The Importance of Wilderness

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Wilderness Awards 2009
Washington, DC
— October 7, 2009

Thanks, Joel. It is a privilege to be part of this ceremony honoring the 2009 recipients of the National Wilderness Stewardship Awards.

Wilderness has always meant something special to me, as it does for everyone here. Wilderness is central to the American experience, and I am proud to be part of an agency that not only helped to initiate the wilderness idea, but that carries on so much of our wilderness legacy. The Forest Service manages about a third of America’s National Wilderness Preservation System—and about 60 percent in the Lower 48. We have a major role to play in protecting our wilderness heritage for generations to come.

So I have closely watched as we have worked with partners at all levels of the agency in furthering the stewardship of our wilderness resource. The kind of caring and skill and dedication we see—the qualities that we honor here today—have been truly inspirational for me. Your work helps to energize all of us in our own daily work, no matter how far we are from a wilderness area.

The challenges ahead are daunting. We are now at the halfway mark of the 10-Year Wilderness Stewardship Challenge. In 2004, on the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, we challenged ourselves in the Forest Service to bring each wilderness area up to a minimum management standard. We have 5 years to go, and we are less than halfway there.

I want to reaffirm my support for the 10-Year Challenge. Let’s meet the Challenge in 2014, on the 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act. To accomplish that, our wilderness managers will need to accelerate their efforts, and that will take conscious prioritization and integrated program efforts. We are looking for ways to surge ahead together with our partners. I want to acknowledge the support that the National Forest Foundation and REI, Inc., have provided through grants to fund projects for meeting the 10-Year Challenge.

Our priorities at the Forest Service include restoring forested landscapes, and wilderness can play a vital role, especially in an era of climate change. Wilderness comprises large unspoiled blocks of land that will be critical in helping natural systems adapt. These lands will serve as refugia for species stressed by rapid change … as nodes and connectors in the large landscape mosaics we need to facilitate adaptation … and as baselines and reference points for our researchers in trying to understand the effects and extent of climate change. In an era of climate change, sound wilderness stewardship will become more important than ever.

Not least, wilderness will remain vital for ensuring America’s water supplies. Wilderness lands have the highest capacity for water storage and filtration. The rushing cascades and pristine meadows typical of wilderness areas contribute a disproportionate share of America’s water. Wilderness makes up only 2.5 percent of the U.S. land area but contributes 5 percent of our freshwater. Sound wilderness stewardship will help maximize the quantity and quality of our water supplies, even in an era of climate change.

Nevertheless, climate change will force a reassessment of wilderness stewardship goals and objectives. The Wilderness Act gives us guidance, but it is almost half a century old. Times have changed, landscapes are changing, and even more changes lie ahead.

In an era of climate change, what does “untrammeled by man” still mean? What does “natural” mean? What does it mean to preserve an area in perpetuity? We will need to reexamine such basic concepts and show flexibility in approaching our wilderness responsibilities. We will need to articulate the wilderness values that will direct us in the future—a future of unpredictability, except for one certainty: The future will be unlike anything in the past.

Yet wilderness helps define who we are as Americans, and it will continue to play a vital role far into the future. Sound wilderness stewardship will remain central to our mission of caring for the land and serving people. You here, working collectively and collaboratively through partnerships, are leading the way, and our nation owes you a debt of gratitude.

For all you have done, for all you will do, I salute you. I thank you, and now let’s get to the specifics of each individual award. Congratulations to all of you!