Threats to wilderness ecosystems: impacts and research needs

Author(s): Cole DN, Landres PB


One of the primary purposes of designated wilderness areas is protection of natural ecosystems. However, the ecological integrity of these most protected of public lands is threatened by direct and indirect effects of human activities both internal and external to wilderness. Accelerated research programs on threats to wilderness are needed to realize the purposes for which wilderness was established and to improve our understanding of natural ecosystems. This paper reviews current knowledge and critical research needs for some of the most significant threats to wilderness ecosystems: (1) recreational use and its management; (2) livestock grazing and its management; (3) fire management; (4) introduction of alien species; (5) diversion and impoundment of water; (6) emission of atmospheric pollutants; and (7) management of adjacent lands. Some of these threats cause highly disruptive localized impacts, whereas some have a more widespread effect. Other threats are highly significant because they threaten rare or irreplaceable ecological attributes. Ecological science needs to be applied to improve evaluations of wilderness conditions, improve efforts to protect wilderness ecosystems from further degradation, and improve efforts to restore the integrity of disturbed systems.

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