The Wilderness Act of 1964 mandates that Congressionally designated wilderness areas be managed to provide for “the preservation of their wilderness character.” Before such character can be preserved, it must be defined and its current status must be gauged.

That is where the National Wildlife Refuge System’s wilderness character monitoring program comes in.

Since 2011, wilderness character baseline assessments have been conducted on 50 of the 63 national wildlife refuges that have at least one wilderness area. The rest are to be done in 2014.

“If we don’t know if, or how, wilderness character is changing, then we can’t apply adaptive management techniques and strategic habitat conservation to ensure its preservation,” says Refuge System wilderness coordinator Nancy Roeper. “With baseline assessments in hand, managers can now monitor wilderness character over time and make better decisions.”

Refuge System wilderness fellows—recent college graduates or graduate students—have done the bulk of the wilderness character assessment work. In recent years, 20 wilderness fellows have been funded by the Refuge System Natural Resource Program Center in cooperation with the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute, the Student Conservation Association and American Conservation Experience.

One fellow, Molly McCarter, helped conduct assessments in wilderness areas at 11 refuges: Imperial and Cabeza Prieta in Arizona; Great White Heron, Key West, National Key Deer, St. Marks, Pelican Island, J.N. “Ding” Darling and Island Bay in Florida; Bosque del Apache in New Mexico; and Hawaiian Islands.

“Working in remote wilderness areas teaches you about yourself,” McCarter says. “It inspires independence, creativity and reflection.” It also provides the Refuge System with a benchmark.

Echoing Wilderness Act language, a baseline assessment evaluates five qualities of a given wilderness:

  • Natural. Is it free from the effects of modern civilization?

  • Undeveloped. Is it without permanent improvement or human habitation?

  • Untrammeled. Is it free from the actions of modern human control or manipulation?

  • Solitude or primitive or unconfined recreation. Does it have outstanding opportunities for same?

  • Other features. Does it have other ecological, geological or other features of scientific, educational, scenic or historical value?

Then, using comparative data already collected by the refuge for other purposes or data that can be collected easily in the future, wilderness fellows and/or refuge staff identify prioritized measures that best represent the refuge’s wilderness character. When the wilderness character is assessed again in a few years, managers can determine which way—better, worse or stable—those five qualities are trending.

The process is relatively simple, McCarter said, and it provides on–the ground information to assess trends and make defensible decisions; it provides regional and national information to evaluate policy effectiveness; it helps managers understand consequences of decisions and actions in wilderness; it provides solid information for planning; and it synthesizes data into a single, holistic assessment.

“If we want to ensure that there continue to be wild, untamed lands and waters that are not subject to the resource management priorities of the hour,” says Roeper, “then we need the information that the baseline assessments provide to make decisions on a local and national scale that will prevent degradation of these special areas.”

Wilderness fellow Nyssa Landres takes a more philosophical view. She recognizes that designated wilderness embodies both tangible and intangible aspects of land conservation. The tangible is the biological integrity of the habitat untrammeled by humans. The intangible is the “feeling of freedom, of self–reliance, of being one with nature away from civilization,” she says. “The [baseline] assessment gets only at the tangible, but it creates the opportunity for the intangible to exist.”