Wilderness areas, national parks, state and city parks, green roadways and conservation easements are archipelagos in a matrix of diverse land uses and ownerships. In the future, they will serve three essential functions: (1) harbor the natural capital that we need to sustain ecosystems more broadly; (2) provide refuge for dislocated plants and animals adjusting to climate change; and (3) deliver ecological services necessary for our livelihoods and well-being.
How do we use fixed assets to facilitate ecological change and reduce the prospect of extinction? The solution proposed by most conservation biology experts is a multi-pronged approach of protection, connection and restoration.
Protection recognizes that fundamental importance of wild places to provide ecosystem services, such as native biodiversity, clean and reliable supplies of water, nutrient cycle, and pollinators for native plants and crops. No single island of protected land provides all these needs in a time of climate change, and we must hedge our bets by creating a patchwork of large and small protected regions.
In this regard, the 44 Wilderness Study Areas in Montana must be part of a climate-smart conservation scheme. They comprise over 1 million acres of prairie, river valleys, forests and entire mountain ranges on Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land across the state. In the mid-1970s, WSAs were created as places for study for possible wilderness designation. At that time, only a small handful of scientists thought about climate change. Now, it is a reality recognized by a majority of Americans, and WSAs are critical conservation nodes in a 21st century network of protected lands.
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