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Wilderness Character and the Farallon Islands

Aerial of Farallon NWRThis story by Nyssa Landres was originally published in the Winter 2013/2014 issue of Tideline, the quarterly newsletter of the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Wilderness Logo Editor’s Note:  The Wilderness Act celebrates its 50th anniversary in September 3, 2014.  Moreover, 2014 also marks the 40th anniversary of Farallon National Wildlife Refuge being designated as wilderness.  Leading up to this historic event, Tideline will feature stories about these monumental milestones and how it has shaped conservation.   

Rocky islands rising vertically out of the ocean do not usually come to mind when we think of wilderness. Yet, the Farallon Islands are congressionally designated as “wilderness,” giving the islands the highest level of protection from human impacts and effects of modern civilization. The entire Farallon National Wildlife Refuge, with the exception of Southeast Farallon Island, is designated wilderness.

Not all wild places are designated wilderness areas.  As wilderness, the Farallon Islands have a unique “wilderness character.” In fact, all wilderness areas have a “wilderness character” that is unique to each place. In managing wilderness, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must preserve this character. But what is wilderness character and what does it mean for the Farallon Islands? 

Wilderness character is a set of tangible measures that make a place unique and special; in many ways, wilderness character is like the personality of a place. Examples of wilderness character include the plants and animals that live there, the opportunities for solitude, the lack of development, human impacts, and physical resources such as air quality. 

As a Wilderness Fellow, I was tasked with defining the wilderness character of the Farallon Islands and establishing a monitoring plan for the future. I spent three months immersing myself in the refuge, discovering and identifying the physical qualities that caused Congress to designate the islands as wilderness. For the Farallon Islands, wilderness character is the wildlife, with the islands’ thriving seabird, seal, and sea lion populations whose cacophony echoes around the islands 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is no doubt that the ecosystems of the Farallon Islands are intact and thriving with Common Murres, Brandt’s Cormorants, Northern fur seals, and Steller sea lions. 

Another aspect of the Farallons’ wilderness character is the lack of development and human presence on the islands. Wilderness areas are places “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain” (as defined by the Wilderness Act), which fits the islands perfectly. Even refuge and Point Blue Conservation Science (formerly PRBO Conservation Science) staff only visit one wilderness island, West End Island, a few times per year. Wilderness areas are also places “affected primarily by the forces of nature” and “without permanent improvement or human habitation.” Again, the Farallon Wilderness has no permanent improvements and the islands are completely shaped by nature. The islands are literally untouched by human influence, and any previous impacts have been completely reclaimed by the islands. 

My Fellowship at the Farallon Islands is part of national program to define the wilderness character of wilderness areas managed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. After this year, only three refuges remain to complete their wilderness character baseline assessment and monitoring plan. 

It’s been an incredible journey to be a part of and working with the Farallon Islands.  It has been an amazing experience. Helping land managers understand and monitor the islands within the frame of wilderness will help preserve the unique character of the Farallon Wilderness. This way, the Farallon Wilderness can continue to be a haven for the seabirds and seals that depend on them and be preserved as iconic islands for their unique wilderness character. 

Page Photo Credits — Aerial of Farallon NWR/Jesse Irwin
Last Updated: Mar 30, 2014
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