Wilderness areas need buffer zones to protect from human development by Staff Writers

Despite heavy development, the U.S. still has millions of acres of pristine wild lands. Coveted for their beauty, these wilderness areas draw innumerable outdoor enthusiasts eager for a taste of primitive nature. But University of Georgia researchers say these federally protected nature areas have a problem: Their boundaries have become prime real estate.

As the country’s population continues to grow, people have built homes close to national parks, forests and wilderness areas for the same reasons these systems have been left protected from development. However, this construction and growth near the National Wilderness Preservation System is beginning to degrade the quality of these lands and erode biodiversity.

“People like the idea of having a national forest in their backyard,” said Lauren Ward, a graduate student at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “But from over-applying lawn care chemicals to introducing invasive plant and animal species, landowners’ choices can have far-reaching negative impacts on neighboring wilderness areas.”

We need buffer zones, Ward said.

In an article published in the journal Illuminare, Ward and Gary Green, an associate professor in the Warnell School, propose that federal agencies overseeing these wild areas begin creating zones to help wilderness managers better preserve and protect them. Encroachment into wilderness areas will only continue to worsen as the U.S. population grows, Ward said, with some estimates predicting the number of people doubling by 2050.

There are nearly 1,000 designated wilderness areas in the national wilderness system, made up of nearly 110 million acres that remain in its natural condition. Human activities are limited on these lands to preserve their pristine state and leave it untainted by people.

These areas include national parks, wildlife refuges and national forests maintained by four federal agencies. Visitors to these lands are restricted in what they can do and are encouraged to “leave no trace.”

In the article, Ward and Green lay out three factors influencing the encroachment into wilderness areas: population growth, increasing technology and global climate change. These factors could lead to loss of undeveloped land surrounding protected wilderness areas, soil erosion, air pollution, reduced water quality and the spread of invasive species.

Ward and Green propose that wilderness managers establish five zones around these protected areas:

+ A central “core zone” where all human activity would be banned;

+ A zone surrounding the core to be used for scientific research and environmental education;

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