An Ecological Approach to the Selection, Design, Prioritization, Management, and Restoration of Wilderness Areas
The Rewilding Institute’s EcoWild Program brings wilderness conservationists together with conservation biologists to develop and promote guidelines for Wilderness Area selection, design, and management based on research from conservation biology.
The National Wilderness Preservation System established in the United States by the 1964 Wilderness Act is the highest level of protection for federal lands. Over 106 million acres in more than 600 areas are protected as Wilderness Areas on National Forests, National Park System units, National Wildlife Refuges, and Bureau of Land Management lands in over 40 states. Wilderness Areas are protected from road building, motorized and mechanized vehicles and equipment, commercial logging, and other activities destructive to the wild. They are open to a wide variety of recreational uses, including hiking, canoeing, camping, nature study, hunting, and fishing.
Wilderness Areas also protect wild Nature—“self-willed land” or self-regulating ecosystems. The Wilderness Act describes Wilderness Areas as “areas where the land and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” However, in a practical way, recreational and aesthetic values have predominated in the selection and design of Wilderness Areas.
In 1980, Michael Soulè and Bruce Wilcox recognized that protected areas were the most important tool for conservation. The new science of conservation biology, which they helped launch, charged itself with developing the principles and practices to make protected areas, including Wilderness Areas, more effective in protecting all of biological diversity and helping to stop the extinction crisis.
Guidelines for Protected Area Design
All else being equal:
A. A single large protected area is better than a single small protected area.
B. A single large protected area is better than several small protected areas of the same total acreage.
C. The presence of large native carnivores is better than their absence.
D. Intact habitat is better than artificially fragmented and disturbed habitat.
E. Connected protected areas are better than separated protected areas.
Michael Soulè, APA Journal, Summer 1991
Ecological Guidelines for Wilderness Area Design
Rounded Wilderness Area boundaries are best because they minimize edge effects, provide more interior core area for sensitive species, and if left undisturbed can act as bulwarks against the invasion of exotic species.
It is better to bring separated Wilderness Area boundaries down to the dividing road; even better is to close the road and make one contiguous Wilderness Area.
Cherrystem roads and developments effectively reduce the size of interior habitat in Wilderness Areas. It is better to keep them as short as possible; best to eliminate them.
It is best to connect nearby Wilderness Areas with wildlife movement linkages than to leave them isolated.
A major project for The Rewilding Institute is to develop science-based, practical guidelines for the selection, design, prioritization, management, and restoration of Wilderness Areas in the United States–and comparable areas elsewhere–so that they better protect the diversity of life. A working group of Rewilding Institute fellows, including conservation biologists and leaders in citizen groups such as the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Arizona Wilderness Coalition, and
The Wilderness Society’s Wilderness Support Center, are preparing such guidelines. They are also working on a strategy to promote the guidelines to conservation groups and government land-managing agencies. As these guidelines are developed, they will be showcased on this site.
Dave Foreman’s new book, Rewilding North America, discusses an ecological approach to Wilderness Areas in depth.