Photo by Zack Metcalfe -- Pictured is the endangered Eastern Blanding’s turtle.

The loss of wilderness to forestry, pollution, agriculture, urban sprawl and climate change is the single most potent driver of mass extinction.

When we say that 1 million species could go extinct in the next few decades, what we’re really saying is that their habitat will be clearcut, or overrun by cattle, or devastated by heavy metal mining, or torched to make way for sugar cane. The pressures we impose on the natural world are various, but none are as critical as the simple destruction of wilderness.

Believe it or not, our best and brightest in the natural sciences have run the numbers, trying to determine exactly how much wilderness must be preserved in order to halt mass extinction. It’s blood-soaked calculus to be sure, but can inform our actions over the next few decades, and no work on this subject is better known than that of Harvard’s own Edward O Wilson.

He has calculated the relationship between wilderness and biodiversity as follows – if you were to lose 90 per cent of a region’s wilderness, you would also lose 50 per cent of its biodiversity; half of all life would simply disappear, unable to persist without sufficient space for migrations, without a variety of landscapes to suit multiple needs, without habitat flexibility in a changing climate, and so on.

Randomly protect 50 per cent of a region’s wilderness, however, and you will only lose 15 per cent of its biodiversity. The loss would remain tragic, the damage felt in our economy and quality of life for centuries or more, but the crisis would at least be mitigated. There is, however, a better option still.

If we were to protect 50 per cent of a region’s wilderness selectively, rather than randomly, focusing our efforts on so-called “biodiversity hotspots,” we could preserve well over 85 per cent of a region’s biodiversity more or less indefinitely. If our hands were guided by the best available science, extinction could, in this scenario, be kept at bay. So, we need to protect half the globe, half of Canada… half of Nova Scotia. Simple, right?

In 2010 Canada committed to protecting 17 per cent of its lands and inland waters by 2020, and so far we’ve done little better than 10 per cent. Nova Scotia, itself riddled with biodiversity hotspots, has, all told, committed to roughly 14 per cent protection, and our speed in getting there leaves a lot to be desired. By December 29, 2015, we’d officially protected 12.3 per cent of Nova Scotia, mostly by way of provincially designated wilderness areas. From 2016-2018, we’d only grown to 12.4 per cent, with some designations in 2016 and three in November of 2018, of the Wentworth Valley Wilderness Area (2,000 hectares), Chase Lake Wilderness Area (849 hectares) and the 203 hectare Steepbank Brook Nature Reserve. All this to say, we as Canadians and Nova Scotians are nowhere near 50 per cent.

At this point you might be wondering where I get off. We can count beans until we’re blue in the face, but how could we conceivably protect half the planet, or in our case, half of Nova Scotia? I put this exact question to Dr. Tom Herman of Acadia University who’s spent 40 years studying the spectacle of biodiversity, and his answer was very tidy.

While he’s a strong believer in parks and designated wilderness areas, where wildness reigns supreme (we need more of them), he said such places are no longer enough. They must be joined by so-called “working landscapes,” where industries like forestry and farming may proceed, but where the integrity of biodiversity remains the highest possible priority. Forests can be harvested, but selectively, gently, evenly and at times of the year when they will cause the least commotion for nesting wildlife. Imagine huge swaths of our public wilderness connecting our core protected areas, managed in such a way which allowed them to stay old, maintain closed canopies and keep, even recover their plant and animal diversity. Such places could help make up the difference in reaching 50 per cent.

But Dr. Herman went on, pointing even to agriculture. Our fields can play host to hedgerows, for example, planted with birds and insects in mind. Sprays could be restricted, diversity and ingenuity encouraged; I’ve visited organic farms where wildlife play an active part in the growing of food (bio-intensive agriculture) and others where harvests are planned around nesting turtles and bobolinks. On private property, even creative gardening with native plants can support its share of regional biodiversity.

There is no shortage of solutions to mass extinction, and walling off half our province need not be among them. Much of our land can remain in use, in service to thoughtful industry and an adoring pubic without sacrificing their services to the biosphere at large, but we aren’t there yet; not even close. It will take some forethought on our part, some courage and patience, but the alternative is unthinkable.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. He can be reached at: zack.metcalfe@gmail.com.