Today, it’s not only animal and plant species that we’re losing at an alarming rate. We’re losing wilderness; everywhere, all over the world.
In fact, according to a study published in 2016 that compares the extent of Earth’s wilderness areas in 1993 to those in 2009, there has been an almost 30 percent loss of wilderness in South America and a 10 percent loss globally.
Why does that matter? Because when we lose forests, grasslands, savannas and other natural areas, we lose a tremendous number of opportunities for scientific research—by biologists, ecologists, geologists, medical researchers and wildlife biologists, among others—and for the betterment of our lives that results from such endeavors. And not only do wilderness areas provide habitat for endangered species, they supply us with ecosystem services, such as clean water and natural flood control. They support agricultural and forest production, buffer and regulate local climates, and support many of the world’s most economically and politically marginalized human communities.
So, when we suffer a loss of wilderness, we lose scientific advances, too.
Remote and resistless
According to the U.S. Forest Service, every day an estimated 6,000 acres of natural spaces are converted to other uses. This shrinking wilderness is due, in part, to human activity such as agriculture, mining, illegal logging, and oil and gas extraction.
In the 2016 study, researchers defined wilderness as “biologically and ecologically intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance”—although they did not exclude people, especially indigenous people. The report concluded that since 1993, a cumulative wilderness area twice the size of Alaska and half the size of the Amazon has been stripped of the animals and plants that depend on it and has been destroyed.
The Amazon and Central Africa have been the hardest hit. Of the roughly 1.27 million square miles of wilderness lost since 1993, the Amazon accounted for nearly a third, while a further 14 percent was lost from Central Africa. In total, only 11.6 million square miles of wilderness are left, which equates to just about 20 percent (less than a quarter) of the Earth’s total land mass. If this trend continues, there could be no globally significant wilderness areas left in less than a century.
And what’s perhaps even more shocking is the fact that wilderness is being destroyed at a faster pace than we’re establishing protected areas. In the same period of time that we lost 1.27 million square miles of wilderness, new reserves totaled only .96 million square miles.
One reason for this downswing, the report states, is that governments and conservation organizations often focus their protection efforts on habitat that is severely threatened or degraded. Then, left unguarded, remote land becomes vulnerable.
Settings for science
The importance of protected wild areas to science has long been recognized. Early conservationists such as John Muir and George Perkins Marsh, some of the most eminent ecologists of their day, called for the setting aside of large natural areas for their scientific value. In 1941, ecologist and author Aldo Leopold stated that “all wilderness areas … have a large value to land science.” In 1959, the Sixth Biennial Wilderness Conference was titled “The Meaning of Wilderness to Science.” It offered numerous testimonies to both the value of science to wilderness and of wilderness to science. As John C. Hendee and Chad P. Dawson put it in their now 30-year-old Wilderness Management: Stewardship and Protection of Resources and Values textbook, “Wilderness is the world’s living laboratory.”
For example, in the ecological sciences, wilderness areas serve as reservoirs of biodiversity and as baselines against which to evaluate the impacts of human activities. And they’re not only refuges for ecological communities but also for the disturbances that so vitally help shape them. When the Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, scientists and resource managers believed that wilderness ecosystems would remain unchanged over time; maintained in approximately the condition in which white explorers first found them. That notion has been proven false: severe storms, volcanic eruptions, wildfires and other disturbances profoundly affect most ecological landscapes. They allow more species to utilize a given landscape “mosaic” and ensure that certain early-successional vegetation communities and their associated biota have a continuing place in it.
A case in point is the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in the Klamath Mountains of southwestern Oregon. The 2002 Biscuit Fire was one of the biggest conflagrations in recent American history, burning millions of acres. While nonwilderness forestlands that have been scorched are often salvage-logged, the burnt woods and shrublands of the Kalmiopsis served as the subject for ongoing investigations into natural postfire succession.
In the physical sciences, wildernesses offer the rare opportunity for geologists and landscape ecologists to study broad, landscape-level ecosystem processes with only minimal human alterations. Among them are seasonal wildlife migrations and the complicated interactions of climate and biophysical systems. Outside wildernesses, human impacts on ecosystems are often too pervasive and complicated.
In the social sciences, wildernesses offer a rich potential for studying human behaviors, mindset and perspectives, including how individuals relate to one another, how they react to stress and challenge, and how natural environments affect conduct. For decades, sociological studies have looked into the value of wilderness as a therapeutic environment.
Climate scientists use wilderness areas to understand potential threats to the planet’s health and the species that live on it. For example, one 2018 study found that 46 percent of boreal toads at lower elevations with higher temperatures were infected with Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a lethal fungus, while only 10 percent of toads at higher, colder elevations were infected. It’s believed that warming temperatures associated with global climate change may facilitate the spread of the fungus into previously unaffected areas.
And by storing carbon dioxide and buffering local climates, wilderness areas, particularly forests, can be by far and away the most effective way to deal with climate change.
Not losing what’s left
The 2016 study did offer some bright spots of hope. The majority of the wilderness left on Earth (82.3 percent, or 9.72 million square miles)—located in Australia, North America, North Africa and North Asia—is still composed of vast, uninterrupted areas of at least 3,861 square miles. Not only are areas smaller than that harder to maintain, getting an accurate reading on the ecological communities present in them is almost impossible.
The researchers also cite two examples of conservation efforts that should make a real difference in the future. They mention Brazil’s Amazon Region Protected Areas Program, which aims to establish new protected areas and sustainable natural resource management reserves, that is expected to carry over to Peru and Colombia.
The Canadian Boreal Forest Conservation Framework has also been singled out as one of the best wilderness conservation programs in the world, with the goal of safeguarding at least 50 percent of the boreal forest in a network of large interconnected protected areas and sustainable communities.
And, I was happy to learn about the Forests on the Edge project from the U.S. Forest Service, which helps conserve private forests and lands around national forests and grasslands, and identifies areas across the country where forest benefits may be affected by factors such as development, fire and insect pests.
I hope that, ultimately, these positive measures will prove to be enough. We cannot restore wilderness. Once it is gone, the ecological processes that underpin such ecosystems are gone, too, and they never really come back to their previous state. The only option is to proactively protect the wilderness that is left.
Because when we lose wilderness areas, we not only lose natural places of healing and respite, but centers for scientific endeavors.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,