Law, College of


Date of this Version



Published in Social-ecological resilience and law, ed. Ahjond S. Garmestani and Craig R. Allen (Columbia University Press, 2014).


This chapter explores the continuing relevance of preserving wilderness by preventing active human intervention. It concludes that the symbolic and ecological benefits of wilderness are as significant today as they were fifty years ago. Indeed, the importance of preserving wilderness areas will only increase as the climate changes. Land managers face complex challenges, however, when they are managing wilderness resources that are already degraded due to climate change or other human impacts and that may require intervention to prevent further degradation. Deciding whether and how to intervene with active management tools while maintaining the overarching “wild” values of wilderness is a difficult but perhaps not impossible task. It’s a fair bet, though, that historic characteristics and variability can no longer be the primary reference points for decisionmaking, and that strategic approaches to monitoring and managing existing, expanded, and new preserves will be necessary. (Craig 2010) We propose three threshold inquiries to be answered in the affirmative before a wilderness restoration project is undertaken. First, is there sufficient understanding about reference conditions and processes, as well as the long term effects of restoration actions? Second, is restoration even possible in a particular wilderness area, given the pervasiveness of ecological change? Finally, can humans extricate themselves within some discrete period of time and let the ecological processes indicative of pre-degraded characteristics resume functioning? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then it may be acceptable to prioritize the need of the natural system for active restoration-oriented interventions over society’s need to keep wilderness areas wild and untrammeled.