Size Matters: Bigger is better for Wilderness in America

This piece was written by longtime Wilderness advocate Howie Wolke. – mk

When it comes to wilderness, bigger is better.

From a human perspective, it is difficult to experience wilderness values such as awe, oneness with nature, solitude and challenge in isolated natural areas hemmed in by roads or noisy machines. The authors of the Wilderness Act rightly understood that if folks accepted postage-stamp sized natural areas as “wilderness”, then our perception of wilderness would lose its unique distinction. And as the wilderness idea is cheapened, so too, is wilderness on the ground.

Conservation biologists teach us that large, wild areas with connectivity to other wildlands protect native species populations from inbreeding, random loss of adaptive genetic traits (common in small isolated populations), disease, and environmental events such as wildfire, flood or prolonged drought. Species with specific habitat needs such as old growth forest or undisturbed sagebrush steppe are particularly vulnerable to problems associated with small isolated habitats. So are large carnivores, which naturally occur in much lower densities than prey species, and thus are spread thinly across large areas. Many of these vulnerable creatures are called “wilderness dependent species” and small isolated wildland tracts do not promote their survival.

As human population growth continues to explode, wildlands are increasingly impacted by adjacent human activities. Logging, mining, road building, poaching, urban sprawl, off road vehicles, livestock grazing, fences, power corridors, dams and diversions and more all serve to isolate wilderness areas. When wilderness boundaries are amoeba-shaped with “cherry-stemmed’ exclusions, we create lots of edge compared with more secure interior habitat. Along the edges are where many destructive human activities occur. So not only is bigger better, but so are areas with holistic boundaries that minimize edge.

Unfortunately, many conservation organizations are beholden to foundations that demand “collaboration” with traditional wilderness opponents. These collaborations usually produce compromised “wilderness” proposals that exclude most potential conflict areas in order to mollify the opposition. Resulting wilderness units are small, isolated and oddly-shaped, laden with boundary intrusions and non-wilderness corridors that create much edge and minimal secure interior habitat.

Of course, our political system is based upon compromise, and compromise works when both sides have legitimate concerns and common goals. When it comes to wilderness, though, remember that nowadays each wilderness debate begins with an already greatly compromised remnant wildland. So further compromise creates the political illusion of “win/win”, but on the ground the land and the wildlife usually lose.

So, bigger is better. In North America, healthy populations of grizzly bear, wolverine, lynx and many other species thrive only where big wilderness is a dominant landscape feature. Healthy watersheds thrive only where entire watersheds are protected. And dynamic natural vegetation patterns can be maintained only in large protected landscapes. For example, maintaining natural wildfire patterns is incompatible with small nature preserves near suburbs or commercial timber stands.

Protecting and maintaining real wilderness won’t get easier. But unless conservation organizations develop a better understanding of what real wilderness is and the importance of size, connectivity and wholeness, it is unlikely that the very concept of wilderness will survive for many more generations. And I mean generations of four-leggeds and all members of the biotic community, in addition to the upright two-legged great apes that we call “human.”

Howie Wolke is a wilderness guide/outfitter based in Montana’s Paradise Valley and was recently president of Wilderness Watch.

5 thoughts on “Size Matters: Bigger is better for Wilderness in America”

  1. Good luck on getting such a preservationist idea across to our current Government. Actually, ALL major watersheds on public lands have buffer zones that translate into HUGE acreages of preserved habitats. Some people insist that ALL public lands be “Wilderness”.

    • Hi Larry. I’ll bite again. Can you provide some examples of where “Some people insist that ALL public lands be ‘Wilderness.'” Seems like another strawman.

  2. “… remember that nowadays each wilderness debate begins with an already greatly compromised remnant wildland. So further compromise creates the political illusion of “win/win”, but on the ground the land and the wildlife usually lose.”

    Coincidentally, similar story from Jamaica at the “stakeholder consultations on the new National Forest Management and Conservation Plan.”

    However, head of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), Diana McCaulay, holds that the pursuit of this ‘happy balance’ is tantamount to chasing smoke.

    “I don’t know what is meant by that. We have already lost about 70 per cent of our forests. What remains is 30 per cent and not all of that is natural forest,” she told The Gleaner.

