Will Climate Change Make Us Rethink Wilderness?

Advocacy, Art & Science

The protection and preservation of the Boundary Waters, what Friends as an organization has been dedicated to for almost fifty years, is intimately tied with an ideal of wilderness. Simply put, this is an ideal that there should be places set aside from industrial development and from the modern world, and allowed to remain in a natural condition. In short, we need to let the forests, the lakes, and mountains, simply exist as they have always been.

In the past several decades, the idea of wilderness as a place separate from people, as a “natural” space removed from the rest of the world has been scrutinized, questioned and dismantled — often by self-professed nature lovers. For one, the notion of an untouched wilderness erases the Indigenous people who made their homes in the area, often for thousands of years. It also depends on a dichotomy that divides “humans” from “nature,” and treats people as somehow separate and outside of nature.

Though many philosophers have sought the distinction, there is not some magical metaphysical line that divides humans from nature. We are enmeshed with our environment. Our well-being is utterly dependent on the air, the water, the myriads of animals, plants, bacteria that make their home on this planet, and that co-create the conditions in which humans have been able to flourish on earth. Conversely, nature is also shaped by humans.

This dynamic is something that our current era of climate change puts in stark relief. Each week we see new evidence of how human-made climate change impacts our lives and affects every part of the planet, from the unvisited ice caps to federally protected Wilderness Areas.

A slender man gazes out towards a BWCA lake as he walks towards it. Photo by Amy Marty.

Climate change is so pervasive that it would be impossible to wall off any space on the planet and preserve it in a way so that it would be immune to climate change.

Never mind the social and philosophical shortcomings, is the ideal of wilderness even possible?

Is there any place on earth that has not been impacted by people?

The coming decades will bring dramatic change to the Boundary Waters. The warming climate is already transforming large parts of the region, with maples and other southern tree species expanding their range in the north. Within some of our lifetimes, the boreal forest may recede from Minnesota and be replaced by an oak savannah that is better suited for a warmer climate.

There are, of course, many things we can do to curb CO2 emissions. A pressing concern for those of us who love the Boundary Waters, whose lives have been unalterably moved by the cold lakes, the large pines and birch groves of the northern wilds, is ‘how can we respond locally to a global problem?’

Climate change is ushering us into a new era of conservation, one that will rely on both the traditional approach to land conservation, and that will demand more radical, methods to not only preserve but shape the ecosystem.

If human activity is changing the Boundary Waters, can human activity preserve it?

A couple paddles in a kevlar canoe on a tranquil lake, with a thick green forest on the lake shore in the background. Photo by Kathleen DeWahl

Northeastern Minnesota is at the southern reaches of the boreal forest, a densely-wooded ecosystem that reaches across the northern hemisphere and serves as one of the largest carbon sinks on earth.

Because the boreal forest is a crucial means to absorb carbon, we do not need to drastically reimagine conservation efforts to protect the Boundary Waters from the effects of climate change. One of the simplest things we can do to reduce atmospheric carbon levels is to continue efforts to preserve and restore this area (and others) in its wild state. Such reasoning is at the heart of larger, federal initiatives such as the adoption of the 30×30 proposal, which aims to conserve 30% of the United States by 2030. Among the many goals of this ambitious conservation effort is to preserve those natural carbon sinks, the forests and wetlands and other ecosystems, that are an integral part of climate resiliency.

But being a major carbon sink is a two-sided coin. While restoring the boreal forest and preserving wetlands can be a potent means to mitigate the effects of climate change, the destruction of the boreal forest would release massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.

This could create a feedback loop where increased CO2 levels intensify the effects of global warming and lead to even more CO2 being dumped into the atmosphere. Consequently, this would increase the speed in which the boreal forest is battered and devastated by climate change.

To prevent setting off such a catastrophic feedback loop, and to help the boreal forest adapt to the new climate, many have concluded that we need to move beyond traditional methods of conservation. Along with more aggressive measures needed to conserve wild spaces, there is a pressing question on how we manage forests, and the novel, perhaps controversial, methods that will need to be employed.

