Threatened Wilderness

Many of the issues and threats to our public lands come from those who would seek to develop our wild places, rather than save it for our children.

These threats range from unchecked development to drilling in wild and natural places.

Development on public lands

Developers already have access to more than 75 percent of our national forests and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. But some developers, and some in Congress, want even more access to our nation’s wildest places.

While there is a place for development on some public land, The Wilderness Society believes that there are some places that are too wild to be developed, and must be protected for our children and grandchildren.

We are working for a balanced approach to our nation’s public lands. Today, less than a quarter of our public lands have some kind of wilderness protection, and The Wilderness Society is dedicated to fighting development in places where important wild places are threatened.

Our last wild places do so much for the environment, for wildlife and for the communities around them that get clean water and jobs from our growing recreation economy. It’s our mission to protect them from unchecked development that would destroy them forever.

Drilling and other energy development

Our public lands are a major source of energy for our country. Millions of acres of public land provide energy like oil, natural gas and renewable energy for the American people.

While energy development is, and always has been, a use of our public lands, there are some places that are too wild to drill, and must be protected. The Wilderness Society is working to have a balanced approach to energy development on public land, so that the most important wild places in our nation remain untouched by energy development.

The oil industry, for example, has access to most of our public land. The industry leases tens of millions of acres of public land where they can look for oil, and thousands of permits to drill on our public lands. Drilling on public land can have a serious impact on the land and the surrounding environment, including pollution and a negative effect on wildlife.

Losing the wilderness: a 10th has gone since 1992 – and gone for good

A new study warns if the degradation rate continues, all wilderness areas will be at risk over the next 50 years

The world’s last great wildernesses are shrinking at an alarming rate. In the past two decades, 10% of the earth’s wilderness has been lost due to human pressure, a mapping study by the University of Queensland has found.

Over the course of human history, there has been a major degradation of 52% of the earth’s ecosystems, while the remaining 48% is being increasingly eroded. Since 1992, when the United Nations signed up to the Rio convention on biological diversity, three million square kilometres of wilderness have been lost.

According to the UQ professor and director of science at the Wildlife Conservation Society James Watson, senior author on the study, “If this rate continues, we will have lost all wilderness within the next 50 years.”

This wilderness degradation is endangering biodiversity, as well as the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle and pollination. And, says Watson, once they have been damaged or cleared, the wildernesses are gone for good; there is no scientific evidence that degraded eco-systems could ever return to their original condition.

These pristine wild places exist in inhospitable locations: the deserts of Central Australia; the Amazon rainforest in South America; Africa; the Tibetan plateau in central Asia; and the boreal forests of Canada and Russia.

They are being encroached on by logging, oil and gas exploration, mining, roads and agriculture. “It is death by a thousand cuts” says PhD student James Allan, who also worked on the study. “The moment you put a road in, you get people moving in to farm, hunt, and [that] undermines the wilderness. The risk is that a lot of these systems could collapse. The Amazon is the best example of where you need the whole forest, or a huge portion of the forest, protected for the hydrological cycle to function.” One third of the Amazon wilderness region has been lost since 1992.

Watson agrees: “What we are showing is that the degradation of intact ecosystems affects the ability around cloud formation, so it means that literally the ability to create rain is affected. [And]we are seeing the dramatic impacts on water, in terms of the water flow in rivers.”

Loss of wilderness will affect the migratory species who depend on large intact wilderness areas, and the large carnivores – charismatic megafauna such as lions, who can’t live in a human landscape when their habitat disappears.

The UQ study found that conservation efforts are being rapidly outpaced by the acceleration of the decline, thanks to massive global population growth and the associated economic growth that demands ever-increasing natural resources.

The problem is profound. “Intact functioning ecosystems” says Watson, “are critical not only for biodiversity but for the huge amounts of carbon they store and sequester. They provide a direct defence against climate-related hazards like storms, floods, fires and cyclones. They are the most resilient and effective defence against ongoing climate change.”

And yet only 20% of the earth’s surface now survives as wilderness. “Within a century it could all be gone,” says Watson, “and with it, uninfluenced evolution and natural carbon storage. When we started seeing the numbers, we had to double-check them because they were so large in terms of the loss.”

Loss of wilderness also affects Indigenous communities . “You have got people living in the Amazon, Congo and New Guinea who have been there for thousands of years subsisting through hunting – just sustainable use of the resources,” says Allan. “So loss of wilderness will have huge ramifications for local people and their livelihoods.”

“The environment footprint of humanity is truly massive,” Watson wrote of his findings in Time. “No other species has ever come close to us in terms of consuming so much of the world’s energy, resources and land area. In this Anthropocene era, where the human footprint is now altering many of the Earth systems processes, wilderness areas serve as natural observatories where we can study the ecological and evolutionary impacts of global change.” The loss of wilderness maps build on that research.