At the Intersection of Wilderness, Fire and Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities in Wilderness Stewardship

At the Intersection of Wilderness, Fire and Climate Change: Challenges and Opportunities in Wilderness Stewardship

Nancy Taylor & Sam Commarto

May 2, 2017

Past fire suppression, insect and disease effects, drought, rising temperatures, and other effects of climate change are all interwoven to create significant alterations in many ecosystems. Where once smaller fires created a mosaic of diverse habitat and regrowth by burning older or unhealthy trees and thick understory, now we frequently see very large burns accompanied by extreme fire behavior that may threaten firefighter safety, residential areas, wildlife and their habitat. Fire seasons tend to start earlier and last longer each year. Burned areas can take years to recover, and invasive plant species may colonize an area by outcompeting native or historic vegetation.

Wilderness managers must wrestle with an understanding that humans, as the principle agent of recent climate change and its subsequent effects on the natural world, may have a responsibility to take action in wilderness to mitigate these effects. A counterpoint to this perspective is considering, in each situation, whether we should continue to manage wilderness with restraint, even if impacts from climate change and an event such as a large and potentially destructive fire are human caused. A difficult dilemma for wilderness managers arises frequently as ecosystems are altered by climate change, and they must ask themselves if humans are part of the ecosystem, accept a new definition of “natural,” and avoid trammeling actions that could mitigate or even change the course of climate change effects on a wilderness ecosystem. On the other hand, they must determine whether to take action to alter the course of negative impacts caused by climate change. To put it another way, the fact that climate change is human-caused means they must decide whether they have a responsibility to intervene in wilderness to reduce the risk or stop the progress of events they know are occurring (or likely to occur) such as catastrophic fire, species extinction, or habitat destruction if they are truly linked to climate change.

The Natural and Untrammeled qualities of wilderness character can be significantly affected if we intervene in wilderness ecosystems by taking action to alter vegetation communities or manage fuel loads to reduce the risk of large fires. If wilderness managers attempt to mitigate effects of climate change, these actions conflict with the preservation of wilderness character. Therefore we must ask this question: In the face of human caused climate change, do wilderness managers have a responsibility to intervene in wilderness ecosystems to reduce fire risk by implementing fuels reduction projects, prescribed burns, replanting native (“natural”) vegetation inside the wilderness boundary, or suppressing a naturally started fire; or should we let “nature take its course”?

Because fuels reduction projects, vegetation management, and prescribed burns require significant alteration of natural processes and are trammeling actions in wilderness, our challenge in these changing times is to integrate wilderness stewardship and fire management principles when there is a naturally started fire in wilderness. Future blogs in this series will explore the abundant opportunities we have to work with our fire colleagues before, during, and after a lightning caused wilderness fire as we build mutual understanding between specialists at the intersection of fire and wilderness.

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