New research shows that across the planet in just the last 20 years, 1.2 million square miles of wilderness have disappeared. ©Sandy Brown Jensen, flickr

Yosemite National Park is growing.

Here, now, in 2016, that’s a statement I never thought I would be able to make. But last week, on September 7, the National Park Service announced that the western boundary of one of our most iconic landscapes has expanded to include Ackerson Meadow, a 400-acre expanse of tree-covered Sierra Nevada foothills, grasslands and a creek that flows into the Tuolumne River.

Just a day later, however, on September 8, 2016, a new study was published that showed that 10 percent of the world’s wilderness areas have disappeared—just since the 1990s.

That’s probably within your lifetime.

In 2013, the Rim Fire—the largest wildfire on record in the Sierra Nevada and the third largest in California’s history—burned 257,314 acres. ©Mike McMillan, U.S. Forest Service

Yosemite National Park expands

According to the National Park Service, Yosemite’s new addition is its largest since 1949. With wetlands and rolling hills covered with tall pines, the sweeping, grassy Ackerson Meadow provides critical habitat for hundreds of plants and animals, including at least two endangered species. In fact, in 2013, as the Rim Fire burned through the Sierra foothills, wildlife ran or flew to the green grasses of Ackerson for refuge: while the fire burned all the way around the meadow, its wet soils held the flames at bay. And today, while burn marks are still visible on tree trunks at the meadow’s edge, a circle of living trees remains, a source of seeds and shade for saplings that will someday replace the charred trees.

In fact, meadows—just 3 percent of Yosemite National Park’s total area—may be home to one-third of all of the plant species found in the park. Such fields are also important for California’s human residents: Yosemite’s meadows filter most of San Francisco’s water.

The Trust for Public Land bought Ackerson from private owners for $2.3 million and donated it to the National Park Service to expand Yosemite. The funds came from several major contributors, including a bequest of $1.53 million and $520,000 by the nonprofit Yosemite Conservancy, with additional support from the National Park Trust and American Rivers.

It could be said that the 748,036-acre Yosemite National Park is thriving. Unfortunately, that’s not so for the rest of our wilderness areas.

Yosemite National Park is growing, thanks to a recent gift. ©TVZ Design, flickr

The Earth’s wilderness shrinks

The good news regarding Yosemite comes on top of a brand-new study published in Current Biology, on September 8, 2016, which found that just over 11.6 million square miles of wilderness remain on Earth, which equates to only 20 percent of the Earth’s total land mass.

For the study, researchers defined wilderness as “biologically and ecologically intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance.” They then mapped these areas around the world to assess how their ecosystems have changed over the years.

Unfortunately, results showed that compared to similar mapping that was conducted in the 1990s, more than 1,274,000 square miles—or almost 10 percent—of wilderness areas have been lost in the decades since. That loss is due, in part, to human activity such as agriculture, logging, mining, and oil and gas exploration.

Our attention is focused on vanishing plant and animal species, not entire ecosystems. ©Sandy Brown Jensen, flickr

That’s not all. While the term wilderness has no minimum size threshold, scientists generally consider areas greater than 3,860 square miles to be “globally significant,” meaning that they are large enough to contain intact ecological communities. The loss of these globally significant wilderness areas is what has the authors of this new study worried. Out of the more than one million square miles of wilderness lost, 80 percent of them came from globally significant wilderness blocks.

On top of that, the study also found that certain types of ecosystems, such as mangrove forests, tropical and subtropical coniferous forests, and tropical and subtropical dry broadleaf forests, now have no globally significant wilderness area left at all. That’s a problem for more than just the species living in such spaces. Big, contiguous wilderness parcels—especially forests—serve as carbon sinks, making them important buffers against climate change. But when these areas are degraded, they lose their carbon and add to the greenhouse gas emissions we humans are already pouring into the atmosphere.

The report’s researchers conclude that in the past, attention has been focused on the planet’s declining animal and plant species, with less awareness directed to the larger-scale losses of entire ecosystems. They suggest that international conventions and agreements should prioritize the ecosystem services provided by intact wilderness areas and that international funding programs should allocate greater resources to the protection of these areas. Individual countries should be encouraged to develop more stringent national policies aimed at preserving their own natural landscapes.

In Yosemite’s newly acquired Ackerson Meadow, lupine grows. ©Tom Hilton, flickr

In the same time period that we’ve lost 1,274,000 square miles of wilderness, we’ve only set aside 965,000 new square miles for protection. Failing to take this problem seriously, say the report’s authors, may result in “largely irreversible outcomes for both humans and nature: if these trends continue, there could be no globally significant wilderness areas left in less than a century.”

A candle is lit

In light of the Current Biology study that was published just a day after the announcement of the Yosemite National Park acquisition, I wonder if the additional meadow will matter. It contributes less than two-thirds of a square mile to a park that covers 1,169 square miles in all.

Or maybe, it’s a candle in the darkness.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,