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Wilderness character monitoring and mapping

Date: April 21, 2015


The four agencies that manage wilderness are required by law to preserve wilderness character in all areas designated as wilderness. In 2008, the interagency "Keeping It Wild" wilderness character monitoring strategy was published and the four wilderness managing agencies quickly embraced it. It established a scientifically sound and rigorous approach to developing comprehensive baseline data on the unique characteristics of each wilderness. An Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute (ALWRI) scientist, Peter Landres, was instrumental in developing this and prior publications on wilderness character with wilderness managers from all four agencies. He has been the key link among the four agencies to solve conceptual challenges that have been raised and ensure consistent application across the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). To date, the agencies have accomplished wilderness character baseline assessments across 22 percent of the wilderness units in the NWPS (Bureau of Land Management [BLM] = 88 of their 221 wilderness units, Forest Service [FS] = 7 of 439 units, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [FWS] = 63 of 71 units, and National Park Service [NPS] = 8 of 60 units).

Mapping Wilderness Character

Since most wilderness monitoring is not spatially explicit, managers do not always know what is happening where. To address this issue, the ALWRI has spent the past three years investigating methods to map wilderness character and provide, for the first time, a spatially explicit understanding of the various components of wilderness character in each wilderness. Funding from the NPS Park Planning and Special Projects office has allowed us to test this mapping approach at a number of NPS wildernesses, with the long term aim of developing a standardized and robust toolset that can be used replicate this work at any wilderness in the NWPS. Initial funding allowed us to develop a comprehensive and robust mapping strategy. We fully completed the maps and reports for Death Valley and Olympic National Parks, and we have completed the maps for Denali National Park and Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks.

Completing this project will allow wilderness character maps to provide the following benefits and uses:

  • Improve wilderness planning and supplement the development of new wilderness stewardship plans. The recent implementation of the Death Valley Wilderness and Backcountry Stewardship Plan, which utilized wilderness character maps, received the following praise from the National Parks Conservation Association: “The plan is unique in that the park has implemented a process for assessing, monitoring, and seeking to protect or improve wilderness character. This is the first plan I have seen that actively measures wilderness character and seeks to improve it – the results were well worth the wait.”  Wilderness character maps are also being used by Olympic National Park and SEKI to inform the development of their new wilderness stewardship plans.

  • Show the current overall condition of wilderness character and how it varies across a wilderness.

  • Provide a measurement baseline from which future monitoring can show spatial trends and changes in a wilderness character over time.

  • Allow the four agencies managing wilderness to analyze the potential impacts of different management actions on wilderness character.

  • Identify areas within a wilderness where resource managers should make an effort to control or mitigate impacts. These efforts may include monitoring conditions, establishing thresholds, or taking direct action.

  • Improve internal staff communication about wilderness and wilderness character, and improve external communication between the park and the public on wilderness planning, and management to preserve wilderness character.

How We Get the Work Done

In 2010 the Wilderness Fellows Program began when the NPS provided funds for the Student Conservation Association to hire six recent college graduates who lived at parks and within three months completed a set of products that directly contributed to park planning efforts. From 2011 through 2013, the FWS has provided $500,000 for 36 Fellows, the FS funded three Fellows, and the NPS Intermountain Region funded four Fellows. By the end of FY2014, the FWS will have completed baseline wilderness character assessments for all its 71 wilderness units. Fellows are provided interagency training coordinated by the ALWRI, and funding is provided for a stipend and travel through a partnership with American Conservation Experience. Wilderness Fellows have undergraduate or graduate degrees; are bright, motivated, and keenly interested in careers in federal land management; and are the top of their class (in 2013, there were 120 applicants for eight positions allowing us to choose extraordinarily well-qualified people).

What our colleagues say about working with Wilderness Fellows:

  • The Wilderness Fellow “did an outstanding job working with park staff to produce a professional report that will be of long term value to Saguaro’s wilderness management.” --Darla Sidles, Saguaro National Park

  • The Wilderness Fellow “was elemental in moving Olympic forward in wilderness stewardship planning.” --Ruth Scott, Olympic National Park

  • The Wilderness Fellow “provided the foundation for integrating wilderness character in Glacier National Park.”  --Kyle Johnson, Glacier National Park

group photo
Students from the Wilderness Fellows program.

National Strategic Program Areas: 
Inventory and Monitoring
RMRS Science Program Areas: 
Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute
RMRS Strategic Priorities: 
Inventory & Monitoring
wilderness character
Principal Investigators: 
Forest Service Partners: 
James Tricker, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute
External Partners: 
Bureau of Land Management
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
National Park Service