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Wilderness and Conservation Strategy in the Anthropocene
Travis Belote, Greg Aplet, Anne Carlson, and Peter McKinley

This September will mark the 50th anniversary of President Johnson signing the Wilderness Act. In its half century, the Act has provided the US Congress authority to establish more than 109 million acres of land “where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” These designated lands form the National Wilderness Preservation System, managed to retain its “primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation.” Management intervention is discouraged, providing conservation science opportunities to study uncontrolled nature, while offering people the chance to recreate in nature with minimal distraction from modern technology. As conservation science has developed, wilderness designation has repeatedly been shown to effectively protect wildlife, clean water, and imperiled species from human impacts.

Recently, however, a host of threats, including climate change, invasive species, and atmospheric pollution have transcended wilderness and park boundaries and now threaten the biodiversity and ecological processes we value in nature. Humans have altered the chemical composition of the global atmosphere, shuffled species around the globe by breaking once impenetrable dispersal barriers, and disrupted fire’s role as nature’s sculptor of landscapes. Given these compounding and synergistic impacts as well as the predicted exacerbating effects of climate change, some conservation scientists have begun to question the appropriateness of wilderness in such a profoundly altered world.

The challenge before us now is that wilderness conservation inherently values nature operating without human control—“untrammeled by man” in the words of the Wilderness Act—but increasingly, many of the things that we value in wilderness are under threat from external forces that bring human impacts well inside the boundary lines of wilderness and other protective reserves drawn on maps.

This situation raises a host of questions. What do we do if protecting nature—or at least nature’s parts —requires intervening to fend off the effects of climate change, invasive species, atmospheric pollution, and decades of fire suppression? Do we value “untrammeled” nature more than we value the diversity of native species and the processes they maintain? Will human-caused climate change impacts be more destructive than management interventions undertaken to assist the maintenance of nature’s parts and processes? Do we have to let go of the idea of wilderness and pursue the control of nature everywhere? Do we have to make a choice?
Some areas within the Hayman Fire may have undergone a "regime shift," transitioning from ponderosa pine to non-woody vegetation

Scientists at The Wilderness Society and elsewhere have been wrestling with these questions concerning the role and relevance of wilderness in the Anthropocene. We are fully aware that these tradeoffs may present themselves as climate regimes shift, exotic species invade, genetic diversity is lost, and chemical compounds are transported and deposited hundreds of miles and across “protected area” boundaries. We are also aware of the many proposals to intervene in wilderness to sustain its ecological character at the expense of untrammeled conditions. In such cases, we believe that management should aim to correct historical damage to ecosystem integrity without long-term intervention. It should leave wilderness better able to sustain its component parts and processes than it would have been without intervention, but it should not seek to hold ecosystems static or to perpetually manage ecological processes.

For example, invasive species management and control in wilderness may be justified if the detrimental impacts to native species and ecosystems are well understood, impacts to wilderness character are severe, and the control measure is likely to be effective in the long run. Temporary interventions or ‘trammeling’ in the form of restoration may be further justified, given the likely expansion of many invasive species under climate change. In every case, though, impacts to wilderness character must be carefully scrutinized and the tradeoffs well understood.

Reversing the human-caused impacts of decades of fire exclusion in wilderness is more philosophically complex. Theoretical ecologists and fire managers alike speculate that we may be outside of the domain where fire can be returned to its natural role in forests without some prior mechanical thinning or highly controlled prescribed fire. This hypothesis suggests that returning fire to forests without first reducing fuels through tree removal would cause fires to burn hotter and bigger resulting in both the loss of large old-growth trees and a homogenous burned landscape lacking the capacity to regenerate a new forest. Ecologists and managers point to the Hayman Fire in Colorado, the Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico, and numerous other large fires of the past decade to support these hypotheses.

Yet there are also newly emerging case studies where the return of lightning-ignited fires burning in wilderness suggests that forests and their relationships with fire have not shifted to some new fragile domain where ecological character is at risk, especially if fires are allowed to burn under less-than-extreme conditions. These examples of ‘latent resilience’ speak to the possibility that fire exclusion has not altered every acre of every once-fire-dependent forest in the West. In some cases, large patches of severe fires are actually needed to sustain important species’ habitats. It is possible that our theoretical predictions and expert knowledge that create conceptual frames to guide policy and management don’t always have everything quite right.