    “We are way past balance. What we are trying to do is fight for the few remaining natural resources we have. It is not that we are starting from the position that the island is untouched and we are going to have no development. We have lost most of it,” the JET chief executive officer added.

  3. Thanks for posting the commentary by Howie Woulk one of the old time fighters for untamed earth. In same spirit I am posting response below written by my spouse and long time hiking buddy Dr. David Chojnacky :

    Yes, I agree “bigger is better” for wilderness but “little is also better than none”.

    Compromise is definitely part of the political process and every wilderness designation is somewhat unique. I applaud those who continue to fight for wilderness. However we have more than 750 designated wilderness areas, many overall are not visited by anyone; whereas a few select areas trails are often highly overused. I think that “as human population growth continues to explode” we need to first work on connecting more people with wilderness to ensure we have a support base in the future and worry less about creating more (recognizing there are valid biodiversity concerns but in current political climate they will not be an easy sell). There are plenty of wilderness acreage advocates but far too few wilderness stewards that are making wilderness accessible. And I mean in terms of legitimate wilderness use like trails and good information.

    As an example, I just got back from 8 days backpacking the 250,000+-acre Mazatzal Wilderness in Arizona. I found plenty of plenty of solitude (expect for late night and early morning flights descending and ascending from Phoenix Sky Harbor and some Air Force boys playing with their jet fighters). However, the legacy trails—apparently once used heavily by ranchers and miners—were all but impassable because of erosion and vegetation recovery from a 2004 fire that burned nearly the entire wilderness. The vegetation fire recovery was exceptional; the flowers at 4,000 to 5,000 foot elevation were awesome and I doubt total vegetation carbon was much below pre-fire conditions since all large snags and logs showed very decay and tree branch/foliage loss was more than compensated by understory brush and new tree saplings. But the hiking—mostly cross-country—was not pleasant with a backpack. Nor did anyone else think so, since I saw no sign of human beings for at least 15 years in areas except for some human footprints in mud near what looked a fall hunter camp converted from a ranching day spring improvement. None of the grazing allotments had signs of cattle for years; only some burned fence and corral remnants.

    The going was so slow that I cut my trip short in lower elevation country and headed to Mazatzal Divide (the route of part of the Arizona Trail which is well maintained by volunteers). In two days on the AZT (looping back to my vehicle) I saw more than 20 people, mostly through-hikers headed to Utah. The Mazatzals are not seriously overused but only the 40 or so miles of Arizona Trail and a few front range access trails are maintained among the several hundred miles of legacy trails. My Mazatzal experience was again similar to my experiences in my past 40 wilderness visits in Arizona, New Mexico, Idaho and Virginia the past 5 years—overall wilderness outside of few popular trails is highly underused and most legacy trails are not being maintained and are being lost.

    David C. Chojnacky, PhD
    Adjunct Faculty, Forest Biometrics
    Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation
    Virginia Tech
    Hailey, ID/Phoenix, AZ USA

    Phone: 703-343-3288
    Email: [email protected]

    • Cindy

      Sometimes: “Yes, I agree “bigger is better” for wilderness but “little is also better than none”.”

      To which I would add:

      1) For many people proximity is more important than its size or whether it is wilderness, a low intensity managed forest or an intensely managed industrial forest. I have been in many beautiful and peaceful managed forests including on the west coast. A case in point occurred in Maine on Plum Creek land around a very popular lake. The locals were up in arms when PC announced plans for future logging on some of its property around the lake. The company promised that they would come up with a plan that would preserve the beauty. After the selective logging job was done, they took the locals out to view the property. The locals went on and on about how beautiful the place was and that there was no way that the property should be logged and destroy the beauty. When they were informed that the selective logging job had already been completed, their fears were gone. This need for reasonability is especially important as overuse of National Parks and some wilderness areas are leading to considering the rationing of visits.

      2) Wilderness allowed to continue at levels of high risk of catastrophic loss of its character and loss of assets to adjoining landowners is irresponsible.

      In other words: One size does not fit all needs/situations.

      Go Hokies!


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