The Wilderness Act and Climate Change Adaptation

By Long, Elisabeth; Biber, Eric | Environmental Law, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

The Wilderness Act and Climate Change Adaptation


Long, Elisabeth, Biber, Eric, Environmental Law


C. Restraint

Restraint means "selecting certain areas in which no interventions will occur," or more simply: "leav[ing] some places alone." (273) Many legal scholars have argued that the restrictive constraints of the Wilderness Act are beneficial because the most appropriate management choice for wilderness areas is a hands-off, passive management regime. (274) Likewise, some ecologists argue that in the "rare cases when managers might have the ability to affect every part of a wilderness landscape, strong consideration should be given to restraint." (275)

1. Passive Management in Wilderness Areas Allows for Adaptation.

One argument for restraint is that purely passive management in wilderness areas will assist with adaptation to climate change. For instance, roadless areas, including wilderness areas, benefit watershed health. (276) Road construction damages water quality by increasing sedimentation, and existing roads concentrate and reroute water flow during times of precipitation, thereby affecting subsurface water availability by decreasing the amount of porous land available for water absorption. (277) Improved watershed health, in turn, benefits fish species. (278) As climate change affects water temperature and dissolved oxygen levels, fish populations will increasingly depend on high-quality habitat in wilderness areas. (279) Indeed, Colorado's native cutthroat trout already heavily rely on intact habitat in roadless areas for survival. (280)

Passive management in wilderness areas may also be an important tool to protect biodiversity in a changing climate. Wilderness areas provide habitat for threatened and endangered plant and animal species. (281) They will become increasingly important as species migrations and extinctions associated with climate change increase. (282) A 2009 review of recommendations for biodiversity management in the face of climate change found that the most frequent recommendation for climate change adaptation of the surveyed scientific literature is to improve landscape connectivity to facilitate species migration. (283) This goal could be achieved by acquiring new protected lands adjacent to wilderness areas to serve as migration corridors that facilitate species movement spurred by climate change. Managers could also work across wilderness boundaries to designate migration corridors that cover a range of elevations and land designations and ownerships. One example of lands that may be suitable for management as migration corridors are Inventoried Roadless Areas (IRAs) on Forest Service lands, which are frequently located next to wilderness areas. (284) IRAs comprise more low- and mid-elevation habitat than wilderness areas and therefore may provide connected habitat over a wide elevation range. (285)

More generally, one of the best strategies to allow biodiversity to adapt to a changing climate is to simply protect more habitat from human intervention. Authors in the climate change adaptation literature

encourage managers to increase the number of reserves across the landscape; improve interagency and regional coordination; protect larger areas and reserve size; create and manage buffer zones around reserves; and capture landscape and bioclimatic diversity in protected areas. (286) Likewise, researchers discuss the possibility of responding to climate change by identifying, acquiring, and protecting refugia, defined as environments that are "more buffered against climate change and short-term disturbances." (287) One study suggests that if refugia can be identified, "they could be considered sites for long-term retention of plants or for establishment of new forests." (288) Similarly, many studies recommend protecting areas projected to be future "hotspots for biodiversity" in order to provide habitat for species of high conservation value. (289) Wilderness without active management already provides vital reserves from human intervention that help achieve these goals. …

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