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Selecting and Designing Protected Areas: The Early Days

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Around the Campfire #81

Editors’ note:  This Campfire is a revision of Chapter 9 from Dave Foreman’s landmark book Rewilding North America“RNA” as we affectionately know it within the board and staff of The Rewilding Institute, is the closest thing our country has to a blueprint for achieving Half Earth goals.  As Nature Needs Half and Half Earth networks gain prominence, the teachings of Rewilding North America become even more urgent.  How and where we collectively protect at least 30% of each country’s lands and waters by 2030 and at least 50% by 2050 are as important as the fractions we actually achieve. Quality is as important as quantity.

The Rewilding Institute, founded by Dave, holds that at least half of each country’s lands and waters should be protected in reserves given Wilderness, National Park, Forever Wild, or roughly the equivalent level of protection.  The quickest way to achieve 30X30 and Half Earth goals in the United States and Canada is to award federal, state, and provincial public wildlands permanent protection in parks, refuges, and wilderness areas or the equivalent; and to provide financial incentives for wildlife habitat conservation on private and tribal wildlands. 

In this especially timely part of Rewilding North America (subsequent chapters to be revised and shared in Rewilding Earth soon), Dave describes how early wilderness advocates chose and shaped the areas to permanently protect.  Dave’s history points to how we can most effectively conserve and restore more land and water in the future—for wildlife habitat, climate stabilization, and quiet recreation.


In the mid-1980s, Reed Noss began writing articles on conservation biology for the Earth First! Journal, which I edited. We also sold books on conservation biology and made the extinction crisis key to our message. This focus of Earth First! is mostly overlooked by those writing about the movement.  From the late 1980s onward, I worked with Michael Soulé (who passed away in 2020, sadly), Reed Noss, and others to bring the traditional wilderness conservation movement together with conservation biology. We’ve made much progress, but misunderstandings yet dance around the edges. In this chapter, I will continue to try to play matchmaker. I wish to persuade citizen conservationists that the insights and guidelines of conservation biology are necessary if wilderness is to endure, and that an ecological approach will make Wilderness Areas and the National Wilderness Preservation System wilder: untrammeled, self-willed, and self-regulating for all of us—human, big cat, warbler, spider, spruce, and groundsel. I wish to convince conservation biologists that without Wilderness Areas and National Parks the state of wild Nature would be far grimmer and that our traditional protected-area systems remain the best tool for halting the extinction crisis.

In previous chapters, I’ve discussed science. This chapter and the two following are about history. This history differs from most other historical studies of the conservation movement and the Wilderness Idea because it is specifically a history of protected-area selection and design. What further distinguishes the his­tory in these three chapters is that I tie in my own direct experience of working on protected-area selection and design for the past fifty years. This gives me a different vantage point. Moreover, I have a theory (or theories) of the evolution of protected-area selection and design.

I remember my thoughts upon first reading Leopold’s question, “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”[1] All my life, even as a little kid, I had been drawn to maps and most of all to the blank spots. What wildness lurked there? Whatever it was, it beckoned me, as did the far horizons as my family drove around the West. I read Leopold in 1971 as I wandered through the works of conservation: Leopold, Sears, Shepard, Nash, Abbey, Carson, and the Ehrlichs. In those days, I worked for a subcontractor of the U.S. Air Force. With a crew of hard-drinking ne’er-do-wells, I’d bounce around the Southwest in an unruly, big truck—The Beast—and spread out a couple of acres of canvas at speci­fied coordinates and aligned on given azimuths at set times. We didn’t know why we were doing what we were doing (except for the stingy paychecks) or where the directions were coming from. I soon reckoned it was for high-resolution satellite and spy-plane photography, after the voice on the phone told me not to leave t-shirts on the canvas again.

We used U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) 1:250,000-scale topo­graphic maps to find our lay-down sites. I poured over those maps in the down time, looking for the blank spots. Back in the office, I traced the outlines of the big roadless areas on onion-skin paper. Late in 1971, I found out from the U.S. Forest Service that it was undertaking an inven­tory and evaluation of roadless areas to determine if any should be rec­ommended for Wilderness designation. I also found out that I wasn’t the only one in New Mexico interested in protecting additional Wilderness Areas; there were others and they called themselves the New Mexico Wilder­ness Study Committee (NMWSC).

In 1972, while briefly back at the University of New Mexico, I started a wilder­ness study group and tried to work with the rather aloof Sandia Lab sci­entists and engineers who largely made up the NMWSC. Because none of them were much drawn to the Gila National Forest in southwestern New Mexico (it was too “dry” and “hot”), they let me be the “honcho” for roadless area field work there. Gila National Forest officials were also studying the Gila Primitive Area that year to decide what of it should be added to the Gila Wilderness Area. I honchoed that for the NMWSC, too. In Silver City, I met a great bunch of wilderness folks calling themselves the Gila Wilderness Committee and worked closely with them.  I dropped my biology classes at the university and spent much of the year with my girlfriend Debbie Sease driving around the edges of likely additions to the Gila Wilderness, hiking into them, and drawing lines on maps. I had to shoe horses and spread canvas now and then to get a little money, but my unpaid job drawing proposed Wilderness Area boundaries was the best work I’ve ever had. I’ve spent the last fifty years drawing pro­posed Wilderness Area boundaries on maps—and I’ve helped some of them become law. I’ve watched how the philosophy of selecting and designing protected areas has shifted. I’ll even take a little credit for helping it change. In this chapter, we’ll look at protected area selection and design before World War II. In subsequent chapters, we’ll look at the end of World War II until 1980, and then conservation area design after 1980.[2]

Dave Foreman in Bob Marshall Wilderness Area.

Dave Foreman in Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. (Photo by Nancy Morton)

Protected Areas

Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, and we can see two distinct pathways to selecting and designing protected areas that have emerged since that time. The first approach was followed by govern­ment agencies and citizen conservationists to draw boundaries for can­didate National Parks, Wilderness Areas, National Wildlife Refuges, and such. This approach was often based on values such as landscape beauty and out­door recreational potential (and all too often on the lack of resource extraction value), and also to protect habitat for favored (huntable) species—water­fowl and game animals. However, putting down this approach has been overplayed by some critics of the traditional conservation movement, as I shall show later. The second path was blazed by scientists with the goal of selecting and configuring ecologically important areas for protection and restoration. But in fact the historical record (and my personal expe­rience during the last half of a century) shows more back-and-forth between these two paths than is commonly realized. It also shows that what some may think is new is, in fact, based on ideas and strategies from long ago. For these reasons, I believe knowing the history of pro­tected areas is important for today’s conservation biologists and citizen conservationists alike. If you don’t know whose shoulders you’re stand­ing on, you are standing in a void.

Let us first acknowledge that each approach requires two steps: (1) identify areas to be protected, and (2) decide how much is to be protected by walking a boundary on the ground and drawing it on a map. I’ll refer to these steps as, respectively, selection and design. Both are key to how well the land is protected. I’ll also use protected area, wild haven, and nature reserve inter­changeably for National Parks, Wilderness Areas, Wildlife Refuges, and other federal, state (or provincial), local government, and private reserves. The term conservation area, when I use it, will refer to pro­tected areas based on the theory of island biogeography and other eco­logical concepts after about 1970. I use the term wildlands network for the specific web of core wildlands, linkages, and compatible-use lands proposed by The Wildlands Project (now Wildlands Network), The Rewilding Institute, and coop­erating groups.

Early Protected Area Selection and Design

Organized conservation efforts in North America began only about a century and a half ago. I’ve used the metaphor of the “River Wild” to show that today’s conservation movement is the blend of about a dozen currents flowing together during that time. Those currents and (roughly) the decade each began are:

  • Wildlife protection, 1840s
  • Stewardship, 1860s
  • National Park (scenic beauty) protection, 1870s
  • Forest protection, 1880s
  • Wilderness Area protection, 1910s
  • Ecological representation, 1910s
  • Carnivore protection, 1920s
  • Endangered species protection, 1960s
  • Landscape connectivity, 1970s
  • Ecological restoration, 1980s
  • Rewilding, 1990s

These currents feeding the River Wild have not replaced one another but rather complement one another and add to the whole.[3] All of them have influenced protected area selection and design, but those that have had the strongest roles are wildlife, National Park, forest, and Wilderness Area protection, and representation, connectivity, and rewil­ding. The others have more strongly shaped land management, both inside and outside protected areas.

Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy Preserve, Arizona.

Sonoita Creek Nature Conservancy Preserve, Arizona. (Photo by Dave Foreman)

The First Wilderness Movement

The first National Park in the world—Yellowstone—was set aside by Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Additional National Parks were established in 1890 and thereafter. In 1891, Congress authorized the president to withdraw forested headwaters in the West from disposal to private interests in order to protect watersheds and forests from despoilment. (The state of New York was similarly protect­ing state lands in the Adirondacks at the same time.) Selection and boundary design of these National Parks and Forest Reserves often were done hastily and far away in Washington, D.C.[4] Protection was more on paper than on the ground. (The cavalry had to be sent into Yellowstone to stop poachers in the 1890s, for example. There had been little to no on-the-ground stewardship during the previous twenty years.) Early cit­izen conservationists such as John Muir and Edward Sargent saw National Parks and Forest Reserves as ways to protect wilderness and to keep out destructive extractive uses, including livestock grazing and log­ging. That early hope for wilderness was dashed when legislation in 1897 opened Forest Reserves (soon to be called National Forests) to timber cutting, cattle and sheep grazing, and other kinds of ecologically dam­aging resource extraction and management.[5] In 1911, the Forest Service was authorized to buy private land in the East (where the public domain had passed into private ownership) to protect watersheds.

National Parks began to be developed with roads, lodges, and other facilities for tourism. Extermination campaigns against predators were key to wildlife management in the Parks.[6] Over the strong objections of John Muir, the Sierra Club, and their allies, a major dam was built in Yosemite National Park. Such disappointments marked America’s first wilder­ness movement. (I discuss this in more detail in The Great Conservation Divide[7].)

The Second Wilderness Area Movement

A second, largely independent wilderness protection effort began after World War I. This campaign was sparked and led not by citizen conservationists but by professional foresters and other resource man­agers working for federal agencies, including Aldo Leopold, Arthur Carhart, Elers Koch, Benton MacKaye, and Bob Marshall. In 1924, Aldo Leopold convinced the Southwest Regional Office of the U.S. Forest Service to set aside three-quarters of a million acres in the head­waters of the Gila River in New Mexico as a Wilderness Area. His overriding goal, and that of Forest Service employees who followed him, such as Bob Marshall, was not to prevent resource extraction such as livestock graz­ing and logging but to bar automobiles and roads from large areas. In a 1925 article urging the Forest Service to establish more areas like the Gila Wilderness, Leopold made this plain: “The term wilderness, as used here, means a wild, roadless area where those who are so inclined may enjoy primitive modes of travel and subsistence, such as exploration trips by pack-train or canoe… Generally speaking, it is not timber, and certainly not agriculture, which is causing the decimation of wilder­ness areas, but rather the desire to attract tourists.”[8]

Leopold was painfully aware of the spread of roads in the National Forests because, as chief of operations for the Southwest Region of the Forest Service from 1919 to 1923, he had been in charge of road build­ing and maintenance. He asked:

Who wants to stalk his buck to the music of a motor? Or track his turkey on the trail of the knobby tread? Who that is called to the high hills for a real pasear wants to wrangle his packs along a graveled highway? Yet that is what we are headed for, at least in the Southwest. Car sign in every canyon, car dust on every bush, a parking ground at every waterhole, and Fords on a thousand hills![9]

Leopold’s call for more Wilderness Areas was fought by many in the Forest Service,[10] but in 1926, Forest Service Chief William Greeley generally endorsed protecting “Wilderness Recreation Areas.”[11] The Forest Service (and later the federal Bureau of Land Management [BLM]) put wilderness under the care of its recreation division, and there it stayed until recently.

