Friday, July 18, 2014

Environmental Issues: Are Protected Wilderness Areas Still "Wilderness" in an Era of Climate Change?

Lainey Piland photo
"In order to assure that an increasing population, accompanied by expanding settlement and growing mechanization, does not occupy and modify all areas within the United States... leaving no lands designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition, it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."
These are the opening lines of the Wilderness Act of 1964, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.  This crucial act has protected 110 million acres of designated wilderness in the United States.

Although there are 618 million acres of federal wildlands, only a portion of those are protected as wilderness; areas described in the Wilderness Act as being places "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain... an area of undeveloped land retaining its primeval character and influence... affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man's work substantially unnoticeable... has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation..."

The picture here is quite clear.  Wilderness areas are those which--although visited by humans--have been unchanged by our presence.  However, on this 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, many people are beginning to question whether wilderness is still wilderness in the era of climate change.

Our society has burned fossil fuels without restraint, raised the atmospheric carbon dioxide level to the highest it has been in human history, and is causing our global climate to change. Although designated wilderness areas may remain "untrammeled by man" in the sense that we're not paving over the forests and building Wal-Marts or luxury resorts, these previously wild areas are very much affected by the climate change humans have created.

In the eyes of the Federal government, lands preserved under the Wilderness Act are still designated as wilderness.  However, in reality, do they still retain their primeval character? Are they still affected primarily by the forces of nature? Are they still untrammeled by man? It seems as though we are coming to the realization that no, these descriptions no longer apply to our 110 million acres of protected wilderness.  Humans have become a force of nature, and by means of climate change we're trammeling the heck our of our wilderness areas.

How are our wilderness areas going to be affected by climate change? This New York Times opinion piece offers great examples: a warming climate could lead to the extirpation of Joshua trees from the National Park that bears their name.  The giant redwoods of California may not survive in a drier climate. As tree species migrate to more favorable climates, Tuolumne Meadows in John Muir's beloved Yosemite is at risk of becoming a forest.  And the list goes on.

With these significant effects in mind, the question then turns to a touchy subject for many people.  Do we do anything about it? As suggested by the NYT article referenced above, do we start managing and meddling in the wilderness areas to try to retain the natural features which caused them to be protected in the first place? Or, as others may prefer, do we adhere to the sentiment of the Wilderness Act and leave things alone; simply accepting a Joshua tree wilderness with no Joshua trees, or Tuolumne Meadows that are no longer meadows but now a forest?

I stand somewhere in the gray area between these two options.  In situations where we can reasonably intervene to protect the flora and fauna of a particular Wilderness area, I believe we should do so.  However, there were a few questions that stood out in my mind that I believe we should consider before taking any such action:

1. Will it exacerbate climate change?  Any actions that are energy or resource-intensive or which involve removing trees and other vegetation (which store carbon) could potentially contribute to climate change. The end result would be a worsening of the problem that necessitated these actions in the first place.

2. Is there a possibility of a successful and sustainable outcome long-term? We need to consider whether it makes sense to strive as long as possible to stave off changes that are inevitable. For instance, if we decide to irrigate a redwood forest to keep it alive in a hotter, drier climate in the coming decades, will we continue to irrigate the forest for decades after that, when the climate grows hotter and drier yet, and when water will be in short supply? Tragically, there will likely be many cases in which practicality wins out and we will have to step back and let nature take its course, and take some of our treasured landscapes along with it.

But... if our global society makes a serious commitment to address climate change, perhaps we can maintain certain wilderness areas in the meantime, preserving them for a future in which the worst effects of climate change have been avoided, and these areas can once again flourish on their own, in their original glory.

Lainey Piland photo
I've come across several articles questioning whether the Wilderness Act is still relevant. In terms of protecting wilderness in its original "primeval" state unaffected by humans - no. Climate change has ruined that possibility. In terms of protecting large natural areas of our country from development - absolutely! Wilderness areas provide wildlife habitat, clean the air and water, and offer tremendous opportunities for outdoor recreation and inspiration.  We absolutely need to keep these areas under protection--and continue expanding them--for those very reasons.

I spent a great deal of time outdoors as a child, and I remember traipsing through the woods near my home, stopping every so often to look down at the dirt beneath my feet and wonder "has any other person stood on this exact spot before me?" I truly believed that the rubber soles of my child-sized Keds were the first to touch that exact patch of earth.  Perhaps the earth two feet to my left had already been touched by another person, but the exact earth under my feet - nope, I was the first. I remember feeling completely awe-inspired at the (perhaps fictitious) notion of discovery and untouched wilderness.  A visit to our nation's lands protected under the Wilderness Act can allow any person to experience that same feeling upon encountering sweeping meadows, an old-growth forest, or soaring mountains, existing in the complete and utter absence of any human development.  How sad that the authenticity of such an experience is equally as threatened by climate change as the very landscapes that inspire it.

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