Fifty years ago this September, Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964 to “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” The Act created the National Wilderness Preservation System and initially preserved 9.1 million acres for the use and benefit of the American people.
Over the past 50 years more than 100 million acres were added to the System. The primary mandate of the Wilderness Act, Section 4(b), states that “each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area.” Land managers however, have lacked a consistent definition of “wilderness character” and the means for measuring its loss or preservation and assessing the impact of stewardship. Destruction and fragmentation of wildlife habitat and natural areas due to development, non-native plant and animal species, and global climate change, all threaten the National Wilderness Preservation System.
In 2008, an interagency team published Keeping It Wild (Landres et al., 2008), an interagency strategy for monitoring trends in wilderness character across the System. As a result of the monitoring strategy, a Wilderness Fellows Initiative was established to give wilderness advocates and young professionals an opportunity to work with agency staff. The goal of the program is to have fellows identify a set of locally relevant measures that can be used to evaluate and document the attributes of a wilderness that contribute to its wilderness character.
We define wilderness character in terms of the biophysical, experiential and symbolic qualities of wilderness. This strategy establishes five common and consistent qualities for monitoring wilderness character: untrammeled, natural, undeveloped, solitude or primitive and unconfined recreation and other features of value. In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Act, all refuges with designated wilderness areas will have completed a baseline assessment in an attempt to quantify the often-intangible concept of wilderness and allow staff to advance wilderness stewardship in our federally protected areas.
This summer nationwide, 11 Wilderness Fellows will produce assessments for wilderness areas at 12 National Wildlife Refuges, two National Parks, one National Parkland, two National Monuments, two National Forests, and one National Fish Hatchery. Wilderness Fellows provide on-the-ground support to help local staff integrate wilderness character into monitoring, planning, and management.
The Midwest Region has a Wilderness Fellow working at both Rice Lake and Tamarac National Wildlife Refuges. For each wilderness, Morgan Gantz collected and compiled data to produce baseline assessments that address the special and unique qualities of each wilderness. Data records will then be entered into a national interagency online database, which will help inform future adaptive wilderness management practices.
Protecting wild areas in their natural, untrammeled state can help preserve their natural resilience to changing conditions and allow better protection of sensitive and rare ecosystems and evolutionary processes. Wilderness areas are places we have decided as a nation are worth protecting for their existing wilderness character. We manage wilderness in ways that preserve wilderness character, but also allow us to meet the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System and the purposes for which refuges were established.
Logo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service