Wilderness Preserves: Still Relevant and Resilient after All These Years
RESILIENCE AND LAW, Columbia Press, 2011
23 Pages Posted: 26 Jun 2011
Date Written: June 23, 2011
Since the late nineteenth century, decisionmakers and conservation groups have devoted a great deal of time and energy to preserving parks and other natural places. The Wilderness Act of 1964 is the closest thing to a “purist manifesto” to be found in U.S. environmental law and, by protecting lands that are both natural and untrammeled, the wilderness system represents the nation’s highest preservation ideal.
The strategy of setting aside wilderness areas has served the nation well in the past. It is not clear, however, that staying the course will prove to be a viable conservation strategy in a future where rapid and dramatic changes in climate are threatening the ability of ecological communities and processes to persist. Adaptation strategies that promote resilient ecosystem responses to climate change are imperative. In some places, such strategies may include active intervention to foster transitions to more resilient ecological communities. The need for adaptation strategies raises a compelling question: Does it still make sense to protect wilderness areas from human intrusion? Is preserving wilderness antithetical to resilience theory, which emphasizes adaptation, flexibility, change, and transformation?
This chapter concludes that the ecological and social benefits of wilderness are as significant today as they were when the Wilderness Act was enacted nearly fifty years ago. Indeed, the importance of preserving natural, wild areas will only increase as the climate changes. Untouched wilderness areas provide a baseline for comparison with more intensive adaptation strategies implemented in other areas. In addition, wilderness will continue to provide key ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, clean air and water, and undisturbed migration corridors and large blocks of habitat for climate-threatened species. Accordingly, intervention into degraded wilderness areas should only be considered if: (1) there is sufficient understanding about reference conditions and processes as well as long term effects of restoration actions; (2) intervention will more likely than not improve the functioning and integrity of the ecosystem; and (3) humans can extricate themselves within some discrete period of time and let the area’s ecological processes resume functioning.
Keywords: wilderness, climate, biodiversity, preservation, conservation, ecosystem services, adaptation
JEL Classification: K32, Q20
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation