Rethinking the Wildlife: The Wilderness Act is Facing a Midlife Crisis

Sunday Review



Rethinking the Wild: The Wilderness Act Is Facing a Midlife Crisis



CreditJon McNaught

YOU won’t hear it on your summer hike above the bird song and the soft applause of aspen leaves, but there’s a heresy echoing through America’s woods and wild places. It’s a debate about how we should think about, and treat, our wilderness in the 21st century, one with real implications for the nearly 110 million acres of wild lands that we’ve set aside across the United States.

Fifty years ago this September, Congress passed the Wilderness Act, which created a national system of wilderness areas. Wilderness has been called the “hard green line” for the act’s uncompromising language: Man will leave these places alone. As the law’s drafter and spiritual father, Howard Zahniser, put it, “we should be guardians, not gardeners.”

At 50, however, the Wilderness Act faces a midlife crisis.

We now know that, thanks to climate change, we’ve left no place unmolested and inadvertently put our fingerprints on even the most unpeopled corners of the planet. This reality has pushed respected scientists to advocate what many wilderness partisans past and present would consider blasphemy: We need to rethink the Wilderness Act. We need to toss out the “hands-off” philosophy that has guided our stewardship for 50 years. We must replace it with a more nuanced, flexible approach — including a willingness to put our hands on America’s wildest places more, not less, if we’re going to help them to adapt and thrive in the diminished future we’ve thrust upon them.


CreditJon McNaught

A great example is Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, most of which lies within the 595,000-acre Joshua Tree Wilderness. Up to 90 percent of the park’s namesake trees could disappear by century’s end, according to models that factor in expected warming. Should we let that happen as nature’s atonement for our mistake? Or should park managers instead intervene in some way — relocating trees to higher elevations to promote their survival, for instance, or finding or creating a hybrid species that can withstand the hotter temperatures and combating exotic grasses that increase the threat of fires?

Such questions didn’t exist in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act. Then, the nemesis of wilderness was America’s unchecked appetite — for land, roads, mines, timber — that gnawed away even at the boundaries of government-sanctioned “primitive areas.” Wilderness advocates craved permanence, in the form of legislation that took decision making away from capricious bureaucrats and political appointees.

What was at stake was nothing less than the wellspring of the American experiment itself. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner had pinned American democracy to wilderness; hacking a life from the wild made settlers ruggedly individual, self-assured and unwilling to suffer the yoke of any monarch. Wilderness, wrote the naturalist Aldo Leopold, is “the very stuff America is made of.”

The law’s definition of wilderness (maybe you’ve read it on a trailhead sign as you shouldered an overheavy backpack) reflects the idea of these places as a bulwark against humankind and its thirst for domination: “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” These places of “primeval character” should be maintained, the law says, to preserve their “natural conditions.” For the last half-century that let-it-be philosophy has carried the day, with few exceptions.

In recent decades, however, several pillars upon which the act was built have eroded. One is the idea of “naturalness,” that nature exists in some unadulterated state apart from humans. Work in paleoecology and other fields has shown that humans have shaped many of the ecosystems on the planet for thousands of years (and not always to their detriment). Research has also dismantled ideas about a stable, primeval world. Nature is always in flux.

Now comes our jarring latest contribution: climate change, with all its rippling effects, as the planet continues to heat up.

Faced with such change, “there’s increased recognition that the paradigm has to change,” said Cat Hawkins Hoffman, the national climate change adaptation coordinator for the National Park Service, which manages 40 percent of American’s wilderness acreage.

“The real conundrum is, how much manipulation in wilderness is acceptable in order to protect the values for which the wilderness was established,” she added.

In short, we need to accept our role as reluctant gardeners.

THE 1964 law does provide some exceptions to its prohibitions against human interference, including in instances in which an area’s managers consider intervention necessary to protect the wild lands or its creatures.

In that context, intervention could take many forms. One strategy is simply to resist or forestall effects of climate change.

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park is one of the most arresting places in the West, and it’s important as the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada.

But as the climate changes, the meadows, some of which lie in the Yosemite Wilderness, are being invaded by lodgepole pine. Keeping the meadows intact will require regular tree-cutting and possibly irrigation for species intolerant of drier conditions, according to David Cole, an emeritus scientist with the Forest Service’s Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute and co-editor of “Beyond Naturalness,” a 2010 book of scholarly essays about wilderness and climate change.

Another example: watering groves of California’s giant sequoias to keep them alive if a future climate grows too dry for their survival.

While hardly long-term solutions, “those can help buy us some time, and by buying time they can help us have that broader societal discussion” and form policies so that what land managers do reflects what society wants, said Nate Stephenson, a research ecologist for the United States Geological Survey who works on the future of forests.

A second approach is to intervene in a way that will make the landscape more resilient.

At Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico, the past century of livestock grazing and fire suppression had turned much of the savanna-like landscape into one crowded with dense juniper and pinyon trees, with bare earth below. “The rates of soil erosion had accelerated to damaging levels,” as rains chewed away at the almost 3,000 archaeological sites that the monument was established to protect, said Craig Allen, a research ecologist with the survey’s Jemez Mountains Field Station.

After 15 years of study, in 2007 the park started taking chain saws to about 5,000 acres of land — mostly in the monument’s 23,000-acre Bandelier Wilderness — cutting small trees and mulching the ground with their branches. The scale of the action “was and remains unprecedented” in wilderness, where engines aren’t usually permitted, he said.

It’s worked. Rates of erosion have fallen by at least an order of magnitude, while native grasses and shrubs have increased threefold.

“I think we improved the resilience of the system going forward,” Brian Jacobs, a Bandelier botanist, said. “The healthier a system is going into these changes, the more likely it is to be able to respond favorably.”

Thinning select wilderness forests could help in many places around the American Southwest where forest density has increased to more than 1,000 trees per acre from roughly 100 trees, Dr. Allen said. The remaining trees would be more likely to survive the hotter, thirstier future, while thinning could also reduce the likelihood of extremely destructive fires from which these landscapes struggle to recover, he said.

Yet another approach is to help nature adapt by giving it a hand in this strange new world — accommodating the changes we want more than fighting those we don’t.

Gnarled by wind and weather, the whitebark pine grips the high slopes of the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies in such locations as the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. Its fatty pine nuts are a staple of the threatened grizzly bear. Whitebark pine is rapidly declining in many places, however, because of invasive blister rust; the lack of fire in this ecosystem to promote the growth of new trees; and infestations by mountain pine beetles, probably aided by mellower winters. To help both beast and tree, some have proposed planting high slopes in places like “the Bob” with seeds from trees that show a resistance to the rust.

Still more controversial is assisted migration. Some species like the American pika, a small rodent-like mammal that lives among the rocks on high, cold mountains, can’t do much to escape a warming world. It’s been suggested that pikas — or marmots, or certain butterflies whose narrow habitats are shrinking — could be relocated to a more hospitable setting where they can, with luck, thrive.

Critics of intervention argue that the best thing we can do for wilderness is leave it alone. Opening up the Wilderness Act, they fear, will invite an attack on wild lands by the usual suspects: mining companies, give-back-the-land groups, Western red-state pols who pander to both. Then there are concerns like those of one Bureau of Land Management wilderness expert, who quoted to me the ecologist Frank Egler: “Ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think.” Or to paraphrase the ecologist Peter Landres: Isn’t it a fool’s errand to try to manage what we don’t fully understand, at a time when the context is changing and the precise future is uncertain?

I share those concerns. And I cling to the romantic idea that, when I step into wilderness, I’m heading somewhere better than us — that there are some places where we can still walk a few miles into red rock desert and when we get there, we’ll find not a fracking pad or a Burger King but instead (Insert Your Deity Here). And it’s true that if science has taught us one thing it’s how little we know about nature. Yet as Dr. Stephenson counters, “Ecosystems may be more complex than we can understand, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have any understanding.”

Why not intervene — carefully, selectively, with humility — in the places that need help the most, with an eye toward giving nature, and us, options? Perhaps we have different levels of wilderness, with different levels of human involvement, something even the founders of the Wilderness Society discussed, Dr. Cole told me, adding, “What we need is a system with more diverse goals.” Fears that we’ll turn wilderness into a 110-million-acre garden miss the mark. If nothing else, lack of time, money and manpower will always constrain our efforts.

When it comes to our most precious wild places, we need to flip the conversation from cause, to effect — focusing on whether the change to the ecological system is “acceptable or desirable” and not whether humans helped nudge it there, according to Richard Hobbs, former editor of the journal Restoration Ecology.

The environmental titans of the 20th century — John Muir, Marshall, Leopold, Zahniser — handed us an awesome responsibility in America’s wilderness legacy. Ironically, it may take us committing a necessary apostasy to show how much we truly revere these wild places.

Christopher Solomon is a journalist who writes about the outdoors and the environment.

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