FORT KENT, Maine — Conservationist John Davis looks at the land extending from Florida north to the Gaspe region of Quebec and sees a trail of fragmented habitat and wild lands in need of restoration and protection.
Davis’ impressions are not from books, photographs or computer models. The New York co-founder of Wildlands Network has spent the past 36 weeks walking, cycling and paddling up the Eastern Seaboard to see it all for himself.
Before his TrekEast journey ends in mid-November, he may even have the chance to use his cross-country skis crossing the Chic Choc Mountains in Quebec.
“I like being out in wild places,” Davis said Saturday morning as he took a break from his trek at Rock’s Diner in Fort Kent before crossing into Canada. “For me this is part personal adventure and part showing how we can travel under our own power.”
But Davis has a more serious and long-reaching message attached to his 7,000-mile odyssey sponsored in part by Wildlands Network: He hopes persuade people of the importance of increasing wild places for wildlife.
“I hope to increase people’s acceptance of the idea that we need to retain wild areas,” he said. “There are already some good areas of wildlife habitat, but they tend to be isolated from each other.”
What were once large habitat areas are now fragmented due to road construction, commercial activities or land development, Davis said, destroying traditional migration routes and ranges for many of the east’s native animals including wolves, cougars, deer and many amphibians.
“There needs to be better connectivity between wild places,” he said.
On Friday, Davis spent time exploring the so-called “Three Borders Crossing” northwest of Fort Kent where New Brunswick, Quebec and Maine meet near Glacier Lake.
“What a perfect place for something like an ‘International Peace Park,’” Davis said. “Places like this are really, really rare where you see a river and lake with no camps lining them or roads alongside.”
The St. Francis River — the natural border between Maine and New Brunswick — runs from Beau Lake in Quebec, through Glacier Lake and into the St. John River.
A designated international park, Davis said, would assure that river and its shores remain wild and suitable habitat.
Much of that land, he notes, is privately held and he said local, state, provincial and federal governments need to create incentives encouraging landowners to keep the acreage intact and undeveloped.
“There is a need to provide those landowners with good incentives to keep their land wild and not cut it over or subdivide it,” Davis said. “There needs to be incentives to do the right thing for the land.”
Ideally, Davis said, he and Wildlands Network would like to see a “continual swath” of land up the east coast, something he called the “Eastern Wildway.”
“This could be a mosaic of private and public lands from Florida to the Gaspe,” he said. “When conservation is emphasized on public and private land it’s good common-sense land management.”
Davis said he has spoken to numerous fellow conservationists, biologists and lovers of the land along his trek, all of whom share ideas and visions of improving wildlife habitat.
“The species we have eliminated from our landscapes is a real loss,” Davis said. “Like wolves — they play a real part in keeping other species in check and balance.”
Lack of that natural predator in states south of Maine, he said, have lead to an explosion of the deer population which, in turn, has created over-browsing situations.
“Most of the wildflowers are gone now because of the deer and the trees are being browsed right down,” he said. “Hunting by man alone is not enough of a [deer] population control.”
Viewing the ranges of habitat is something Davis said he had to do under his own power. Most recently he was canoeing on the Allagash River until he reunited with his mountain bike near Fort Kent.
One of his best days, he said, was hiking alone on Mt. Katahdin.
“That’s a really great mountain,” he said. “I’d cycled up to the park in a cold rain but then hiked up Abol Trail, along the Knife Edge and a big loop of the five sub-peaks; it was a real alpine day.”
Over the thousands of miles Davis has traveled, he said he has seen bear, moose and creatures he’d never seen before, such as the odd smalltooth sawfish in Florida and an Alligator Gar — a fish — in Alabama.
The more he has seen over the past weeks, the more he is convinced for the need for ecological austerity, he said.
“A society can’t afford to maintain all these roads and dams,” Davis said. “When there is a road along a river that is not serving a vital interest, we should just let it go or turn it into a foot path or mountain bike trail.”
Things such as roads and dams are expensive and turning them back to nature carries few, if any, costs, he said.
In fact, Davis added, those moves, when combined with creations of public parks such as the Transborder Peace Park or the controversial idea for a North Woods Park in Maine, can actually benefit local economies.
“Ecological reserves and parks can employ many people,” he said. “Guides, outfitters, rafters and others all work near parks — when I talk about restoring wild habitats, I’m talking about jobs creation.”
Moreover, he feels conservation and lessening the use of nonrenewable resources such as gas and oil will go a long way in reducing the effects of global warming and climate change, which he said is having a tremendous and adverse effect on the economy.
Davis will stay on the move until he arrives at the tip of Gaspe. Friends and family along the way are helping out with logistics and funding allows for a night in a hotel once a week.
When the trip is done and Davis is back home with his wife and stepson in northern New York, he plans to publish an account of his journey and reconnect with the conservationists and activists he has met along the way.
“I think human beings have a natural curiosity about and attraction to long journeys,” he said. “Especially when those journeys are under your own power.”
Davis’ progress can be followed on his blog at www.wildlandsnetwork.org/trekeast.