Wilderness Stewardship: Protecting Wilderness Character

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More than one third of Arctic Refuge was officially designated as wilderness in 1980.

The Wilderness Act, signed into law in 1964, was Congress’s response to the realization that the wild spaces of the United States, which once seemed endless, were in jeopardy because of development and industrialization. The Wilderness Act states that “... each agency administering any area designated as wilderness shall be responsible for preserving the wilderness character of the area …” But what does Wilderness Character mean?

The Wilderness Act doesn’t say, but it does mention 5 important wilderness qualities. On Arctic Refuge, each of these qualities is monitored in various ways on a regular basis to assess the state of Refuge wilderness, to identify trends in the quality of our wilderness over time, and to decide what management actions need to be taken if conditions degrade.

Five Qualities of Wilderness Character

1) One of the qualities of Wilderness Character is how NATURAL the wilderness area remains. Managers look to see if “plant and animal species and communities” or “biophysical processes” have changed.

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[brown bear in the Refuge]

2) Another quality of Wilderness Character is how UNTRAMMELED the wilderness remains. Untrammeled means “not restricted.” In order to keep Arctic Refuge untrammeled we try to keep wilderness free from modern human manipulation. Examples of undesirable manipulations include putting out wildland fires or introducing non-native species.

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[fireweed after a fire]

3) One of the qualities of Wilderness Character is how UNDEVELOPED the wilderness remains. We assess whether wilderness lands retain their primitive character, without permanent structures or modern human occupation. For example, a foot bridge would be a permanent structure reducing the undeveloped aspect of wilderness.

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[river crossing]

4) Another quality of Wilderness Character is whether opportunities for SOLITUDE and PRIMITIVE AND UNCONFINED RECREATION remain in the wilderness area. One way we monitor this is by assessing visitors’ abilities to be remote from the sights and sounds of other people.

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[camping in Arctic Refuge]

5) The fifth quality of Wilderness Character is OTHER FEATURES OF VALUE, which include scientific, educational, scenic and historic values. These can relate to cultural or historic sites, or opportunities for student or scientific study.

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[remains of ancient house in Arctic Refuge]

Monitoring the Qualities of Wilderness Character

Some of the ways Wilderness Character Monitoring improves on-the-ground stewardship include:

• it provides information to assess trends and make defensible decisions

• it allows managers to understand the consequences of decisions and actions in wilderness

• it evaluates and documents the effects of actions taken inside the wilderness and the effects from threats outside the wilderness

The Wilderness Character Monitoring Plan for Arctic Refuge identifies the types of data that will be collected periodically to monitor Wilderness Character. This information will help managers understand the state of Wilderness Character in the Refuge. By participating in this interagency action, we will also add Arctic Refuge statistics to the national effort to determine a comprehensive and consistent representation of wilderness status throughout all designated wilderness lands in the United States.

2014 is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.
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