When pouring over the US map, trying frantically to memorize the name and location of each state, it’s no surprise that the average fifth grader laments their odd shapes and inconsistent sizing. I know I did.
The boundaries of US states are almost entirely arbitrary. As of now, they are a product of legislation outcomes from the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the formation of railroads and other forms of transportation during the Industrial Revolution.
But in the face of resource conflicts, climate change’s hanging ax, and rapidly changing landscapes, it’s not a far reach for historians, scientists, and geographers to imagine what the country’s borders would look like if they actually made sense and were in harmony with nature. Why not redraw those borders to fit ecosystem and geographical similarities?
Having moved from India at nine, where the most drastic reformation of state boundaries occurred as a result of The States Reorganization Act which delineated borders based on linguistic majorities in 1956, the US’s mixture of straight-lined and crooked carved margins was a learning curve for me.
Unfortunately, while it’s an easy prospect to throw around, the execution of an idea like this one involves a slew of legislative, cultural, and logistic complications.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Redrawing boundaries isn’t a common solution to our planet’s burgeoning climate problems, but it’s not novel. Scientists and explorers as early as the 1870s presented proposals that laid the groundwork to answer this specific question.
How it began
Mapping of the world’s ecoregions stretches back to the time of Charles Darwin and evolution. Darwin’s hidden partner in the discovery of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, was one of the principal founders of biogeography, a field of biology that deals with the distribution of plants and animals across geographic boundaries.
In 1867, Wallace created a zoogeographical map that divided the world into sections based on the biodiversity of organisms and plants in each region.
Wallace’s model consisted of six zoogeographical sections, including the neotropical and nearctic, and 26 subregions. Though he wasn’t the first to attempt to create such a map, his map is the most accurate by modern standards and is still referenced in scientific research.
This set up the nascent stages of what would eventually become a proposal for ecological and geological boundaries to define political boundaries.
In the US, one of the first instances of environmental mapping was John Francis Powell’s Western watershed map. Powell defined a watershed as an “area of land…within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course & where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”
Water not only is a key resource, it’s an incredibly versatile one. Almost every industry relies on the use of water in some way or form. Organizing the country as such around watersheds would solve a multitude of current governmental problems. Transportation would be more efficient, land use and management would be more effective, and conservation ideals would already be ingrained in residents.
In 1890, when Powell first presented the map, he focused on the existing water bodies rather than relying on future rainfall.
His proposed map, of course, was rejected by Congress. Congress and other cartographers took the easy way out. Because longitude and latitude lines were easier to track, that became somewhat of a precedent, and as a result we are left with rectangular borders.
Now, with growing climate change-related shifts like the moving of the 100th meridian line (an imaginary line cuts the United States into a wetter and dryer zone) to expand the dryer half of America, recognizing the need for an adjustment in how boundaries are perceived is incredibly important.
What might it look like?
Powell’s watershed map isn’t the only way to organize the United States based on resources and ecosystems.
In collaboration with Canada and Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, the US Environmental Protections Agency formed the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. The three countries together created a map of North American ecoregions that seem to ignore state boundaries entirely.
These maps outline three levels of detail. There are 15 regions in the Level I map, many of which cross not only state but national borders, spanning through the US into Canada or Mexico. Level II zooms in further, focusing on the way that the added 50 ecoregions play out within nations. The last level is more useful on a regional scale, now with a total of 182 ecoregions across the continent.
There are also more detailed Level IV maps on specifically the continental US.
Plants, ecosystems, flora, and soil composition don’t adhere to the arbitrary political boundaries set by humans. The Level II and III maps show that ecologically, northern California has more in common with Oregon and Washington than it does with southern California.
Compounded with the disparity in state and county sizes, using political boundaries to compare plant distribution for climate statistics or understand how to cooperate on restoration and preservation becomes more and more difficult.
If sections of states are more congruent with neighboring sections of other states, it’s reasonable to assume that governments may make false assumptions about the nativity and survival of plants in their state.
Bplant.org describes a severe misstep in the USDA’s assessment of the Rudbeckia triloba plant. In their analysis of ecosystems, the USDA uses country boundaries and thus deemed the plant native to the US but it originated in Canada. If you use the ecoregion maps created by the Biota of North America Project, however, it’s clear that while the plant is native to some US states, it has expanded to other regions.
