Ecological Benefits of WildernessA wilderness area-like any other place on the planet-doesn't exist in isolation. Through both small- and large-scale processes of rock, soil, water, air, and biomass, remote wildlands are inextricably linked to regions near and far. As the adventurous Scottish-American naturalist John Muir once said, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Whether it's pristine air and water vital to humankind or age-old rhythms of the animal and plant world, the ecological dimensions of wilderness are enormously valuable.
One of the most profound expressions of wilderness as "self-willed land" is ecological disturbance. Disturbances such as wildfires and windstorms are important sculptors of landscape and ecosystem the world over, but are often considered problematic and undesirable by humankind. Even as land managers learn to "reintroduce" fire (often in the form of prescribed burns) to ecosystems that evolved under its influence, large conflagrations must be managed in human-dominated landscapes to preserve life and property. Big wilderness offers a home of sorts to wildfire and other dramatic landscape-sculpting forces, which, in turn, ensures the perpetuity of fire-dependent and certain successional organisms and communities.
Visibility can be monitored using optical equipment. Stations like this one monitor for the presence of haze, fine particulate matter in the air, and plume blight, pollution from a point source, such as a smoke stack, that emits particulate matter or nitrogen dioxide into a stable atmosphere. Historical and real-time images are available online for some monitoring stations.
To ensure preservation of air quality, the wilderness management agencies monitor pollution that may impair visibility, harm human health, injure trees and other plants, acidify or cause unnatural chemical imbalances in streams and lakes, leach nutrients from soils, and degrade cultural resources, like archeological sites and historical buildings. Since most pollutants can be travel great distances overall air quality is monitored by monitoring visibility, rainwater and surface waters, and lichens.
Some wilderness areas were designated in order to preserve healthy watersheds. The Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness Act of 1980, which designated the Rattlesnake Wilderness just outside Missoula, Montana, states that the "area has long been used as a wilderness by Montanans and by people throughout the Nation who value it as a source of...clean, free-flowing waters stored and used for municipal purposes for over a century." Likewise, in the Endangered American Wilderness Act, which designated a variety of western wildernesses, "Congress finds and declares that it is in the national interest that certain of these endangered areas be promptly designated as wilderness...in order to preserve such areas...for watershed preservation."
The Hells Canyon Wilderness, for example, encompasses critical migration corridors for Rocky Mountain elk, which travel between high-elevation summer range and sheltered inner-gorge wintering grounds. One of the world's last great large-mammal migrations occurs in Alaska, where wilderness areas such as the Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley frame the seasonal travels of huge caribou herds.
Wilderness constitutes outstanding refuge for birds as well, both migrant and resident. Migrating neotropical songbirds shore up their strength in the seaside thickets of the Gulf Islands Wilderness off the Mississippi coast before making their open-water crossing to Central and South America. The Cedar Keys Wilderness of northwestern Florida supports huge rookeries of colonial sea- and wading birds such as brown pelicans, night herons and great egrets, and also provides nesting habitat for ospreys and bald eagles. Better than 10 million seabirds nest in Alaska's Aleutian Islands Wilderness, which also offers wintering range for half the global population of emperor geese.
Wilderness can also provide critical refuge for large carnivores, among the creatures that historically have been most difficult for humans to reside with in close quarters and yet are essential for the healthy function of many ecosystems. Gray wolves survived in northeastern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness after they'd been eliminated virtually everywhere else in the lower 48 states in the mid-20th century. Through both natural dispersal and reintroduction, wolves have expanded from that redoubt, but wilderness from the Upper Midwest to the North Cascades continues to serve as foundational habitat for the species. Wilderness areas in the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest are also critical habitat for grizzly bears and wolverines, two remarkably wide-ranging carnivores that rely on large, roadless expanses.
Wilderness also protects cold-water fisheries. In Colorado, for example, 76% of Greenback cutthroat-trout habitat, 58% of Rio Grande cutthroat-trout habitat, and 71% of Colorado River cutthroat-trout habitat is wilderness or roadless. By preserving habitat for such a variety of creatures, wilderness allows for the innate cycling of birth, life, and death for thousands of species in their natural environments and helps maintain the genetic material needed to provide a continuing diversity of plant and animal life. Without wildlife to pollinate, fertilize, and distribute seeds and nutrients, wilderness wouldn't exist. The continuing presence of our fellow organisms in wilderness reminds us of the connections all living things share, and that we're all part of the biosphere's grand web.