The eminent evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson has an audacious vision for saving Earth from a cataclysmic extinction event “Battles are where the fun is,” said E.O. Wilson, the great evolutionary biologist, “and where the most rapid advances are made.” We were sitting in oversized rocking chairs in a northwest Florida guest cottage with two deep porches and half-gallons of butter-pecan ice cream in the freezer, a Wilson favorite. He’d invited me here to look at what he considers a new approach to conservation, a new ecological Grail that, naturally, won’t happen without a fight. Wilson, 85, is the author of more than 25 books, many of which have changed scientific understanding of human nature and of how the living part of the planet is put together. Known as the father of sociobiology, he is also hailed as the pre-eminent champion of biodiversity: Wilson coined the word “biophilia” to suggest that people have an innate affinity for other species, and his now widely accepted “theory of island biogeography” explains why national parks and all confined landscapes inevitably lose species. He grew up in and around Mobile, Alabama, and has been at Harvard for over 60 years but still calls himself “a Southern boy who came north to earn a living.” He is courtly, twinkly, soft-spoken, has a shock of unruly white hair, and is slightly stooped from bending over to look at small things all his life—he’s the world’s leading authority on ants. Wilson has earned more than a hundred scientific awards and other honors, including two Pulitzer Prizes. And perhaps his most urgent project is a quest to refute conservation skeptics who think there isn’t enough left of the natural world to be worth saving. SOURCES ― HIGHSTEAD REGIONAL CONSERVATION; HARVARD FOREST; NATIONAL LAND COVER DATABASE / WILDLANDS AND WOODLANDS.ORG; U.S GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY; GLOBAL FOREST WATCH; AMERICA'S LONGLEAF RESTORATION INITIATIVE; WILDLANDS NETWORK; MATTHEW ARESCO. NOKUSE PLANTATION Throughout the 544 million or so years since hard-shelled animals first appeared, there has been a slow increase in the number of plants and animals on the planet, despite five mass extinction events. The high point of biodiversity likely coincided with the moment modern humans left Africa and spread out across the globe 60,000 years ago. As people arrived, other species faltered and vanished, slowly at first and now with such acceleration that Wilson talks of a coming “biological holocaust,” the sixth mass extinction event, the only one caused not by some cataclysm but by a single species—us. Wilson recently calculated that the only way humanity could stave off a mass extinction crisis, as devastating as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, would be to set aside half the planet as permanently protected areas for the ten million other species. “Half Earth,” in other words, as I began calling it—half for us, half for them. A version of this idea has been in circulation among conservationists for some time. “It’s been in my mind for years,” Wilson told me, “that people haven’t been thinking big enough—even conservationists. Half Earth is the goal, but it’s how we get there, and whether we can come up with a system of wild landscapes we can hang onto. I see a chain of uninterrupted corridors forming, with twists and turns, some of them opening up to become wide enough to accommodate national biodiversity parks, a new kind of park that won’t let species vanish.” Ranches owned by Ted Turner Enterprises are home to 51,000 bison—the world’s largest private herd. The one below roams at the Flying D in Montana. (Carlton Ward Jr.) M.C. Davis (above, with a pitcher plant on the 50,000-acre nature reserve he founded) has been inspired by the biologist E.O. Wilson (in blue) to save wildlife, including the threatened gopher tortoise. (Carlton Ward Jr.) Nokuse Plantation is situated in what experts call a biological “hotspot.” It’s graced by the Florida anise. (Carlton Ward Jr.) The signature tree of Nokuse Plantation is the longleaf pine, but cypress and other species thrive along Black Creek as it flows into Choctawhatchee Bay. (Carlton Ward Jr.) The threatened gopher tortoise. (Carlton Ward Jr.) Nokuse Plantation is situated in what experts call a biological “hotspot.” It’s graced by the flowers of Florida anise, the carnivorous yellow pitcher plant and crow poison (pictured). (Carlton Ward Jr.) Nokuse Plantation is situated in what experts call a biological “hotspot.” It’s graced by the flowers the carnivorous yellow pitcher plant. (Carlton Ward Jr.) Red-cockaded woodpeckers nest in mature longleaf pines and have been documented migrating over 40 miles to find suitable habitats in Florida. (Carlton Ward Jr.) Eastern Indigo snakes such as this one call longleaf pine forests home and have