A nesting doll approach to protecting America’s wilderness

Despite the extent to which our planet’s surface has been developed, there’s still quite a bit of wilderness in the US, much of it controlled by institutions like the National Park Service, National Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management. But while those lands – all 109 million acres of it, some 4.5% of the United States – are reasonably well-protected, there’s just one problem: their borders are not. Imagine how nice it would be to have a national park as your backyard. Some folks have done just that, and developed the lands immediately outside of such wild lands. And because the borders of such lands are but lines drawn on a map, what happens just outside of those spaces impacts what happens inside.

Lauren Ward, a graduate student at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources points out that anything from the application of pesticides on residential lawns that neighbor national parks and preserves to the introduction of non-native species, stands to seriously impact the wild lands that the government (via the Wilderness Act of 1964) has made an effort to protect. “The management approaches employed in the majority of wilderness areas may be inadequate to guard against these new and unforeseen threats,” she writes.

Given the increase in global population and its increasing ability to travel and enjoy protected lands, it is certain that the human footprint on the last remaining wilderness we have in this country will deepen. Is there anything that could be done to prevent those landscapes from serious degradation? That’s what Ward asks this week in the journal Illuminare, together with researcher Gary Green, also of the Warnell School.

Ward and Green argue that under the current system, each body that has responsibility over wild lands treats those lands in a uniform way. That, they fear, could result in the most pristine areas being managed such that they simply meet the minimum acceptable guidelines. That could result in the degradation of key biodiversity hotspots or sensitive ecosystems, which are sometimes balanced like a house of cards.

To address that problem, the researchers looked towards UNESCO’s biosphere reserve model. In that model, lands are treated like Russian nesting dolls. At the core, landscapes are designated with the highest levels of protection with the goals of preserving biodiversity and pristine ecosystems. Those cores are surrounded by buffer zones, which allow people to enjoy “recreation, ecotourism, scientific research, cultural activities, and environmental education.” In essence, the buffer zone allows folks to appreciate wild lands without applying any undue pressure on the most pristine of ecosystems in the core; the activities inside the buffer remain consistent with the overall conservation-related goals of the core. Outside of the buffer zone is a transition zone, which may spread into residential, commercial, or agricultural areas. The goal of the transition zone is sustainable development, so that neighboring communities function in accordance with the reserve’s values. In places where this sort of three-tiered zoning model has been implemented, research suggests it has been overall effective in terms of wildlife conservation.

Given the apparent success of UNESCO’s model, Ward and Green recommend a slightly more complex five-tiered system that accounts for several US-specific issues. As in the UNESCO biosphere reserve, the center is the core zone, an area all but free from human interference. “These zones would serve to protect areas identified as hosting significant biodiversity as well as areas that provide the most pristine examples of wilderness,” they say, and also provide important ecosystem services, like clean air and water.

Next is the scientific research zone, where researchers would be permitted to conduct “nondestructive research and monitoring.” Educators would also be permitted to conduct environmental education programs in those areas. Access to scientific zones would be tightly regulated, and perhaps folks would require permits to utilize the space. Use of the scientific zone would be more carefully regulated than in the broader recreation zone, while still allowing for the advancement of scientific knowledge.

Cultural/historic zones could also be designated, where sites have important cultural or historical significance. Ward and Green do not describe particular rules and regulations that govern these areas, as they are likely to differ from site to site.

The recreation zone would be utilized in much the same way that most wilderness areas are used today, for people to “experience nature, solitude, and adventure.” That means hiking, camping, climbing, and in some places, perhaps fishing, hunting, mountain biking, and even driving.

Surrounding everything would be the buffer zone, which would function like the UNESCO model’s transition zone. If buffer zones were expansive enough, they could link together to provide important connectivity and linkages for wildlife to migrate, much like the “mega-reserves” of Africa.

Left: UNESCO's biosphere reserves model. Right: Ward and Green's proposed model. (Source: Ward & Green, 2015).

Left: UNESCO’s biosphere reserves model. Right: Ward and Green’s proposed model. (Source: Ward & Green, 2015).

The researchers argue that this sort of model improves upon the current situation because each zone would be managed in accordance to its designated use and ecological context. While it may seem more complicated, they say that the five tiers allow land managers to flexibly manage their lands in the way that makes the most sense in each place.

One large roadblock toward the implementation of this sort of system could be resistance from stakeholders. People who like outdoor recreation might bristle at the thought of being excluded from scientific and core zones, for example. Gateway communities might fear the potential imposition of restrictions on their development. Education and outreach programs would be vital to help alleviate these concerns, and tax incentives and conservation easements could help encourage local communities to participate.

Perhaps the largest barrier is federal funding. However, the researchers think that a zoning system could allow land managers to allocate resources and funding in more explicit, prioritized ways that could reduce waste in the long term.

“While wilderness is easy to destroy, it is nearly impossible to recreate,” warn Ward and Green. A strategy that is proactive in nature may ultimately be more effective for conservation than a strategy built upon the restoration of degraded ecosystems. – Jason G. Goldman | 01 July 2015

Source: Ward, L. K., & Green, G. T. (2015). Wilderness Zoning: Applying an Adapted Biosphere Reserve Model to Wilderness Areas. Illuminare: A Student Journal in Recreation, Parks, and Tourism Studies, 13. http://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/illuminare/article/view/13341

Header image: Alger Lakes, Ansel Adams Wilderness, via Steve Dunleavy/Wikimedia Commons.