51, acres of degraded farms and forests, a swath of land up to five miles wide that included barely 1, acres of longleaf pine in scattered patches.
Davis named his bedraggled purchase Nokuse Plantation. Wilson Biophilia Center at one edge of Nokuse, where thousands of fourth through seventh graders from six counties get free classes that let them hold real baby gopher tortoises and clamber and pose for pictures on a giant ant sculpture.
Half a century ago, the vision expanded. In a hotspot where so many species are so densely crowded together, each rewilded acre had to be a stopping place, as well—a haven and a highway. Subscribe or Give a Gift.
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