During the 1920s, as the Wilderness Area movement gained ground within the Forest Service in the West, professional forester and regional planner Benton MacKaye in Massachusetts proposed an Appalachian Trail for foot travel from Georgia to Maine. In 1925, the Appalachian Trail Conference was organized to create the trail on the ground. In 1926, after reading Leopold’s landmark article, “Wilderness as a Form of Land Use,”[12] MacKaye wrote that he hoped the Appalachian Trail would protect “a series of what Aldo Leopold would call ‘wilderness areas.’”[13] By 1929, MacKaye’s thinking had evolved further to calling for “wilderness ways”—linked Wilderness Areas—and to advocate for restoration of the “primeval forest” in the East.[14] Mark this well: Mac­Kaye was ahead of his time—he was more or less proposing The Rewilding Institute’s vision more than ninety years ago.

In 1930, Bob Marshall wrote his first major article on the need for Wilderness Areas, “The Problem of the Wilderness.”[15] Like Leopold, he saw Wilderness Areas as large primitive recreation areas without roads and vehicles, as places that demanded self-sufficiency on the part of the traveler.

Nancy Morton beginning a 10 day:100 mile backpack in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Montana.

Nancy Morton beginning a 10 day:100 mile backpack in the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, Montana. (Photo by Dave Foreman)

The Natural Areas Movement and the Transformation of the Wilderness Areas Movement

The second pathway for protected area selection and design had begun in 1917, as a separate effort led by ecologist Victor Shelford for the Ecological Society of America’s Committee on Preservation of Nat­ural Conditions. Its goal was to protect reserves representing ecological communities where succession and climax conditions were unaltered by civilization.[16] Unlike Wilderness Areas, which advocates believed should be vast, these areas could be smaller.[17]

The Wilderness Area and natural area movements were seen as dis­tinct but complementary. Marshall, a forester with a doctorate in plant physiology, and a famed wilderness explorer and hiker, at first believed that Wilderness Areas would need to be logged on very long rotations to prevent forests from becoming “senile” and unattractive,[18] and Leopold first thought that wilderness ranching would add pioneer charm to the visitor experience.[19] Paul Sutter, in his pathfinding study of the early wilderness movement, Driven Wild, writes that this showed Leopold “hoped to preserve frontier conditions, not ecologically pristine condi­tions.”[20] The 1929 Forest Service Regulation L-20 reflected this atti­tude: it established vague protection guidelines for what were now to be called Primitive Areas on the National Forests (logging was not prohib­ited), and it encouraged forest supervisors to also establish smaller “research reserves” for science.[21] In 1932, Marshall wrote, “The differ­ence between primeval and wilderness areas is that the primeval area exhibits primitive conditions of growth whereas the wilderness area exhibits primitive methods of transportation.” However, wilderness areas could have primeval areas within them, thought Marshall.[22] (The Forest Service over the years designated a few “Research Natural Areas” [RNAs] within some Wilderness Areas, or established Wilderness Areas or Primitive Areas over existing RNAs.) Victor Shelford understood this difference. In his 1932 listing of “Classes of Nature Sanctuaries,” he defined “primitive area” as “an area in which human transportation and conditions of living are kept primitive. Some of the areas are to be cut over periodically.”[23]

In the 1920s, leading boosters of National Parks, such as Robert Ster­ling Yard, began to shift from an insistence that only areas with monu­mental scenery qualified as National Parks to a view that would “laud the parks as museums and universities.”[24] Yard, who had been Horatius at the bridge in limiting National Park status only to areas of nationally sig­nificant scenery, where awe-inspiring forces of geology and evolution were displayed,[25] became convinced by Victor Shelford and other ecol­ogists to allow areas of lesser scenic value but of world-class biological value—such as the Everglades—into the National Park System, as well as areas of high primitive value—such as the Great Smoky Mountains.[26]

