Those who have followed the global rewilding movement or the work of Northeast Wilderness Trust for some time will recognize Tom Butler as an important voice in many efforts to give land back to Nature. Tom was a co-founder and original Board member of Northeast Wilderness Trust, and recently retired from a long career at Tompkins Conservation, where he now serves on the Board. In addition, he has edited or written more than a dozen books, including Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition,Protecting the Wild, and On Beauty.
Now, our friend dons a new hat as Northeast Wilderness Trust’s Senior Fellow. In joining the staff, Tom will work to amplify the mission and reach of the Wilderness Trust through writing and relationships. We sat down with Tom, who lives with his family in the foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains, to learn more about the organization’s founding, the journey of his career, and his favorite wild place.
Northeast Wilderness Trust: What makes you excited to work at Northeast Wilderness Trust?
Tom Butler: I know I tend to employ excessive alliteration, so forgive me…but the answer is clarity, creativity, and connectivity. I’m enthusiastic about the clarity of the Trust’s mission, the creativity of the team, and the connectivity between work and goal—that is, how the day-to-day efforts of the Trust are helping create a more beautiful, equitable world for people and our more-than-human kin.
NEWT: Tell us about the origins of your connection to nature, and how you maintain that connection today.
TB: As a kid I had the good fortune to have access to semi-wild areas for play, a dad who is a biologist, and a mom who was an activist with the Sierra Club and other groups. Some of my earliest memories are of family camping trips to Custer State Park in South Dakota (where herds of bison roamed) and Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.
These days, I love to hike and paddle in wild places. This year I was able to log 50 days in my canoe. There is nothing so lovely as an early morning springtime paddle where one can go birding and boating at the same time.
NEWT: Do you have a favorite wild place?
TB: I’ve been lucky to experience some wondrous natural areas, from Lake Clark National Park in Alaska, where the brown bear tracks were as big as dinner plates, to Chilean Patagonia, where the guanacos must be ever watchful for mountain lions. But my favorite is upstate New York’s Adirondack Park, the largest protected area in the lower 48. It is a global model for wilderness protection and properly scaled human habitation. It’s not perfect, of course, but it’s arguably the greatest single example of large-scale rewilding on Earth—and it’s right here in the Northeast.
NEWT: During the founding of Northeast Wilderness Trust, what motivated you and the other founders to create a land trust dedicated to wilderness preservation?
TB: The niche was open. The Northeast simply needed a land trust that would work tirelessly to protect wilderness, not managed timberlands. There was then, and still is now, plenty of effort and funding going into forest conservation projects that allow continued logging. At that time there was not a group focused solely on securing wild places, where natural processes operate freely and wildlife would be secure from the bulldozers of tomorrow. Northeast Wilderness Trust has succeeded in filling that niche, but we must scale up our efforts if we are to match the need and potential for rewilding this part of Planet Earth.
Q: What was a highlight for you of your time serving on the Wilderness Trust Board?
TB: Every time a new wild place was protected was exciting. Every time a new donor or project partner said, “I have been waiting to find a group like NEWT, which shares my values,” was a highlight. Another was when the Wilderness Trust hired Jon Leibowitz as Executive Director. The outstanding team of conservation professionals that he’s put together and the way that NEWT has grown in budget and impact while staying true to its core values reflects well on his leadership.
NEWT: As you return as a member of the NEWT staff, what do you see as the present opportunities and challenges in wilderness conservation?
TB: While there are nuances linked to this particular cultural moment, in general the challenges are the same that wilderness advocates have always faced. Anyone who has ever tried paddling upriver knows it is can be tough going. Wilderness-focused conservationists are ever paddling against strong cultural, political, and economic currents. We’re fighting a very old story—that the world was put here for us (people) and that to “subdue,” “improve,” and “develop” land (and profit from that work) equals progress. This story is so ingrained that it’s adopted without examination, it’s simply unquestioned, which makes it the most powerful kind of authority in a culture. (Hat tip to writers Neil Evernden and Eileen Crist on that last point.)
And yet, despite the obstacles and despite having always been a minority even within the conservation movement, wilderness proponents have had many successes. Americans now enjoy a National Wilderness Preservation System on federal public lands; various states have wilderness area or equivalent designations; and some land trusts, including Northeast Wilderness Trust, are expanding wilderness protection on private lands.
The opportunities to protect more wilderness, expand the base of support for wild places, and tell a new (old) story of reciprocity between humans and our wild cousins in the community of life are boundless. The hard truth is that it’s urgent we do this more effectively, at a larger scale, with greater funding, and more quickly. The ways that wild places not only safeguard the homes of the creatures who live there but offer profound benefits to humanity are many. I believe the work we do is central to addressing the overarching challenge of our time—the intertwined crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. Wilderness protection can help counter both if done at scale. And the result would be wildly beneficial to people.