Criteria for Ecological Wilderness

This outline includes the historic criteria used by federal wilderness-managing agencies (particularly the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) and by conservation groups for comparison with the ecological criteria.

IDENTIFICATION of lands for wilderness study, and SELECTION of particular wilderness study areas for proposal as designated wilderness areas.

Traditional Criteria by Agencies and Conservationists:

  • Roadless
  • Over 5,000 acres
  • Federal lands
  • Offer outstanding opportunities for primitive recreation and travel
  • Offer solitude for the visitor
  • Scenic in the classic “Crown Jewel” model
  • Habitat for big game and sport fish
  • Resource conflicts absent or limited, seen as “reasonable”
  • Exclude “redundant” areas

Ecological Criteria:

Roadlessness is good, but not essential (nor is it required by the Wilderness Act)

  • roads should be measured within cultural and economic context
  • roads are “puncture wounds” that should be closed to heal
  • roadlessness nurtures more hot spots of biodiversity
  • lightly roaded areas can be used to link Wilderness Areas

Areas of less than 5,000 acres qualify as Wilderness, but bigger is always better scale is important for ecosystem processes and species

Placement in landscape for wildlife movement connectivity and permeability accommodate migration routes, winter range, and other dynamic processes core Wilderness may lie in a matrix of federal, state, and private land

Geological, educational, scenic, historical, and primitive recreational values Areas that protect and restore the diversity of life unusual and underrepresented ecosystems and landforms
habitat for rare, sensitive, imperiled, and highly interactive species riparian and wetland habitats

Resource conflicts may exist; “reasonable” has been replaced by ecological criteria

Natural vegetation (present or restorable) including ancient forests

Use precautionary principle

DESIGN of proposed wilderness areas, and drawing boundaries for proposed wilderness areas and identification of units to be included or not included

Agency Criteria:

  • Topographically “defensible” boundaries
  • Exclude areas with resource conflicts
  • Exclude flat areas or areas without vegetative screening (“lack of solitude”)
  • Exclude areas with fading signs of roads and other human use (“purity”)
  • Exclude “unmanageable” areas
  • Exclude areas agency perceives are of “lower quality”
  • Exclude areas with limited recreational appeal
  • Exclude “redundant” areas

Traditional Conservationist Criteria:

  • Extend boundaries out to surrounding roads
  • Exclude some major resource conflicts
  • Generally exclude signs of human impact but to lesser degree than do agencies
  • Cherrystem roads and other human intrusions

Ecological Criteria:

  • Design to accommodate components of varied ecosystems and landforms
  • May include areas where resource conflicts exist and where management will be challenging if of high ecological value
  • Include areas showing some sign of human use if ecologically important such as riparian, wetland, natural vegetation, habitat for focal species
  • Design with rounded boundaries whenever possible to maximize internal area and minimize edges
  • Do not cherrystem roads and other human intrusions that can be closed or restored close roads or gate roads for permit holders’ access only
  • Implement connectivity within wildlands network bring boundaries of separate units closer together extend boundaries to roads and suitable buffers
  • Consider landscape dynamics changes in vegetation over time influenced by changing fire regimes and exotic species affected by scale and connectivity
  • Use precautionary principle

Consider defensible boundaries for management purposes but not necessarily based on “topographical” landmarks

Bigger is always better

PRIORITIZATION of proposed wilderness areas: determining relative priority for designation of proposed wilderness areas in a region

Agency Criteria:

  • Scenic in the classic “Crown Jewel” model
  • Exclude areas with resource conflicts
  • Exclude areas of controversy and opposition
  • Exclude areas perceived as “too much” or unreasonable

Traditional Conservationist Criteria:

  • Follow agency criteria but to a lesser degree
  • Areas with a strong constituency
  • Exclude areas perceived as “too much” or unreasonable (but more liberal than agencies)
  • Areas palatable to members of Congress
  • Areas that without protection would be vulnerable to degradation

Ecological Criteria:

Consider placement in landscape to function as part of a wildlands network including areas with potential for restoration as core Wilderness

Ecological value for sustaining and restoring biodiversity particularly focal species such as large carnivores or highly interactive species that serve as an umbrella for ecosystem protection
also “hot spots” of biodiversity

Larger areas, though not exclusively, which are more manageable and more self-regulating also consider islands and small areas within cultural and ecological context Areas that offer fire restoration opportunities

Areas with plant communities and landforms not well represented in protected area systems

Areas with potential core habitat for large carnivores

Use precautionary principle

Note: In some cases, ecological criteria replaces agency and traditional conservationist criteria; in other cases, it modifies or adds to agency and traditional conservationist criteria. Ecological criteria are not in conflict with, nor do they denigrate, scenic and recreational (experiential) values. Since the 1980s, conservationists have been generally moving in the direction of ecological criteria. Keep in mind that this is an outline and not a detailed discussion.

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