These seemingly minor discrepancies influence how nurseries stock their plants, how and where they are planted, and how they influence the ecosystems around them. If a plant thought to be native to a certain state is planted where it isn’t actually from, it can disturb the surrounding environment, becoming invasive in places it is supposed to be native.
Within the larger context of our world’s health right now, these issues are especially important. Ecological decisions for a specific county, country, and continent are largely based on political boundaries. This means when push comes to shove, it is each state for themselves. Efforts to curb climate related effects on regions that are similar geographically but split politically are made less effective. Preservation of resources within political boundaries falters.
Now, with landscapes shifting, state governments will be less effective in mitigating and adapting to the changes than if the boundaries were drawn in favor of geographic similarities.
Complications & Possibilities
Realistically, there are several immediate issues with the implementation of something as drastic as a shift in political boundaries.
Legislatively, it would be close to impossible to pass. The process would require the approval of each state’s legislature and the US Congress.
Entwined with the legislative improbability is the complete political mess it would instigate. In an idyllic universe, the climate crisis is a top priority for politicians. In an even more idyllic universe, the entire country actually believes the climate crisis exists. But in the absence of this, we are left with political strife that will consider redrawing boundaries to reflect an age-old urban-rural conflict before one that would guide us toward sustainability.
In 2021, president of Citizens for Greater Idaho Mike McCarter proposed coalescing 22 rural Oregon counties into a larger Idaho. His more aggressive plan included about eight California counties and five Washington counties.
Voters in seven of these Oregon counties have shown support for this proposition. The issue was sparked by the more progressive and constrictive COVID-19 policies implemented by Oregon during the pandemic.
“If you cannot seek redress of your government that is in your state because they’re adhering to a lawless form of government, then I believe you have every right to seek redress with the next closest government,” said Idaho Representative Barbara Ehardt to Deseret News. “In this case, it would be the state of Idaho.”
The US is entirely too polarized and self-involved politically to consider the benefits of a more utilitarian way to redraw these boundaries.
This massive approach may also throw off cultural dynamics in the US. The prospect that people may be torn away from their home-state is terrifying. Decades-old familiarity and history is difficult to unwrap. Psychologically, this association is called “place attachment.” The theory is more often applied to neighborhoods and personal places, but it can be broadened to predict how the country would respond to what seems like an uprooting of their homes and identity.
State loyalty defines the lives of many US identities. Not to mention, the very fabric of the US and US Constitution impresses on its people a respect for the balance of power the 50 states provide. Taking that away would add fuel to the already raging political fire the country has been stoking for years.
Established state governments would rebel. The country is too firmly entrenched in its current mindset to realistically place any importance on carving new boundaries for something as controversial as climate change.
To politicians and all but some citizens, the environment is not a living entity. For them, it is a resource to exploit, a certainty.
But data doesn’t lie — the facts are certain it is not.
If it won’t amount to anything, is this proposition even worth considering?
Yes. In the end, it’s not exactly about the literal redrawing of state boundaries; the idea is, of course, just as far-fetched at the end of this article as it was in the beginning.
The value in even drawing attention to the idea is the solutions it may bring up on the way to discovering its potential. In just this brief article, the outlandish proposal has opened a discussion about plant nativity, political discourse, climate coalitions, essential ecosystems, and geographic unity.
While they may not define state boundaries, these maps can spark the formation of inter-state coalitions to handle plant categorization and ecosystem preservation privately. Detaching these ecological decisions from state governments is much more doable than recarving the governments themselves.
Considering state boundaries provides a way to center the environment in a country that is struggling to do so. The idea is more than a jumping-off point; its inherent existence points to a growing prioritization of climate change.
The hope is that by introducing the role that state boundaries play in geographical and ecological decisions and critiquing it, the general populace as well as government officials will start to shift their mentality.
If we begin incorporating ecological maps in grade school alongside political maps, boundaries themselves won’t be seen as something absolutely concrete.
Boundaries are porous. They are variable. Understanding that there are different and just as important ways to organize the country (and the world!) will go a long way in making sure future generations are able to envision geographic unity as an essential tool to fight climate change.
Do you think redrawing U.S state boundaries is necessary to wholly address the effects of climate change? Is the conversation this topic sparks worth its proposal? Let us know in the comments below!