Santa Barbara Teacher’s Scenic Trails Research Could Help Biodiversity and Climate Change
By Rebecca Horrigan
In an Executive Order issued on January 27, President Biden announced his mission to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and seas by 2030. This effort, known as “30 by 30,” is supported by scientists who say that reaching this goal is necessary in order to fight climate change and protect over one million species at risk of extinction. Melissa Wilson, a local ecologist and science teacher, has produced research at Harvard University’s Extension School which directly supports this initiative.
Wilson has spent the past decade analyzing how expanding national parks and connecting them through recreational trails could help sequester carbon, and provide wildlife corridors.
“The Pacific Crest Trails and the Continental Divide Trail corridors were both found to be remarkably wild and connected. Eighty-six percent of the PCT and 87% of the CDT was in the top 50% of the most wild and connected landscapes,” Wilson explained. “However, the most exciting part of my research is that 90% of these trails are already on public land. If we can get the area surrounding scenic trails re-designated as “critical wildlife corridors” we are on the road to creating a connected national parks system.”
After winning the Dean's Top Thesis Award on Sustainability at Harvard on this land conservation research, Wilson moved to St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands with a grant to help students build STEM skills. With over half of the island preserved as a national park, the thriving natural beauty inspired her to create the film “Stay Wild,” by Director Lizzy Fowler which premiered earlier this year. Winner of the Best Short Film Award at the Colorado Environmental Film Festival, the documentary brings to life the message of how protecting wild lands and species can save our planet.
Currently, the U.S. conserves around 26 percent of its coastal seas but only roughly 12 percent of its land. In order to reach the 30 by 30 target, the U.S. will need to protect more than 440 million acres in the next ten years. Wilson’s research with Dr. Travis Belote of The Wilderness Society on which lands should be prioritized could help inform science-minded decision-making.
In a paper published in Conservation Science and Practice, Belote and Wilson identified greater ecosystems of protected areas in the United States and evaluated how increasing their conservation status could help protect additional land while better representing ecological diversity.
“For 150 years, we have preserved nature by drawing lines on maps and protecting species within those lines. But, we know that species need room to roam and protected areas may be too small. Mapping greater ecosystems - or lands surrounding national parks and other protected areas - gives conservationists and land managers a resource to coordinate actions to sustain nature across larger areas. To keep national parks and wilderness areas wild, we have to be mindful of how we treat the land outside their borders” Belote said.
“The beauty of our research is by evaluating the greater ecosystems of national parks and wilderness areas we are now able to determine possible park expansions and buffer zones to help us get to 30x30. Also, it suggests if we create a 2km wildlife corridor around the Pacific Crest Trails and Continental Divide Trails they will be among the wildest corridors from national parks to wilderness areas in the contiguous United States,” Wilson said. “Instead of dwelling in fear about climate change; I’m inspired by wild places and how they help save our planet.”