Red Columbine plant in the lush woods. Photo by Jing Jing Munson

One method forest managers are studying and adopting to better respond to the changing climate is known as assisted migration. This involves intentionally moving a plant species to help an ecosystem adapt to climate change.

At the most basic level, assisted migration involves using seeds from the southern area of a species’ range in order to grow a forest that is more resilient to a warmer climate. In the case of the Superior National Forest, this might look like replanting jack pine, or black spruce — species that are expected to decline in the next several decades — with seeds gathered from jack pines in more southern locations, thus creating a forest better suited for warming conditions.

This is a marked shift in policy. Since the 1970s, the National Forest has abided by a “local is best” policy when it comes to sourcing seeds for reforestation. However, as the boreal forest in northeastern Minnesota is adapted to short, mild summers and long cold winters, the entire ecosystem is particularly vulnerable to warming temperatures. To help the region adapt, the Forest Service is in the process of expanding guidelines so they can source seeds from further south and help the region adapt to warmer conditions.

Assisted migration measures vary, and some methods are more controversial than others. So far, the Superior National Forest in partnership with local researchers, have conducted small-scale test programs with new seed sources, even new species, in limited pilot areas.

Efforts to reshape the forests not only raise deep questions about the extent people should intervene with natural cycles but also has cultural impacts that affect people’s livelihoods, their homes, their heritage. As such, issues raised by these pilot programs go beyond ecology and forest management to touch on cultural and human factors that cannot be addressed by science alone.

In drafting the Assisted Migration Plan, the Superior National Forest took great efforts to bring together a multitude of perspectives to help shape and establish the guidelines that will serve as a framework for the region and ultimately, a pilot for the nation. To ensure well-informed, coordinated guidelines, local tribes, research partners, universities, industry, recreational, and over 20 organizations and 100 individuals have all been asked to contribute to the creation of the plan.

As the Superior National Forest is within the 1854 Ceded Territory, assisted migration will affect fish and wildlife that many tribal members rely on, as well as other Ojibwe cultural practices including stories, medicine, and ceremonies. To explore how ecological changes might impact these practices and traditions, the Forest Service conveyed a Tribal Treaty and Cultural Resources Considerations Working Group that included tribal conservation specialists and elders from the area.

They were further aided by the A Tribal Climate Adaptation Menu, “a document that serves as a framework to integrate indigenous and traditional knowledge, culture, language and history into the climate adaptation planning process.” This helped put an indigenous lens on the issue and ensure values such as reciprocity were tied into management protocols.

Integrating Indigenous perspectives into the Assisted Migration Plan, as well as the views of other stakeholders, reflects a broad recognition that successfully responding to climate change requires the input of people and communities with different experiences, priorities and perspectives. This is a powerful reminder that adapting to climate change is not just a response to a changing physical environment but involves a cultural and lifestyle shift that we will all, in some way, be affected by.

The ideal of the wilderness is of a place that is left alone, set apart from human interference. But the fact is that wilderness as we know it involves some level of human interaction.

Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans practiced selective burning in the area we now call the Boundary Waters. They used fires to clear brush, nurture the soil so it was better suited for blueberry bushes and red pines.

Wilderness and people have never been separate. Obviously, there are degrees of human interference and interaction.

Behind efforts such as assisted migration is a philosophical question that involves a shift in how we approach wilderness: Is it a place that we try to leave alone, where we “let nature take its course,” or are we now in a situation where we need to actively manage and shape the wilderness to preserve its character?

There are no simple answers to these questions.

As an organization, Friends is working to understand the complex issues at stake and consulting with partners so that we can better prepare for this future. In both an emotional and ecological sense, we are intimately connected to the lakes and forests that make up the Boundary Waters. While change is coming to the area, we are sure that this special place will continue to bring together people and communities for generations to come.

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Hennessy racing in a snowy tree-filled scene in the boundary waters in a sled behind a team of dogs during the brief hours of winter sunlight.
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