As challenging as they are, invasive species and fire exclusion represent reasonably tractable problems, as their effects are relatively well studied, and intervention may be seen as a onetime, “corrective” action. How, though, should we respond to pressures, like climate change, that are irreversible and whose effects are largely unknown? If we allow nature to respond to changes in climate without intervening, we would maintain the untrammeled nature of wilderness and its role as a barometer against which to judge management elsewhere, but a hands-off approach may in some cases jeopardize the very species and populations we hope to preserve. On the other hand, ecological dynamics under climate change and the appropriate management response to a highly uncertain future make it very unclear exactly what to do.How should managers respond to such uncertainty?
Many areas within the 2003 Little Salmon Creek Fire in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana were resilient to fire

By our analysis, no single approach is capable of addressing all concerns. Instead, a diversity of approaches is necessary. Conservation scientists at The Wilderness Society and elsewhere are increasingly concluding that the soundest course to the future will require a portfolio of wilderness strategies: 
  • Restoration zones in which the landscape is devoted to forestalling change through the process of ecological restoration; 
  • Innovation zones in which the landscape is devoted to innovative management that anticipates climate change and guides ecological change to prepare for it; and, 
  • Observation zones in which the landscapes are left to change on their own time to serve as scientific “controls” and to hedge against the unintended consequences of active management elsewhere.
Uncertainty about how ecosystems and species will respond to co-occurring, interactive, and synergistic impacts of the Anthropocene precludes our ability to know which strategy will best sustain wildland values into the future. All three strategies should be implemented in an experimental portfolio approach that spreads risk among different strategies.

Riparian restoration project also from within the Hayman Fire, where extreme measures were deemed warranted to stabilize a drainage that continued to wash out annually Lands best suited for a “restoration zone” are those whose specified purpose is to sustain existing or historical ecosystems. Non-wilderness national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and other lands set aside specifically to sustain scenery, natural and historic objects, and wildlife are especially appropriate for inclusion in this zone. Such lands may have been degraded by past management, such as logging, fire exclusion, overgrazing, or the construction of dams and roads, but can be restored to high ecological integrity through management and maintained through intervention, even if it is “swimming against the tide” of climate change. While the concept of “historical range of variability” as a guiding concept for ecosystem restoration and management is increasingly called into question, the range of conditions that sustained species and ecosystems through the Holocene is the only well-tested model of ecosystem dynamics that has sustained the biodiversity that we hope to conserve into the future.

We acknowledge the possibility that historical conditions may prove an insufficient guide to sustaining some species and ecosystem services in the Anthropocene. An “innovation zone” may therefore be warranted in some lands that have already undergone substantial change or where the future impacts of climate change may severely disrupt the flow of ecosystem goods and services upon which society depends. On these lands, ecosystem services may be sustained by manipulating natural conditions to be more resilient to an altered climate by favoring some species or structures over those that dominated historically; managers may also decide to help facilitate transition to a future state in some areas where regime shifts appear inevitable.

In contrast to the heavy-handed approach of the innovation zone, we propose that “observation zones” will continue to be an important strategy in the Anthropocene. Species and ecosystems in wilderness and other lands in an observation zone would be allowed to change on their own as climate regimes shift. In reality, budget deficits and operational constraints will limit how much land can realistically be treated under restoration or innovation strategies. Observation will be the default strategy on vast areas of the landscape; it only makes sense to allocate that zone thoughtfully and intentionally to maximize its benefits.

In the current discourse over whether wilderness (and other protective designations) is a viable conservation strategy in an era of shifting climate, we tend to hear two poles of distinct perspectives: either “The climate is changing; wilderness no longer makes any sense,” or “The climate is changing; the only adaptive response should be more wilderness.”We believe wisdom lies somewhere in between. More wilderness will be needed to improve connectivity among existing reserves and to expand the benefits wilderness areas provide into the Anthropocene. But, we also believe that wilderness cannot be relied upon as the only adaptation strategy. As we work to wildland reserves, we must also be working to accelerate bona fide ecological restoration and identify interventions that anticipate and prepare nature for changes in climate in those parts of the landscape allocated to innovation.

Whatever we do and however we respond to ongoing changes to nature that define the Anthropocene, a Hippocratic Oath to land management and conservation should be considered: first, do no harm. Bad decisions of the past, conducted with good intentions, have led to some natural resource disasters. We once thought putting out fires, planting soil-stabilizing exotic plants, and eliminating predators were means of protecting nature without much consideration for unintended consequences to ecological communities. The humility of the Hippocratic Oath should always be on our minds.

Despite fifty years of separation in time and the emergence of challenges unforeseen by the authors of the Wilderness Act, The Wilderness Society believes the idea of wilderness to be as relevant today as in 1964. Wilderness has proven itself to be a successful conservation strategy that should not be abandoned, especially given the uncertainty of the future, and wilderness provides an operational scientific control against which to judge the effectiveness of active conservation actions elsewhere. Perhaps most important though, wilderness will remain a practice and statement of humility, an acknowledgement that perhaps we don’t have all the answers—a stance that appears all the more relevant in the face of such an uncertain future.

Travis Belote, Greg Aplet, Anne Carlson, and Peter McKinley are respectively: Research Ecologist, Senior Science Director, Climate Associate, and Climate Adaptation Ecologist with The Wilderness Society.

The Pinchot Institute is proud to celebrate 50 years of conserving America's wilderness

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