North American Governments Agree to Protect Wilderness

Waterton Lakes National ParkThe United States, Canada, and Mexico agreed this week to work together to protect wilderness areas across North America.

The cooperation agreement establishes an intergovernmental committee to exchange research and approaches that address challenges such as climate change, fire control, and invasive species in land, marine, and coastal protected areas throughout the continent.

"This agreement will allow for the exchange of successful experiences, monitoring, and training of human resources, as well as the financing of projects that will protect and recover wild areas," said Mexican President Felipe Calderón at the opening ceremony of the Ninth World Wilderness Congress in Mérida, Mexico.

The three nations have long cooperated on wilderness management - programs have straddle the U.S.-Canadian border since 1910 and the U.S.-Mexican border since the 1930s. Yet the memorandum of understanding is the first multinational agreement on wilderness protection, according to Vance Martin, president of the Wild Foundation.

"It's not very easy to do anything internationally, even when the countries are neighbors," Martin said.

With the agreement, wildlife officials said, ecological monitoring efforts such as migratory species tracking, air and water quality tests, and staff training will be better managed across the seven agencies responsible for such tasks in North America.

"There is already work in progress; the MOU will help speed it up," said Ernesto Enkerlin Hoeflich, president of Mexico's National Commission of Protected Natural Areas.

Among the new intergovernmental committee's priorities, wilderness protection will require greater international collaboration as climate change alters regional temperatures and wildlife species adapt by shifting their habitat ranges, officials said.

"As climate changes, the distribution and abundance of animal and plant species will be affected...and wildlife will know no boundaries - whether state or international," said Sam Hamilton, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "This is an opportunity to look across borders as we design future landscapes."

International agencies will likely need to form corridors that connect protected areas as part of their climate change adaptation plans. The United States has already initiated conversations with Canadian and Mexican officials to map corridors between the nations' parks, according to Jon Jarvis, director of the U.S. National Park Service.

"Protected areas have to be larger than they were previously. Also, they have to have connectivity, eventually across country boundaries," Jarvis said. "Species' historical range of variability is no longer a reliable paradigm."

The U.S. Department of Interior is also expanding the focus of its eight regional science centers to provide additional climate change guidance for wildlife management officials. As part of the $10 million included in the department's 2010 budget, the centers plan to share climate models and downscale the data among international land management and wildlife agencies, Hamilton said.

The United States already coordinates wildlife resources with Canada to manage adjacent Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana, as well as Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario and Superior National Forest in Minnesota.

The United States and Mexico work together to protect the wilderness areas covered by Big Bend National Park in Texas, Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in Coahuila, and Santa Elena Canyon Protected Area in Chihuahua. In addition, the ongoing construction of nearly 670 miles (1,080 kilometers) of immigration control fences and other security equipment across the countries' shared border has required that wildlife officials collaborate to address expected ecosystem damages.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied a request from several environmental groups to block the fence construction. The groups said that habitats for dozens of species, including jaguars, ocelots, deer, and owls, have been damaged or fragmented due to the construction.

"For some species [the border fence] will no doubt create barriers, big species particularly, such as the jaguar," Hamilton said. "But birds and many species will continue to migrate."

Larry Merculieff, a consultant for indigenous peoples and co-founder of the Alaska Indigenous Council on Marine Mammals, said the cooperation agreement is welcome progress. Indigenous peoples, however, continue to be marginalized from government-led wildlife decisions, he said.

"It is one tiny, fetal step to where we really need to go," Merculieff said.

The agreement ensures that wilderness partnerships transcend a single government administration or official committed to the cause, and it commits the governments to discuss wildlife issues at high levels.

"We sometimes put too little stock in opening dialogues - it gets people talking," said Carl Rountree, director of national landscape conservation system with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. "Just getting people together is difficult for the U.S. to do amongst its agencies."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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