“The beauty of America’s wilderness has always been central to our character as a Nation. Our untrammeled lands and waters are part of a rich legacy that is carried forward from one generation to the next, reflecting a spirit of conservation deeply rooted in the quintessential American belief that each of us has an equal share in these special places and an equal responsibility to protect them.”
– President Barack Obama, Presidential Proclamation, National Wilderness Month 2015
You may not know it, but if you’re an American citizen, you’re a part owner of more than 109 million acres of protected public lands spanning ecosystems of all kinds, from high alpine forests to expansive deserts to Arctic tundra. We’re talking about officially designated wilderness areas – places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man.” As if these incredible, pristine landscapes aren’t enough to appreciate on their own, you’ll love them even more when you realize how vital they are to wildlife.
Wilderness status is among the highest levels of protection that the federal government can provide to a landscape. Many of the activities that are allowed on other public lands – like logging, mining, drilling and construction – are forbidden in wilderness. For this reason alone, wilderness areas are incredibly valuable to wildlife. As the human footprint continues to extend across the landscape, wilderness areas protect important habitat to conserve fish and wildlife long-term.
Wilderness is also roadless—in fact, that’s a defining characteristic of designated wilderness areas. Roads slice wildlife habitat into pieces. Major highways can cut animals off from one another and hinder migration. Animals that attempt to cross roads can be killed, but even those who don’t are impacted by their presence. Many species, including grizzly bears, avoid the traffic, noise and human presence associated with roads. Wilderness areas are some of the few remaining places in the country where wildlife don’t have to deal with this increasing threat. In fact, with few exceptions, wilderness designation prohibits motorized vehicle use of any kind.
Wilderness areas are also important habitat corridors for wildlife, preserving migratory pathways animals have used for millennia to travel to feeding or breeding grounds. Rocky Mountain elk, for instance, migrate through the Hells Canyon Wilderness of Oregon and Idaho. And Alaskan wilderness areas, like Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley, support one of the last and largest annual migrations of large mammals on the planet as massive herds of caribou travel between their summer and winter range.
Even for those species who spend as much time in the air as on the ground, wilderness areas can be crucial stopover points. The Gulf Islands Wilderness off the Mississippi coast and Cedar Keys Wilderness of northwestern Florida, and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands Wilderness are essential habitat for tens of millions of resident and migratory birds, from pelicans and herons to puffins and emperor geese.
For large predators, like wolves and bears, the remote nature of wilderness areas provides an essential refuge from humans. Conflicts with humans, or sometimes just the presence of these animals near human communities, can often lead to the animal being killed or relocated. For wolves especially, wilderness areas are key. When gray wolves were wiped out everywhere else in the lower 48 states, a small population survived in northeastern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Today, as wolf populations expand, wilderness areas like Frank Church/River of No Return in Idaho, Eagle Cap in Oregon, and Gila in New Mexico have been essential to wolves’ return to the landscape.
Even fish benefit from wilderness areas. While waterways across the country are polluted, degraded, re-routed and dammed, wilderness areas contain relatively untouched rivers, lakes and streams. And because logging is forbidden, these waterways typically remain cool and shaded – a vital condition for cold water fisheries. Colorado’s roadless and wilderness areas, for instance, contain 76 percent of the state’s Greenback cutthroat trout habitat, 58 percent of its habitat for Rio Grande cutthroat trout, and 71 percent of Colorado River cutthroat trout habitat.
National Wilderness Month takes on special importance this year as we consider the myriad of decisions being made on Capitol Hill and across the country that impact our public lands, including future wilderness areas. Scientists have identified millions of acres of wilderness-quality land in the United States that are essential to wildlife, biodiversity, habitat connectivity and resilience to climate change. Defenders and our partners employ this information every day to advocate in Congress, with the administration, and in the field for greater protections for wildlands across the country.