For decades, conventional wisdom said that national parks, wilderness areas and refuges were the answer to preserving natural lands and providing sustainable wildlife habitats. But for some time, these large protected areas have been losing the native species they aim to protect. Existing mainly as small isolated pockets of land, these spots lack the connectivity needed for wildlife to migrate. Without migration, populations lose the genetic diversity and health that develop from a cohesive ecosystem.
Since the early 1990s, consensus has grown among conservation biologists and landscape ecologists that natural corridors, or narrow strips of land connecting isolated patches of wild habitats, are vital to supporting both wildlife and human communities over time. For more than a decade now, photographer Florian Schulz has worked tirelessly to educate the public about this effort through his Freedom to Roam project.
“This conservation vision is similar to the creation of national parks over 120 years ago,” Schulz explains. “But many scientists and experts agree that something more is needed to stop interrupting the flow of migration. Ecosystems depend on interconnectedness.”
Committed to exploring some of the most remote natural corners of North America, Schulz first set out to document the Rocky Mountain region extending from Yellowstone National Park along the spine of the mountains and leading north into the Yukon region of Canada. This area makes up one of the last fully intact mountain ecosystems on the planet. The work culminated in his award-winning book Yellowstone to Yukon: Freedom to Roam (Mountaineer Books) and a traveling museum exhibit that’s currently on display at Chicago’s Field Museum, as well as lectures across the country.
For the Y2Y (“Yellowstone to Yukon”) project, Schulz partnered with natural history museums, universities and conservation groups. He’s looking to do it all over again as he embarks on the second phase of this project, called “Baja to the Beaufort Sea,” or B2B. This is a broad region encompassing a long connected line of sand, surf, cliff, island, estuary and marsh, along with adjoining coastal forest and ocean.
His goal remains to inspire the first national wildlife corridor connecting national parks and wilderness areas. But this time around, he turns his lens on hot spots on the western seaboard of North America to document the importance of creating corridors and marine-protected areas along the Pacific to the Arctic Coast. Some of the locations include Alaska’s Bristol Bay and Tongass National Forest, British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, and Mexico’s Guadalupe Island and Laguna San Ignacio.
The scale of this project is enormous. So far, Schulz has spent a lot of time shooting in various parts of Alaska, Washington and British Columbia before moving south to Baja to work in the Sea of Cortez and then heading back up north. With such a vast region to cover, Schulz is splitting up the fieldwork over the next few years. Besides taking stills, he’s capturing high-definition video for a short documentary, and he has dedicated a major portion of his budget to aerial photography.
Like the Y2Y project, there are plans to produce a large-format, full-color book showcasing coastal, tidal and oceanic wildlife and habitats, as well as essays by prominent voices in conservation and marine and coastal ecology. He’ll explore the crucial notion that ecosystem health is entirely dependent upon connectivity by focusing on the relationship between ocean, estuary and coast. Throughout the project, he plans to partner with grassroots and scientific organizations dedicated to preserving the region’s ecological riches, and the linkages between them, for generations to come.
“This is a concept that when you tell people the basic idea, they go ‘Aha, of course,’ because it makes total sense that confining animals to a little piece of land doesn’t work in the long run,” Schulz says. “My dream is to see the creation of the first national corridor. What I learned from the last project is that once you’re able to reach people, they find the idea really inspiring.”
Conservation is a topic that has inspired Schulz’s photography his whole career. Born in Germany, he’s the youngest founding member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), and he’s constantly searching for images that move people to take action in protecting large endangered ecosystems. With four internationally renowned photographers, Schulz took part in the ILCP’s first Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition, or RAVE, to document El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve in Chiapas, Mexico. The images captured there were instrumental in raising public awareness and money to help ensure its protection.
Twice, the North American Nature Photography Association has awarded Schulz for his dedicated work on conservation, including the first ever NANPA Vision Award. In 2006, he received the Philip Hyde Environmental Grant, and last year, his work earned him Conservation Photographer of the Year honors from the National Wildlife Federation and Nature’s Best. Additionally, his work has been featured in The New York Times, BBC Wildlife magazine, Nature Conservancy magazine and other publications.
Since the publication of Yellowstone to Yukon, Schulz has traveled across the country to talk about the importance of these areas, as well as the need to establish natural corridors everywhere. And he’s not alone. Around the globe, conservationists are embarking on similar efforts. In India, wildlife experts are trying to establish corridors linking fragments of tiger habitat, according to the National Wildlife Federation. Projects are under way in Costa Rica and Australia.
Proof that these networks do help preserve animal and plant species came in 2006 when a team of scientists carved up a large swath of a South Carolina pine forest into six experimental plots. Over five years, open patches of habitat that were connected to other patches through narrow corridors grew about 20 percent more plant species in each plot than isolated patches did.
These corridors can be open swaths of land between parks, wildlife reserves or unbroken open space. They also can take the form of wildlife overpasses or underpasses that allow animals to cross over or under busy freeways. But often, these linkages get trapped in human developments, such as farms and subdivisions.
“This is true even in places like Yellowstone where it has become very difficult for grizzlies to get from one place to another because it’s surrounded by vacation homes and industrialized farming,” Schulz explains. “Ecosystems depend on interconnectedness.”
The journal Conservation Biology has identified two elements that form the foundation of meaningful conservation: the protection of large core areas and ensuring connectivity, or corridors, between protected areas. Many species exist on small habitat islands where they’re losing genetic diversity because of isolation from other populations within that same species. So establishing corridors may well determine whether or not wild creatures can adapt to change and survive.
In the face of global warming, Schulz is documenting areas that connect the last vestiges of western wilderness. Establishing linkages between parks and preserves will help ensure the survival of healthy sustainable ecosystems, which are threatened by exploitation of natural resources and the constant growth of population and development.
“I hope my work is helping to fuel this new movement of connectivity,” Schulz says. “The more people I can reach and inspire, the closer we come to reaching our goal.”
To see more of Florian Schulz’s photography and learn more about the project, visit www.visionsofthewild.com.