Climate Change and...

Wilderness, Protected Areas and Climate Change

Preparer: David N. Cole, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, Rocky Mountain Research Station

Newer (2012) version of this paper is available here.


A substantial proportion of public land has been designated for protection, most notably as designated wilderness. These lands are set aside to protect valued biological and/or physical attributes, often in a natural state, where they are generalsly free from human development, disturbance, and manipulation. Climate change, particularly to the degree that it is human-caused, threatens the values for which protected areas were designated. It exacerbates other threats to these areas, such as invasive species and habitat fragmentation. Protected areas, particularly wilderness, provide many ecosystem services such as clean air, wildlife, and water. These services are among the values most threatened by climate change. Appropriate stewardship of protected areas, along with monitoring, will be critical to adaptation to change.

Likely Changes

Although many of the specific details of climate change effects in particular places remain uncertain and subject to debate, there is little question that climate is changing. This will affect physical and biological processes and attributes. Although managers will need to identify localized effects, climate change will make stewardship of protected areas more difficult. It fundamentally compromises the degree to which protected areas function as a refuge from the effects of expanding civilization. It also exacerbates other ecological problems such as

  • Amplifying the adverse effects of fragmentation by increasing the need for some species to migrate.
  • Increasing invasions by undesirable species that are better adapted to disturbed areas and climatic shifts.
  • Causing Greater problems with outbreaks of insects and disease.
  • Enhanced risk of catastrophic wildfire, leading to attempted fire suppression, ultimately leading to further exacerbation of fire risk, insect and disease problems, and other attributes of unhealthy forests.

Options for Management—Adapting to Likely Changes

The mere existence of wilderness and protected areas is a critical means of adapting to climate change because their existence reduces the adverse effects of change on ecosystem services and values. Climate change will cause species to move to environments to which they are better adapted. If species are unsuccessful in migrating to a suitable environment, we will see increasing extinction rates and loss of biodiversity. Protected areas provide undisturbed corridors and elevation gradients in an otherwise fragmented landscape for species migration. They also provide valuable genetic reservoirs necessary for restoring a depleted biota. Finally, they provide substantial scientific benefits—places where ecological lessons can be learned and used to develop adaptation strategies across the full spectrum of lands from the urban interface to wilderness. For example, many of the lessons learned about wildland fire use now being applied elsewhere were first learned in wilderness. Similarly, much of our knowledge about past climates—useful in learning how to adapt to change—has come from old trees, wood, and pollen cores that increasingly can only be found in undisturbed wilderness lands. Long-term studies of species distributions—also best studied in wilderness landscapes—will be critical to understanding how species can adapt to change.

Climate change will force a reassessment of the goals and objectives for wilderness and protected area stewardship. In the past, goals have stressed natural conditions—usually considered to be either (1) those that would exist in the absence of humans using modern technology, or (2) those representative of past conditions (within a range of historical variability). But with climate change, it is not feasible or desirable to attempt to maintain conditions in an unaffected or historical state, because "natural" conditions (as traditionally defined) will be "out-of sync," that is, poorly adapted to future climates. We will need further guidance to articulate the wilderness and protected area values we desire to sustain into a future that will be unprecedented and unpredictable. This is needed to help managers make better decisions about where and when to intervene in ecological processes and about the desired outcomes of interventions.

Proper stewardship of wilderness and protected areas is also important if we are to adapt well to climate change. Responses to climate change will be highly variable from place to place, depending on the localized effects of change. Some prominent examples include:

  • Restoration of the natural process of fire in wilderness to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire elevated by past fire suppression practices, the enlarging wildland-urban interface, and accelerated climate change.
  • Given that climate change will adversely affect water quality and quantity, proper stewardship of wilderness watersheds—the source of much of the remaining high-quality water—is critical. To ensure that water quality is not impaired, ongoing uses such as recreation and grazing need to be managed and natural disturbance regimes need to be sustained.
  • Given the challenges species will have in moving in response to climate change, loss of biotic diversity can be minimized by sustaining and/or restoring undisturbed corridors and elevation gradients among and within wildernesses. It is also important to ensure that critical habitat and populations remain undisturbed.

Recommended Reading

Cole, D.N.; Yung, L.; et al. [In press]. Naturalness and beyond: protected area management in an era of regional and global environmental change. The George Wright Forum.

Harris, J.A.; Hobbs, R.J.; Higgs, E.; Aronson, J. 2006. Ecological restoration and global climate change. Restoration Ecology. 14: 170-176.

Saunders, S.; Easley, T.; Logan, J.A.; Spencer, T. 2007. Losing ground: western national parks endangered by climate disruption. The George Wright Forum. 24(1): 41-81.

Williams, J.W.; Jackson, S.T. 2007. Novel climates, no-analog communities, and ecological surprises. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 5: 475-482.

Willis, K.J.; Birks, H.J.B. 2006. What is natural? The need for a long-term perspective in biodiversity conservation. Science. 314: 1261-1265.

Recommended Citation

Cole, David N. 2008. Wilderness, Protected Areas and Climate Change. (May 20, 2008). U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Climate Change Resource Center.

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