An often overlooked piece of North American protected areas strat­egy began in 1903 when President Theodore Roosevelt withdrew Peli­can Island in Florida as a wildlife refuge to protect the brown pelican. He soon “established throughout the country a host of bird sanctuar­ies.”[27] In 1908, Klamath Lake, in south-central Oregon, was set aside for waterfowl migrating along the Pacific flyway.[28] In 1913, Congress authorized migratory bird refuges and set penalties for killing protected migratory birds.[29] A migratory bird treaty between the United States and Britain (acting for Canada) in 1918 helped to overcome constitu­tional objections to a federal role in bird protection.[30] From then on, through the decades, National Wildlife Refuges were established, many for the purpose of protecting stepping-stone habitats for migrating birds, especially ducks and geese. These refuges were strongly pushed by the Audubon societies and by ethical duck hunters like Ding Darling, an editorial cartoonist and later the director of the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Insofar as I can tell, National Wildlife Refuges were the first example of trying to protect avenues of connectivity for migrating species—flyways.

A surprisingly large number of biologists and conservationists—including organizations such as the American Society of Mammalogists, New York Zoological Society, and the Boone and Crockett Club—came to oppose the extermination of predators during the 1920s and early 1930s. Accordingly, the Ecological Society of America grew its view of nature sanctuaries beyond small areas protecting original vegetation to include areas large enough to maintain “all their native animals”— including large carnivores such as the wolf and mountain lion. The Society’s 1932 “Nature Sanctuary Plan” (written by Shelford) stated, “Biologists are beginning to realize that it is dangerous to tamper with nature by introducing plants and animals, or by destroying predatory animals or by pampering herbivores.”[31]

In 1935, the founders of The Wilderness Society, including Mar­shall, MacKaye, Yard, and Leopold, proposed five classes of protected areas:

Extensive wilderness areas—large areas “free from all mechanical distur­bances” and requiring self-sufficiency from the visitor.

Primeval areas—“virgin tracts in which human activities have never modified the normal processes of nature.”

Superlative scenic areas—National Parks and similar areas.

Restricted wild areas—smaller, less-wild areas near cities.

Wilderness zones—“strips along the backbone of mountain ranges…along rivers which, although they may be crossed here and there by railroads and highways, nevertheless maintain primitive travel con­ditions along their major axes.”[32]

Thus we find—eureka!—that wildlands networks combining the ecological, recreational, and aesthetic values of wild Nature as proposed by Wildlands Network, Rewilding Institute, and others today are not a wholly new idea but are grounded in the original vision of The Wilderness Society founders.

In addition to prohibitions on roads and vehicles, The Wilderness Society called for no logging “in any sort of wilderness.”[33] A few years later in his call-to-arms article, “The Universe of the Wilderness Is Vanishing,” Marshall emphatically changed his earlier view about log­ging: “All types of commercial land use conflict fatally with primitive values. The commercial activities that today most frequently invade the wilderness are irrigation, waterpower development, mining, grazing, and logging.”[34]

After forming the organization, the leaders of The Wilderness Society began to incorporate ecological concerns more fully into their Wilderness Area idea. Leopold’s writing increasingly emphasized the sci­entific values of Wilderness Areas, although he certainly did not turn his back on recreational values.[35] In the first issue of The Living Wilderness, he wrote, “I suspect, however, that the scientific values [of wilderness] are still scantily appreciated, even by members of the [Wilderness] Soci­ety. These scientific values have been set forth in print, but only in the studiously ‘cold potato’ language of the ecological scientist. Actually the scientific need is both urgent and dramatic.”[36]

Clearly, Shelford and other ecologists were influencing wilderness advocates, particularly Leopold, who later was elected president of the Ecological Society of America and worked on the Committee on Preser­vation of Natural Conditions.[37] Forest Service regulations U-l and U-2 in 1939 reflected this change. These regulations ordered the National Forests to study their Primitive Areas and to propose permanent bound­aries. Areas over 100,000 acres would be called Wilderness Areas, and those under 100,000 acres would be called Wild Areas. Logging was pro­hibited, along with roads and motor vehicles.

In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote, “A science of land health needs, first of all, a base datum of normality, a picture of how healthy land maintains itself as an organism. . . . The most perfect norm is wilderness.”[38] Compare that view of wilderness with his earlier views in the 1920s. Within Leopold’s philosophy and policy recommendations, the two paths to protected area selection and design had merged.


