Wilderness, Water, and Climate Change

By Zellmer, Sandra | Environmental Law, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Wilderness, Water, and Climate Change


Zellmer, Sandra, Environmental Law


I.   INTRODUCTION
II.  WILDERNESS, NATURALNESS, AND WATERSHEDS
     A. Wilderness Characteristics
     B. Wilderness Management--Naturalness, Wildness, and Public Use
III. CLIMATE THREATS TO NATURALNESS AND WILDNESS
IV.  HUMAN THREATS TO NATURALNESS AND WILDERNESS
V.   PROTECTING WILDERNESS WATERS THROUGH FEDERAL LAW
     A. The Wilderness Act's Prohibitions and Exceptions
        1. Water Resources Development
        2. Activities "Necessary to Meet Minimum Requirements" and
           Control Fire, Insects, and Disease
     B. Federal Reserved Water Rights
     C The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act
     D. The Clean Water Act
VI.  CONSERVATION IMPLICATIONS
VII. CONCLUSION: DELIBERATE NONINTERVENTION

I. INTRODUCTION

Federally designated wilderness areas provide substantial benefits to society, including beauty, quiet, and peaceful sanctuary. Unparalleled opportunities for low-impact, personally challenging recreational opportunities are found in wilderness areas as well. The ecological benefits and services provided by wilderness areas are at least equally compelling: watershed protection, high quality habitat, migration corridors for climate-threatened species, and carbon sequestration by intact vegetation and soils, just to name a few.

Although preserving wilderness areas has served the nation well in the past, it is not clear that preservation will continue to be an appropriate conservation strategy in the face of rapid and dramatic changes in climate. Scientists and policy makers are beginning to embrace more adaptive land management approaches in hopes of promoting sustainable local, regional, and global responses to a range of potential climate scenarios. (1) In some places, adaptation plans will include active intervention to foster transitions to more resilient watersheds and ecological communities. Meanwhile, the pressure to develop water resources within and near wilderness areas and to exploit the timber, forage, game species, fish, and other virtually untapped components of wilderness will become more acute as the nation searches for viable climate mitigation and adaptation strategies.

For wilderness, climate change raises a compelling question: Does it still make sense to protect wilderness areas from all deliberate forms of human intervention and development? More specifically, what if anything should be done to preserve headwaters, streams, lakes, wetlands, and aquifers within wilderness areas as temperatures, seasons, and other climate-affected characteristics change?

This Article focuses on the continuing relevance of preserving intact wilderness areas and the watersheds and stream flows within them. It concludes that the importance of protecting wilderness and its "community of life" (2) from intervention and development will only increase as the climate changes. Wilderness areas provide large blocks of contiguous habitat and undisturbed migration corridors for climate-threatened species. (3) Wilderness watersheds sustain fish and wildlife populations, provide exceptional recreational opportunities, shield downstream communities from flooding, and supply high quality freshwater for a broad range of human uses. (4) Wilderness areas also provide a baseline where ecological lessons can be learned and used to test more intensive adaptation strategies implemented in other areas. (5) In addition, untrammeled wilderness areas offer a spiritual balm for humans and a respite from the noise-ridden, traffic-laden, fully "wired" urban society.

The Article progresses as follows. Part II explores the origins and purposes of the Wilderness Act, (6) and explains why protecting wildness and preventing deliberate manipulation of wilderness characteristics are not only appropriate but also essential in the twenty-first century. In Part III, climate-related threats to wildness, particularly threats to wilderness waters and water-dependent resources, are addressed. …

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