December 2015 | Volume 231, Number 3


Fifteen years ago, the interagency Wilderness Policy Council (WPC) began discussing the need for  an interagency strategy to monitor trends in wilderness character. In the 1964 Wilderness Act, Congress directed the wilderness managing agencies to preserve the wilderness character of every wilderness within the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS). The policies and guidance of all four federal wilderness-managing agencies address the need to prevent the degradation of wilderness character, but, up to the mid-2000s, none of the agencies had established a process to evaluate whether they really were successful in preserving wilderness character. Challenges at the time centered around whether the four agencies could agree on how and what to measure, who would do it, how the data would be used, and above all, how the agencies could afford to do it.

In 2004, the Council directed the interagency Wilderness Steering Committee (WSC) to charter a team that would develop an interagency approach to wilderness character monitoring. The Committee in turn established an interagency Wilderness Character Monitoring Team (WCMT), chaired by a representative from the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute and composed of representatives from the four agencies and the U.S. Geological Survey. This team was tasked with developing a nationally consistent interagency strategy to monitor wilderness character across the NWPS, building on the 2005 wilderness character monitoring strategy published by the Forest Service.

In 2008, this team published the peer-reviewed and pilot-tested Keeping It Wild: An Interagency Strategy to Monitor Trends in Wilderness Character Across the National Wilderness Preservation System. In 2009, the WPC formally endorsed Keeping It Wild and recommended that the agencies complete wilderness character baseline inventories by the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act in 2014.

While the journey has been slow, the agencies are making progress. Two recent developments will help ensure much more rapid progress during the next five years:

  1. 2020 Vision: Interagency Stewardship Priorities for America’s National Wilderness Preservation System, signed by the agency heads in October 2014 at the 50th Wilderness Conference, includes completing wilderness character inventories across the NWPS as a top
  2. An interagency team recently completed Keeping It Wild 2, the updated version of Keeping It Wild, which improves interagency consistency by incorporating lessons learned from the past several years of conducting wilderness character baseline

There are several ways this monitoring can help us better preserve wilderness character, and  already we can see how preparing wilderness character baseline inventories is influencing wilderness managers:

  • The process of assessing the current status of wilderness character has actively engaged on-the-ground wilderness managers and their staff, helping them understand how decisions made over the course of a year or more can significantly affect wilderness character.
  • Wilderness character monitoring directly links the results of stewardship activities to the legislative direction of the 1964 Wilderness Act and contributes to agency transparency and accountability.
  • As an integral component of monitoring, an interagency database documents evidence of trends in wilderness Maintaining an interagency data- base will not only help inform management decisions but will also promote professionalization of wilderness stewardship.
  • Published guidance for wilderness character monitoring improves communications, allowing staff across different resource areas and disciplines to use common terms in discussing wilderness-related projects, needs, and impacts, and to discuss wilderness stewardship in a more open and transparent manner with the public.

Focusing on wilderness character and monitoring how it changes over time by using an affordable, practical approach that provides concrete information will help managers comply with the law, fulfill agency policies, and improve wilderness stewardship. The Wilderness Act is America’s promise to itself that untrammeled lands will always be part of this nation’s landscape and its ethic. Wilderness character monitoring embodies fulfillment of that promise for generations to come.

CYNTHIA MARTINEZ is chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She is chair of the Wilderness Policy Council, which consists of policy level represen- tatives of the four US wilderness management agencies (FWS, NPS, BLM, USFS) and research representatives from the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. Email: Cynthia_Martinez@