Bringing wild forest back from the brink

Geoff Dalglish talks to Alan Watson Featherstone about an ambitious 250-year vision to assist with the natural regeneration of the planet’s forests and wildlife.

If ever there was a friend of the trees, it is Alan Watson Featherstone, a diminutive figure with a giant dream to help reverse the catastrophic global trend towards deforestation.

With just one percent of Scotland’s Caledonian Forest surviving, his long-term goal encompasses an expansive 250-year vision for the return of wild forest to a target area of 600 square miles. And that healing restoration will be accompanied by a reintroduction of mammal species that flourished when much of the Highlands were densely forested — long before the once magnificent landscape was transformed into what has been described as a ‘wet desert’. The restoration will provide for extensive tracts of majestic Scots pine interspersed with birch, rowan, juniper and aspen trees, recreating a natural environment where beaver, wild boar, lynx and wolf might roam again.

While it has taken many centuries to reduce parts of the Scottish Highlands to their present barren and impoverished condition, elsewhere on the planet — and especially in the life-sustaining tropical rainforests — the accelerated degradation and species loss has happened in our lifetimes and mostly during the past three decades.

If we rewind just one decade to January 2000 when millions of people were celebrating the arrival of the new millennium, a sobering event of global importance took place largely unnoticed by the media and public alike — in Spain’s Ordesa National Park a falling tree hit and killed the last surviving Pyrenees mountain goat, creating the extinction of another species in a deeply symbolic and alarming continuation of the destructive trends of the 20th century.

Later that same year we recorded the demise in West Africa of a red colobus monkey which was the first extinction in two centuries of a member of the primate family to which humans also belong: conservationists estimating that around 150 species, most of them little-known invertebrates in the tropical rainforests, disappear each day.

Fast forward again to today and we find that despite humanity’s appalling track record, Alan Featherstone’s optimism is undiminished. If his dream seems audacious, consider that it is already being translated into breathtaking reality. During 2011 it is likely that we’ll witness the planting of the millionth seedling by Trees for Life, the award-winning Scottish charity of which he is the founder and executive director.

“Our vision is to restore a wild forest, which is there for its own sake, as a home for wildlife and to fulfil the ecological functions necessary for the wellbeing of the land itself. We are not aiming to regenerate a forest which will be utilised sustainably as an extractive resource for people, although we recognise the need for this,” he said. “We endorse the efforts of other organisations in seeking to establish a new ecologically sustainable system of forestry, but we strongly believe that this utilitarian approach must be complemented by the restoration of large areas of wild forest.”

Are his goals realistic? “I’m an optimist,” he insisted. “I wouldn’t be at Findhorn if I wasn’t,” he added in a reference to his home base within the Findhorn Foundation ecovillage and education centre. It is the community with the lowest recorded ecological footprint in the developed world and has been described as a beacon of light in a troubled world.

“My deep-rooted sense of personal optimism for the future stems largely from my personal experience of having access to an unlimited source of inner power — the passion for what I really care about and believe in. I’ve found that I, like any individual, have the power to effect meaningful change in the world. By giving voice to the deepest feelings of my heart and finding ways to express those through practical and positive action, I’ve discovered previously unknown skills and abilities within myself, and that I can make a difference far beyond my immediate surroundings.”

“I see it in others who are acting with the passion and commitment to put their visions into practice.”

His presentations around the world are an inspirational call to arms, also adding impetus to Earth restoration initiatives that seek to protect and restore forests, oceans, freshwater, tundra, corals and the soil that are the greatest allies we have to fight climate change and support a better quality of life with clean air, food security and pure water. He notes that in the past many projects have centred on damage limitation and were reactive rather than proactive, aiming to prevent the destruction of the rainforests or extinction of threatened species such as the tiger, blue whale or giant panda.

“While that essential work must continue, there’s another qualitatively different aspect to the endeavours of many people and organisations concerned about the future of the planet. This is embodied in new projects that are proactive and seek to implement a positive vision for how their proponents would like the world to be, instead of opposing what they don't like.”

These include the Wildlands Network, which advocates the rewilding of large parts of North America, through expanding and linking up existing protected areas, to provide adequate habitat for all the continent’s species; the Gondwana Project that proposes that all the world’s forests south of latitude 40 degrees be protected as international sanctuaries; and the Global Ecovillage Network, which brings together small Earth-friendly communities that are demonstrating sustainable ways for humans to live in harmony with the planet.

Although these projects have yet to bear significant fruit, they all share a common feature — they are expressions of an affirmative vision for the future, and are empowered by the passion and cares of the people who initiated them. Together they form part of the only viable alternative to the ‘enslavement of the planet’ — the revitalisation of the Earth. While it may be too late for the Pyrenees mountain goat or that particular species of red colobus monkey, these projects and similar ones will ensure that there is a viable future for many other species.

“At present, such initiatives are largely unknown to most of the mainstream media and the public at large. However, just as the change in the ocean’s tides is imperceptible at first, but then gathers momentum with increasing speed, so too is a sea change underway in overall human consciousness and action.

“I feel it in myself, in my heart and in my bones, and I see it in others who are acting with the passion and commitment to put their visions into practice. Our collective efforts may not be very obvious now, but if enough of us pull together, that will soon change and human endeavours can be redirected towards nurturing rather than destroying all other life.

“I believe that we each have our own unique contribution to make to this change, and there’s a simple verse which summarises this succinctly and poetically”:

We are the power in everyone
We are the dance of the moon and the sun
We are the hope that will never die
We are the turning of the tide.

Bioneers at Findhorn

The successful Bioneers movement from North America will bring inspiration to Europe from ‘the heart of nature’ during a conference presented by the Findhorn Foundation, in collaboration with Findhorn College, between 30th October and 2nd November 2010.

Bioneers describes an emerging culture of social and scientific innovators who are mimicking nature’s operating instructions to serve human ends while healing the natural world. A basic understanding is that taking care of nature means taking care of people, while taking care of people means taking care of nature.

Alan Watson Featherstone and Maddy Harland, editor of Permaculture magazine, will be among the presenters and workshop participants.

Geoff Dalglish

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