[1] At the conclusion of his essay titled “The Green Lagoons,” Aldo Leopold asked the rhetorical question: “Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?” A Sand County Almanac, (1949, reprint, New York, 1987), 141-49.

[2] (My book, The Great Conservation Divide, covers much of this wilderness history in more detail. It is a sister book to Rewilding North America.  Dave Foreman, The Great Conservation Divide (Raven’s Eye, Durango, CO, 2014.))

[3] Dave Foreman, “Around the Campfire: The River Wild,” Wild Earth, Winter 1998-1999, inside front cover-4. A more detailed discussion of “River Wild” appeared in The Great Conservation Divide.

[4] Nonetheless, some National Parks, including Yosemite and Crater Lake, were saved through campaigns by local citizens, who knew the proposed parks on the ground.

[5] Samuel P. Hays, Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement 1890-1920, (Atheneum, New York, 1979), 32, 41; Roderick Frazier Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 4th ed. (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2001), 135-138.

[6] Richard West Sellars, Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History (Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 1997), 17, 61.

[7] Dave Foreman, The Great Conservation Divide (Raven’s Eye, Durango, CO, 2014).

[8] Aldo Leopold, “Wilderness as a Form of Land Use,” The Journal of Land and Public Utility Economics 1, no. 4 (October 1925: 398-404.

[9] Susan L. Flader, “Aldo Leopold and the Wilderness Idea,” The Living Wilderness 43 no. 147 (December 1979): 6.

[10] Sutter, Driven Wild, 153-160.

[11] Sutter, Driven Wild, 84.

[12] Flader, “Aldo Leopold and the Wilderness Idea,” 7.

[13] Sutter, Driven Wild, 169.

[14] Sutter, Driven Wild, 174-175.

[15] Robert Marshall, “The Problem of the Wilderness,” Scientific Monthly 30, no. 2 (March 1930): 273-280; Sutter, Driven Wild, 215-217.

[16] Sutter, Driven Wild, 73.

[17] Sutter, Driven Wild, 74.

[18] Sutter, Driven Wild, 224—225. This “senile” forest misunderstanding was used as an argument against Wilderness Areas by many Forest Service lead­ers until recently. It is still used by ecologically benighted corporate foresters to this day.

[19] Aldo Leopold, “The Wilderness and Its Place in Forest Recreation Pol­icy,” Journal of Forestry 19, no. 7 (November 1921): 718-721, reprinted in Susan Flader and J. Baird Callicott, eds., The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays by Aldo Leopold (University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 1991), 49-52.

[20] Sutter, Driven Wild, 71.

[21] Sutter, Driven Wild, 87.

[22] Sutter, Driven Wild, 223.

[23] Victor E. Shelford, “Ecological Society of America: A Nature Sanctuary Plan Unanimously Adopted by The Society, December 28, 1932,” Ecology 14, no. 2 (April 1933): 242.

[24] Sutter, Driven Wild, 123.

[25] Sutter, Driven Wild, 113.

[26] Sutter, Driven Wild, 130-135. Yard acknowledged that the astonishing abundance of waterbirds in the Everglades was a monumental display’ of evolutionary forces.

[27] Hays, Gospel of Efficiency, 189-190.

[28] William K. Wyant, Westward in Eden: The Public Lands and the Conservation Movement (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1982), 118.

[29] Hays, Gospel of Efficiency, 189-190.

[30] David S. Wilcove, The Condor’s Shadow (W. H. Freeman, New York, 1999), 149; Wyant, Westward in Eden, 118.

[31] Shelford, “Nature Sanctuary Plan,” 240-245.

[32] Sutter, Driven Wild, 246-247.

[33] Sutter, Driven Wild, 248.

[34] Robert Marshall, “The Universe of the Wilderness Is Vanishing,” Nature Magazine 9, no. 4 (April 1937): 239.

[35] Sutter, Driven Wild, 97, 249.

[36] Aldo Leopold, “Why the Wilderness Society?” The Living Wilderness, September 1935.

[37] Flader, “Aldo Leopold and the Wilderness Idea,” 5.

[38] Leopold, Sand County Almanac, 196.

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