America was forged by taming and civilizing a vast wilderness that stretched from sea to shinning sea. Yet in ecological terms, “taming” and “civilizing” involved widespread biological degradation, species extinction, habitat conversion, dammed rivers, logged forests, plowed-over prairies and the spread of nonnative or invasive organisms on a massive scale.
A growing concern that wild lands might disappear all together led to the birth of the National Wilderness Preservation System five decades ago this Sept. 3, with the passage of the federal Wilderness Act. The system began with a mere 9 million acres but has grown to 110 million acres. More acres are added every year.
These preserved lands exist in 758 different wilderness areas within 44 states. North Carolina is fortunate to have 12 different wilderness areas from the mountains to the coast. Two of this dozen were in the original batch of 54 wilderness areas created in 1964: Shining Rock and Linville Gorge wildernesses.
In lobbying for the creation of a wilderness system, famed American novelist and environmentalist Wallace Stegner wrote: “We need wilderness preserved because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed.”
Today, 4 of every 5 Americans live in cities or urbanized areas, but many still seek out wilderness to be alone in a natural landscape and taste that character-forming challenge.
Motorized tools and engines are forbidden in designated wilderness areas, as are roads, infrastructure and natural resources extraction. This ensures pockets of wild nature for adventurers to escape to from the grind of cities, where they can find solitude, recreation and enhance their connection with nature. But even these “leave-no-trace” activities can have a cumulative environmental impact.
The Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a program of The Wilderness Society, helps ensure that protected federal wilderness areas remain wild. Since 2011, SAWS has trained wilderness rangers to gather data identifying and mapping invasive species in 22 wilderness areas throughout the Pisgah, Nantahala, Cherokee, Chattahoochee and Sumter national forests of North and South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. They pass this information on to the U.S. Forest Service, which can then target removal efforts.
SAWS wilderness rangers also map and measure the effects of non-designated campsites, especially those that are used repeatedly and have scarred or marked the landscape. Rangers then works with the Forest Service to re-naturalize these areas.
SAWS coordinator Bill Hodge believes that while the past 50 years have shown that Americans value wilderness, the biggest threat to the wild in the next 50 years is the rapidly changing climate.
“Wilderness has a great role in keeping large landscapes intact, some of our wilderness areas are part of a mosaic of conserved lands,” he said. “We like to think we have the tools to solve these issues, but having these refuges where nature itself has to adapt is important, because it can do this better than we ever could.”
Wilderness brings to mind forests, mountains prairies, and grasslands devoid of human footprints, so it may not be obvious that there’s an active research field called wilderness science. Researchers study the economic value of the wild, how recreation affects it, its therapeutic and social value, the ecosystems services it provides, its geology, biodiversity and ecology – and how climate change is affecting it.
Ken Cordell, a scientist emeritus with the U.S. Forest Service’s Southern Research Station in Asheville, said that climate change trumps all other concerns about wilderness preservation in the long run.
“Ecosystems are needing to migrate up elevations to seek cooler temperatures,” he said.
But not all species can adapt to the rapid pace of change.
But some of the most immediate threats to the wilderness are much more mundane than shifting temperatures, humidity and rainfall patterns. Cordell, who is also affiliated with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, is surveying wilderness managers to learn what they believe the greatest threats are to the wild lands they manage. Cordell believes development is the greatest short-term threat. Even though most wilderness areas are buffered by other kinds of protected lands – national parks or forests, for example – some contain privately owned holdings (in-holdings) where residential neighborhoods or resorts exist.
“Wilderness areas aren’t isolated,” Cordell said. “The air and water flows from surrounding areas into the wilderness and vice versa. In-holdings and their associated activities make the prospect of protecting wilderness a little bit more difficult.”
Light pollution and people walking off designated trails are particularly concerning in these contexts, he added.
Conservationists espouse that in order for people to protect wild places, they must develop an emotional connection to them. This means people need to step into the wild and experience it first hand. But balancing the goals of preserving wilderness areas in a wild state while also encouraging visitors to use, explore and protect them creates the conundrum of loving a natural place to death. As the United States’ population grows over the next 50 years, will more visitors place added pressure on our preserved wild lands?