become endangered since the continued loss of their habitat in Georgia and Florida. (Carlton Ward Jr.) Businessman M.C. Davis built the E.O. Wilson Biophilia Center in 2009 as an educational facility for local youth in Florida to experience nature firsthand. (Carlton Ward Jr.) Amid the towering longleaf pines in southern Georgia, avian ecologist Jim Cox searches for Bachman’s sparrows in the highly diverse forest. (Carlton Ward Jr.) Controlled fires are necessary for the health and growth of forested areas such as the Tall Timbers Research Station in northern Florida. (Carlton Ward Jr.) AROUND THE WEB I had also begun to think about such wildland chains as “Long Landscapes,” and Wilson said he liked the idea that they could meet climate change head on: Those that run north-south, like the initiative in the West known as Yellowstone-to-Yukon, can let life move north as things warm up, and those that run east-west may have the benefit of letting life move east, away from the west, which in the future may not see as much rain. “Why, when this thing gets really going,” Wilson said, “you’ll be so surrounded, so enveloped by connected corridors that you’ll almost never not be in a national park, or at any rate in a landscape that leads to a national park.” Is this Half Earth vision even possible, I wondered, and what might it look like? 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.C. Davis, a multimillionaire who grew up in a Panhandle trailer and as a young man raised his first stake playing poker. *** Like Wilson, M.C. Davis is a tireless, elaborately courteous Southern charmer. But Wilson himself is quick to point out a difference: “I only write about saving biodiversity. He’s actually doing it.” Davis’ idea has been to revive the “Piney Woods,” the signature ecosystem of the American Southeast. The longleaf pine forest once covered 90 million acres, or about 60 percent of the land, in a virtually continuous 1,200-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. That’s more catastrophic than what has happened to coral reefs (10 percent to 20 percent destroyed) or the Amazon rainforest (more than 20 percent). The longleaf pine forest’s “Big Cut,” as it’s still known, began after the Civil War and left behind what commentators referred to as “a sea of stumps.” Much of the land has since been reforested, but de-longleafed, and is now planted with row after row of faster-growing pines raised for pulpwood. Davis, a commodities trader in timber and oil and gas rights, who grew up 65 miles west of his forest, is jovial, folksy, forceful, slightly rumpled-looking, unassuming (“I’m a dirt-road, Panhandle guy”). 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. He got stuck in a big pileup on I-4 near Tampa, saw a high-school marquee with the sign “Black Bear Seminar” and walked in the door: “There was an old drunk, and a politician who’d thought there’d be a crowd, and a couple of Canadians looking for day-old doughnuts and coffee—and, up on the stage, two women talking about saving black bears. They were riveting. 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 100-book environmental reading list for me, for my education. I spent a year reading Thoreau, John Muir, Ed Wilson. Then I started buying up land to see what I could do.” If you were going to save Florida black bears, it was clear from the start, you’d have to save longleaf forests, their preferred habitat. 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. If you could add in enough territory to put these pieces together, they’d amount to something greater than just a “postage stamp” of the natural world, as conservationists had started calling the national parks. The problem was that 70 miles separated the first two protected longleaf forests—and it was another 95 miles to the third. As he dug deeper, Davis realized that the coastal Southeast is a “hyper*diverse” biological hotspot with up to 60 different species in a single square yard—though you might not think so when you see it, since a mature longleaf forest looks clipped and kempt, more like a big city park. 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. Longleaf branches out only after it’s high overhead, where glistening needles up to two-and-a-half-feet long are arrayed in pompon*like sprays. Below the branches is empty space a hawk can glide through. Davis’ plan was to buy up and re-longleaf the “in-between” open space east of Eglin and west of a protected river corridor. 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. These tourist-driven communities used to be known as the Redneck Riviera, featuring attractions like the Snake-a-Torium, but more recently have been marketing themselves as the Emerald Coast (with slightly confusing slogans like “White Sand, White Wine, White Necks”). 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.