The Appalachian Voice

The Conception of Wild Ideas: Scientists Confront Conservation Challenges of Our Times

This essay by Travis Belote, Greg Aplet, and Pete McKinley ran abridged in the print version of The Appalachian Voice.


1934 was a big year for conservation in the southern Appalachians. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in June, and in October, on a roadside somewhere outside of Knoxville, The Wilderness Society was born.

The story of The Wilderness Society’s conception has been told different ways, but all versions involve a heated roadside discussion centered on the novel idea of protecting wild places from the growing threat of “recreational motoring” and its associated roads.

In Bernard and Miriam Frank’s car on that October Friday were Benton MacKaye (father of the Appalachian Trail), Harvey Broome (notable Tennessee author and conservationist), and Bob Marshall (namesake for a million acre wilderness area in Montana). This group of five was simmering on a provocative, and at that time new, idea: that some places should be left to their own devices where people could experience nature on its own terms. Setting aside large tracts of land as untrammeled wilderness provided the best way to protect nature’s wildness.

That historic day marked the beginning of The Wilderness Society, the organization most closely associated with the Wilderness Act, establishing a National Wilderness Preservation System that now contains over 100 million acres. These wilderness areas provide the core of a network of wildlands aimed at protecting nature and passing it on to future generations. As conservation science has developed, wilderness designation has repeatedly been shown to effectively protect wildlife and their habitats, clean water, and refuges from many pernicious threats.

Recently, however, a host of threats including climate change, pervasive invasive species, and atmospheric pollution have been shown to transcend wilderness boundaries and now threaten the species and processes we value from nature. Some have even begun to question the appropriateness of wilderness in such a profoundly altered world.

Last fall, 77 years after The Wilderness Society was conceived, TWS research ecologists met in the Smokies to take on a new provocative idea: how do we ensure that future generations will have opportunities to experience nature under increasing pressures from climate change and other threats unknown to our founders?

We came from all over the country (from Alaska to Maine) and convened in Tennessee, not because our organization was conceived there, but because the region hosts special landscapes that exemplify the conservation challenges of our time. Southern Appalachian wildlands support a rich array of biological diversity jeopardized by existing and future threats, where boundaries of a national park or wilderness area may not be enough to protect the wildness within. At the core of our work are the values of our founders, but we have come to understand that sustaining those values will require new thinking.

The challenge before us now is that wilderness conservation inherently values nature operating without human control – “untrammeled by man” in the words of the Wilderness Act – but increasingly, many of the things that we value in wilderness are under threat from external forces that bring human impacts well inside the boundary lines of wilderness and other protective reserves drawn on maps.

What do we do if protecting nature – or at least nature’s parts – requires intervening to fend off the effects of climate change, invasive species, and pollution? Do we value “untrammeled” nature more than we value the diversity of native species and the processes they maintain? Will human-caused climate change impacts be more destructive than management interventions undertaken to assist the maintenance of nature’s parts and processes? Do we have to let go of the ideal of wilderness and pursue the control of nature everywhere? Do we have to make a choice?

The Wilderness Society’s ecologists went to the Smokies to explore these questions and seek understanding of the role of wilderness in the 21st century. There, pervasive stressors and their impacts are well-known and include loss of American chestnut as a foundational species from the invasion of a nonnative blight. Other examples of invasive species in the Smokies abound: European wild hogs impact soils and streams; numerous exotic plants compete with natives and alter ecological characteristics; and eastern hemlocks are being lost to the hemlock woolly adelgid (a small sap sucking aphid).

In the high elevation forests of the southern Appalachians, red spruce and Fraser fir face pervasive stressors that have been taking their toll the past couple of decades. Invasive balsam woolly adelgids have killed many of the large Fraser firs. Acid deposition has altered the soil chemistry, creating a toxic environment for red spruce. And, given that species in this forest type can’t move upslope (they already occur at the crest of the Smokies), climate change may increasingly contribute to the cumulative stress on this system. Ultimately, climate change may be the last straw leading to local loss of these species.

Intervening in nature to remove existing stress to these forests may be the best defense to prepare the species for future changes in climate. In such a case, an argument can be made that ‘trammeling’ in the form of restoration is needed to head off greater and longer term threats to wilderness coming from the pervasive, and mostly unknown, impacts of human-caused climate change. The National Park Service already actively controls invasive plant and animal species in GSMNP. Most agree that that investment in this kind of punctuated, defensive action is warranted to sustain the park’s native ecosystems.

But, what about situations where continuous pressure like climate change threatens the ecological integrity of wilderness? If we allow nature to respond to changes in climate without intervening, we would maintain the untrammeled nature of wilderness and its role as a barometer against which to judge management elsewhere, but a hand’s off approach may in some cases jeopardize the very species and populations we hope to preserve. How resilient will nature be in the face of climate change? The answer is uncertain, but in cases where the threat of climate change-induced extinction seems likely, how should we respond?

By our analysis, no single approach is capable of addressing all concerns. Instead, a diversity of approaches is necessary. While in the Smokies, TWS ecologists concluded that the soundest course to the future will require a “portfolio approach” in which some parts of the landscape are devoted to forestalling change through the process of ecological restoration, some parts are devoted to innovative management that anticipates climate change and prepares for it, and other parts are left to change on their own time – on wilderness time – to serve as scientific “controls” and continue to provide the benefits of wilderness.

An important aspect that should guide how we respond to environmental change emerged from our discussions on the trails and around campfires in East Tennessee last fall. Bad decisions of the past, conducted with good intentions, have led to some natural resource disasters (think planting kudzu to control soil erosion). Whatever we do and however we respond, a Hippocratic Oath to land management and conservation should be considered: first, do no harm.

Despite 77 years of separation in time, the ecologists at The Wilderness Society went to the Smokies to discuss provocative and new ideas of our generation. The storied history of our organization’s conception during a heated debate of once and still profound ideas gave rise to our own impassioned conversations.

At their core, our values and those of the founders remain the same: we hope to convey into the future that which we inherited from the past. New approaches are needed and The Wilderness Society scientists are on the front lines of applying the latest science to these challenges. Future generations will live in a different world, just as we live in a different world from 1934.

However, preserving wildlands and the biodiversity therein, offers a chance that our grandchildren may live in a rich, productive, interesting, and beautiful world. Our thinking and approaches to conservation will evolve, but our commitment to preserving wildlands has changed little since that October day in 1934.

Posted: February 13, 2013

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