Editor’s note: Clare Boerigter is the Wilderness Fire Research Fellow at the Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute (ALWRI). Clare is working with ALWRI research ecologist Dr. Sean Parks and collaborators on a multi-year project to investigate federal wilderness fire management, including the challenges, benefits, and barriers to the use of prescribed fire within wilderness landscapes. Previously, Clare worked as a wildland firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service. Blog cover photo credit: Jonathan Coop.

In 1964, the U.S. Congress passed the Wilderness Act and created the National Wilderness Preservation System. Today, this system comprises more than 800 wilderness areas across forty-four states and Puerto Rico and amounts to more than 111 million acres of land. In 2022, the Forest Service recorded 12.8 million visitors to wilderness, landscapes often valued for their biodiversity, beauty and ability to connect people to the natural world around them. As set forth by the Wilderness Act, these landscapes are to be protected from human development and preserved in their natural conditions as an enduring resource for present and future generations. 

While regulations designed to protect these areas have been easy to understand and carry out in certain instances – cars and other motorized equipment are largely banned in wilderness, for example – they have proven more difficult in others. Differing interpretations of the Wilderness Act have prompted a range of understandings regarding what management interventions – if any – are appropriate to maintain the “natural conditions” of wilderness. Meanwhile, a number of factors have increasingly impacted these natural conditions, in some cases prompting substantial and long-term changes. These factors include, among others, the forced removal of Indigenous peoples and their stewardship practices from wilderness landscapes, the spread of invasive species, the effects of climate change – and the near total exclusion of fire.

An unprecedented era of fire exclusion began around the turn of the 20th century in the American West, where the majority of wilderness areas within the contiguous U.S. are located. At this time, government authorities began to adopt policies of full fire suppression in response to devastating wildfires and the ensuing public outcry. Indigenous cultural practices of intentional burning were criminalized as Tribes were increasingly removed from their homelands. In certain regions, the introduction of widespread livestock grazing and the fragmentation of landscapes by new human development contributed to fire deficits by impairing the ability of fire to spread. Today, about 98% of all wildfires are suppressed before they grow larger than 100 acres.

This near total exclusion of fire – intended to protect people, property and resources – has resulted in unfortunate consequences for landscapes that evolved with fire for millenia, as well as the people who depend on them. In the absence of fire, many fire-adapted ecosystems have undergone unprecedented changes: small trees and shrubs may fill the understory and create flammable ladders, fire-sensitive species may outcompete fire-resilient ones, wildlife habitat for some species may decline, and resilience to future wildfires and climate change may decrease. These changes have only increased the likelihood of uncharacteristically severe fires, a phenomenon known as the wildfire paradox. By attempting to suppress every fire, we have paradoxically created conditions which support much more severe fires. 

Four photos in a grid. Upper left: black and white photo from 1925 showing a forested area. Upper right: black and white photo from 1993 showing the same forested area, but denser. Lower left: color photo from 2008 showing the same area with dense forest growth. Lower right: color photo from 2013 showing the same area burned from a wildfire.
These photos show the same site of mixed conifer forest on the Lassen National Forest in California across a span of nearly 90 years. Prior to 1905, fire history data indicate that these forests burned every 5 to 15 years, with no fires burning after that date because of fire suppression policies. In the absence of fire, the forest experienced a notable increase in tree density and a shift from Jeffrey pine to white fir, as seen in the 1993 and 2008 photos. In 2012, the Reading Fire burned at high severity through the dense forest, resulting in complete canopy mortality. The severity of this fire was out of line with the low to moderate severity of historical fires. Photo credits: A.E. Weislander and Alan Taylor.

Wilderness landscapes are not immune to the effects of fire exclusion. In December 2022, twenty-one experts from federal land management agencies, Tribes, and organizations from across the country convened at the Wilderness and Fire Workshop in Gunnison, Colorado. The workshop, developed and hosted by the Center for Public Lands at Western Colorado University, brought these participants together to discuss the impact of more than a century of fire exclusion on wilderness areas, including increased vulnerability to exceptionally severe fires that are not characteristic of fires that historically occurred. In some cases, these uncharacteristically severe fires may prompt conversions from forest to shrubland, grassland, or other vegetation type – resulting in significant and essentially permanent changes to wilderness landscapes. 

A logo with
Developed and hosted by the Center for Public Lands at Western Colorado University, the Wilderness and Fire Workshop brought together twenty-one experts from federal land management agencies, Tribes, and organizations from across the country to discuss the impact of 100+ years of fire exclusion on wilderness areas. Logo designed by Lindsay Dolezal.

In response, workshop participants agreed that consideration should be given to thoughtfully and deliberately reintroducing fire to some wilderness landscapes through prescribed burning. As research has shown, prescribed fire has the ability to reduce fuels which lead to severe wildfires, increase ecological resilience, and restore historical landscape conditions. Many voices have increasingly identified prescribed fire as a needed management practice. However, perceived and real barriers have largely prevented the ignition of prescribed fire by managers in wilderness. Thus, workshop participants worked together to identify both these barriers and opportunities to overcome them. These opportunities include acknowledging Indigenous cultural burning in wilderness, developing messaging about the relationship between wilderness and fire, and expanding and formalizing collaborations, among others.

A huge smoke plume from a prescribed fire rises above a mountainous area. A firefighter stands in the foreground observing the plume.
A firefighter surveys the 2011 South Fork Sun River prescribed fire in the Scapegoat Wilderness on the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana. This burn was part of a multi-year effort which restored fire to 16,000 acres. Photo credit: Michael A. Muñoz.

In September 2023, the full results of these discussions were published as a synthesis paper by the Center for Public Lands in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service-Rocky Mountain Research Station’s Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute. A companion StoryMap shares the main findings of the paper for a public audience.

To learn more about fire and wilderness:


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