Often described as “John Muir meets triathlete,” Davis launched his TrekEast adventure last February in a kayak from a state park in Key Largo with an unprecedented goal of paddling, biking, hiking and even skiing 6,000 miles to the tip of the Gaspe Peninsula in Quebec -- all by the end of this year. At present, he’s trekked more than 5,000 miles through 13 states on his way to his home in New York State, where he will be taking a much-needed “trail break” Aug. 21-27 to meet with media and gain further public support for his lifelong dream -- a connected mosaic of protected Eastern landscapes from Florida to Canada that he calls the “Eastern Wildway.”
Several of the key takeaways from the trip, thus far, includes his belief that one of the most important things we humans can do along the Eastern U.S. and throughout the country and world is to “protect our streams and watersheds,” he said.
“And create large buffer zones for them,” Davis added. “Not only does that help to protect our fish, amphibians, but many animals, many of our near-extinct animals follow those watercourses. And of course it protects our own vital need for clean water.”
The conservationist noted that with global climate change, those waterways and watersheds were “even that much more critical to help prevent flooding as the storms become more severe,” adding that the loss of wetlands, “our greatest natural tool for flood protection,” as well as being able to clean water run-off and host a wide array of plant, amphibian, animal and bird habitats, “is something we have to work to prevent.”
He also said that the “connectivity” piece was key -- finding ways to invest in infrastructure that allows for animal crossings, particularly where land is broken by highways and byways and other busy roads. To that point he showed a bicycle lane and various underpasses in Florida that not only allowed safe pedestrian and bike travel, but also allowed species to get from pond to land, to forest and back to wetlands without being hit and killed by motorists.
“The scariest parts of my journey did not happen in the woods, where I did run into several black bear and poisonous snakes,” he said. “It was from being on the road on my bike and nearly being run-over by commercial trucks and other speeding vehicles … I saw road kill by the thousands, and these could be prevented by just investing in animal crossings.”
He suggested that many public roads on public land be closed, as they “are not needed, yet cost us tons of taxpaying money to maintain, and only fragment habitat to make it easier for us to drive to a pond, when we could just as easily walk. We need to close unnecessary backcountry roads on public lands.”
The most important point he made was the need to make land conservation a national priority. “Americans in general do not consider protection of our national heritage a priority. They’re not many, though there are some that are against environmental protection and land conservation, but their support, as a colleague of mine said, is a mile wide and an inch deep.”
That said, when asked if the trip buoyed him or left him depressed, he said it was the former, more often than not.
“I was able to see so many beautiful tracts of preserved land, many by The Nature Conservancy, and just be able to meet with so many different land conservation and environmental protection groups and see all of the incredible work they were doing, that it was inspiring.”
Asked what some of his greatest surprises were he pointed to a few species he stumbled upon -- one was the sawfish, “which literally looked like a huge fish with a chainsaw on its face.” The other was an alligator gar, an enormous fish with razor-like teeth that looked almost identical in size and form to an alligator.
“That was something to behold,” he said.
One discussion led to another and Davis noted that one thing he believes could help the Northeast forests, which have suffered greatly from over-browsing by an increasingly unchecked deer population, is the reintroduction of the cougar.
“I was in so many forests where there were old growth maples and other trees and then there was nothing growing beneath,” he said. “Except for some invasive trees that we don’t want and the deer do not like or beach trees, which they’re not interested in.”
His belief in reintroducing the cougar, is part of a larger school of thought that believes that one way to ensure the health of forests and various ecosystems is to have “top predators,” or as one of his colleagues coined “an ecology of fear” -- or a more politically correct term would be an ecologically effective population -- that would necessitate top predators.
“Cougars hunt and kill deer,” he said. “They also create an ‘ecology of fear,’ which results in deer not standing in your flower garden and browsing calmly, but has them skittish, on edge, not wanting to stop too long in a rich farm field and browse, or in the forest. They have to keep moving, because they know the cougars are out there. Right now, all we have are coyotes, which are starting to kill some deer, but not nearly enough to keep the forest healthy.”
He admitted that it could be a “controversial subject because people hear ‘cougar’ and of course they’re worried for their children or their domestic pets.”
“But the cougar, like many top predators, is not interested in humans. The cougar lives very quietly in the forest, almost going unseen. The greater animal threat we have is the amount of deaths domestic dogs cause in children and adults,” he said. “That number far, far exceeds any human versus top predator incident. Don’t get me wrong. I love dogs, but on my travels I was attacked numerous times by domestic dogs, not black bears or red fox.”
Davis is visiting conservation projects that enable animals to move between protected areas; meeting the conservation “heroes” protecting wildlife and wild places in the East; identifying the private lands that are critical to wildlife survival; advocating for the recovery of keystone species; promoting community-based agriculture as a vital component of conservation planning and wildlife protection; spotlighting people’s favorite wild places; and identifying actions people can take to protect nature in their backyards and throughout the entire region.
His trip is sponsored by the Wildlands Network, (www.wildlandsnetwork.org). To learn more about his mission and/or to follow his blog log onto http://www.twp.org/trekeast.