‘Rewilding’ Mount Nittany and Avoiding ‘Improvements’ to Nature

green tree near green plants

Ars Technica reports on a recent study on “rewilding” released by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. What is “rewilding”? The International Union for the Conservation of Nature defines rewilding this way:

Rewilding: the process of rebuilding, following major human disturbance, a natural ecosystem by restoring natural processes and the complete or near complete food-web at all trophic levels as a self-sustaining and resilient ecosystem using biota that would have been present had the disturbance not occurred. This will involve a paradigm shift in the relationship between humans and nature. The ultimate goal of rewilding is the restoration of functioning native ecosystems complete with fully occupied trophic levels that are nature-led across a range of landscape scales. Rewilded ecosystems should – where possible – be self-sustaining requiring no or minimum-intervention management (i.e. natura naturans or “nature doing what nature does”), recognising that ecosystems are dynamic and not static.

Ars Technica describes what rewilding can look like in practice, while noting that the reintroduction of certain predators may not be advisable:

In essence, rewilding involves giving more space and time to nature. Instead of managing ecosystems to preserve particular species, rewilding is intended to reverse environmental decline by letting nature become more self-willed. That means allowing wildlife the freedom to flourish and habitats to regenerate naturally. …

The objective of rewilding is boosting the health of an ecosystem by increasing the number of species and how much they can all interact. A fully restored ecosystem would have top predators, but there are a lot of missing parts—the plants, prey animals, fungi—that should be put back first to ensure that larger species have an appropriate food source and habitat to support them.

It might not be appropriate for lots of other reasons to reintroduce wolves to a particular place at the moment, but in the meantime, bringing back beaverslizards, and butterflies is brilliant too. …

Rewilding involves reducing harmful human pressures and promoting natural processes in ecosystems. This shouldn’t mean excluding people though. Rewilding should actually help people develop a more positive relationship with the natural world that involves compassion for all species and a spirit of learning from nature rather than seeking to dominate it. …

By enabling species to move through reconnected habitats and traverse entire landscapes, wildlife populations can be rebuilt. This would ensure the healthy functioning of an ecosystem isn’t dependent on a few isolated creatures, and it’s a practical way to help nature adapt to threats like climate change and new diseases, as species will have more freedom to move if pressures in one place escalate.

Mount Nittany is loved precisely because it is a natural symbol of Penn State and the Nittany Valley. Although Penn State’s success and the growth of State College have had the effect of reshaping the ecology, landscapes, and environment of Happy Valley, Mount Nittany remains in its natural state. We intentionally conserve the Mountain in an “unimproved” way—simply maintaining trails and encouraging hikers to abide by the “leave no trace” principle.

Our aspiration is for Mount Nittany to forever remain the natural heart of Happy Valley, where Penn Staters, Central Pennsylvanians, and visitors can experience time outside of time in a place that would be as recognizably Mount Nittany as it was for Evan and Rebecca Pugh or George Atherton as it would be for us, or as it will be for generations yet unborn. In this way, Mount Nittany can be sacred—literally a place set apart.

Mount Nittany, like too many natural places, was clear cut in the early 20th century. The natural ecosystem of the Mountain has come back in a rich way since that tragic event, but it will still be many decades—centuries—before the Mountain regains the age and dignity of a genuinely ancient forest. For these reasons, rewilding of Mount Nittany has been an implicit part of the work of the Mount Nittany Conservancy since its founding in the 1980s and has been a guiding principle for the Mountain’s conservation since at least the 1940s.

Although we have no plans to reintroduce the Pennsylvania mountain lion to Mount Nittany—if only it could safely be so, especially for the people of Lemont!—the rewilding of the Mountain is the work of generations.