Find Out How Endangered the Wilderness Is Near You

Several Republican lawmakers want to give much of the public land that is now under federal protection to the states. Recently Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) introduced a bill that would have transferred more than 3 million acres of public land in the Western U.S. to the states. After an intense public outcry, the bill was dropped. To the uninitiated, this might seem fairly innocuous. What difference does it make if the federal government or states control our public lands, as long as we keep them wild?


Well that's just it. The public land we all use to hike, camp, hunt or fish becomes much more endangered when it is transferred to the states. The reasons are simple. Often lacking resources to manage public land, many states see public land as something to be sold and developed  or financial gain—particularly to extractive industries like oil, gas and mining. These activities don't just take away the public enjoyment of those lands and ruin the natural landscape, they further exacerbate the effects of climate change, which is already impacting many regions of the United States.

Handing wildlands over to states isn't the only way that some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are threatening the environment and the outdoor enjoyment for millions of Americans. "Congress is expected to further cut funding for conservation programs and land agencies, already sitting at less than 1 percent of the federal budget," writes Brad Brooks, the associate director of the Idaho office of the Wilderness Society, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting natural areas and federal public lands, in a recent AlterNet article. "We must keep our eyes open and our voices loud for the wild places that can’t speak for themselves."

Travis Belote, a biologist and research ecologist who works in the Northern Rockies office of The Wilderness Society in Bozeman, Montana, led a team of scientists in a recent study to help understand how the nation's various ecosystems are coping with climate change. Working with data sources from AdaptWest, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Census Bureau, NatureServe, and others, the researchers produced what they call a "national assessment of conservation values and climate change vulnerability." Belote explained why wildlands are so important and must be protected:

In contrast to agricultural lands or urban and residential areas, wildlands are relatively ecologically intact and relatively free of human influence. A small forest preserves in the Chicago suburbs are important wildlands, and so are large protected areas in the Rocky Mountain West. They provide habitat for wildlife, serve as sources of drinking water, and offer opportunities for rejuvenating quiet recreation in nature. They give us a sense of a world bigger than the one we typically experience in our day-to-day lives. They are lands where nature is still free and intact remind us of our old and living planet beyond our daily worries.

The study comes at a time when—in part, due to the far-reaching effects of anthropogenic climate change—wilderness advocates and conservation scientists are rethinking the long-held belief in a "hands off" conservation strategy based on the notion that nature can take care of itself. Anthony J. McMichael, who was professor emeritus at the Australian National University, noted in his posthumously published book Climate Change and the Health of Nations that "we face a change in global climatic conditions far greater and faster than anything in recorded human history." But, he also points out that we are also in a good position, evolutionarily speaking, to respond effectively:

Humans, as products of evolution's central "survive the present" criterion lack a strong hardwired instinct to act on behalf of the distant future and on behalf of species and ecosystems that are far away and unfamiliar. Earlier societies typically made reactive responses to climatic adversity, and often did so too late. … Today, we know much more about the workings of the planet, the biosphere, and the climate system, as well as the mounting pressures on those systems. This knowledge, teamed with our cerebral capacity for abstract thought and imagining the future, should enable us to respond in a more proactive fashion.

If we do respond proactively, the Wilderness Society's national assessment should help. The goal of the study was to determine locations where certain strategies—ranging from restoration to protection—should be emphasized to protect specific wildlands, based on existing conditions as well as projected climate conditions. Scientists combined maps of established conservation qualities, such as wildness, connectivity and habitat representation, to create a composite wildland conservation value to each region of the 48 contiguous states.

They studied conservation values like wilderness protection and restoration processes as well as a number of variables, including how much human modification the land has experienced, how important the land is as a natural linkage between protected areas, how well the land's ecosystems are represented within existing protected areas, and whether a place is rich in rare and endemic species. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that conducts environmental research, said that the map "highlights wild, connected places that encompass a comprehensive range of ecosystems or rare species: It shows patterns that can help identify conservation priorities and provide a quantitative estimate of land's existing value."

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Map of conservation values that include wildness, connectivity, and habitat representation in protected areas. (U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit via NOAA)

"We mapped areas important for added conservation," Belote told AlterNet. "Adding these lands to conservation reserves may help build a more resilient system of protected areas, so that species can be maintained across national or regional networks for future generations to appreciate."

Belote said that the very tops of the western mountains and the central Great Plains and prairies in the United States are "particularly vulnerable … mostly because species that are accustomed to living in high alpine environments can’t typically move any further upslope to track warming climate conditions. They are already at the tops of mountains and can’t go higher. At the same time, species that live in large flatlands can’t easily escape to climate refugia by moving upslope or to a favorable mountain or canyon environment."

By contrast, the researchers also identified that regions that had low wildland values and low climate vulnerability, such as New York and Massachusetts, as well as regions that have already been altered by humans, not critical for connecting protected areas, or are already well-represented in protected areas. "These regions may not experience much impact from climate change," according to the study, "so a historical model for restoration may be appropriate."

Other areas, such as Iowa and Illinois, have low wildland values and high climate vulnerability. For these areas that have experienced more degradation and are more vulnerable to climate change, the researchers suggest that "attempting historical restoration may be less useful because the future climate is expected to be very different than the past." In other areas, such as much of California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico, wildland values are high and climate vulnerability is low.  These areas are often wild and the climate in these places may be relatively stable, making them low risk areas to be affected.

The scientists found a significant challenge in areas that had high marks in both wildland conservation values and climate vulnerability—and which "may experience substantially new conditions as climate changes," including eastern Maine, central Oregon and parts of Nevada, Missouri and Arkansas. "Given the uncertainties associated with climate change and the unintended consequences of management, it isn’t easy to identify a single best solution," the researchers said of these regions. (Click here to launch NOAA's Climate Explore to explore maps and graphs of historical and predicted climate trends in your local area.)

While the Wilderness Society's national assessment will help conservationists in the fight to protect wildlands, it's clear that climate change isn't the only hurdle facing climate resiliency. In addition to a Trump administration filled with climate deniers, and that wants to gut the EPA and cut NASA climate research funding, the schemes by many GOP lawmakers to transfer control of public lands—which includes national parks, national forests, wilderness areas and wildlife preserves—presents a unique, yet ultimately avoidable problem.

But as Tania Lown-Hecht, communications director of the Outdoor Alliance, a nonprofit public lands conservation group, points out, calling the GOP plan a "transfer" is a misnomer. "Right now, you own these places, and as state lands, they are effectively privatized," she told AlterNet. "Congress is trying to give away something that belongs to you. That sounds more like stealing than like transfer." Brooks of the Wilderness society agrees. "Protected forests and red rock lands belong to vacationing families in Massachusetts and New Mexico," he writes. "Parks and refuges in Montana and California belong to campers and birdwatchers from South Carolina and Illinois."

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