Citation: Sydoriak, C.A., C.D. Allen, and B.F. Jacobs, 2000, Would ecological landscape restoration make the Bandelier Wilderness more or less of a wilderness?: Wild Earth, v. 10, p. 83-90.
Is it appropriate to intervene in designated
wilderness areas that have been trammeled by man and, as a
result, no longer retain their primeval character and influence
as called for in the 1964 Wilderness Act? We explore this wilderness management
dilemmawhether we can or should actively manage wilderness conditions
to restore and protect wilderness and other valuesby asking a series
of questions relating to a wilderness area that is no longer natural.1
Debate on this issue is not new, but is intensifying, since most wilderness
areas in the continental United States are not pristine and ecosystem
research has shown that conditions in many are deteriorating. Our case-study
is a proposed large-scale project to restore piñon-juniper woodlands
in the Bandelier Wilderness, which comprises more than 23,000 acres in
Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico.
Many ecosystems in this wilderness exhibit human-caused damage and unsustainable trends because of a land-use history that includes federally sanctioned overgrazing and fire suppression over the past century. This situation has caused park managers and wilderness advocates to ask several important philosophical and practical questions; questions thatwhile daunting and requiring extensive public dialoguehave moved us cautiously toward advocating ecological restoration in the Bandelier Wilderness.
Does a parks enabling legislation (or the National Park Service
Organic Act) reign supreme and, if so, at what cost to other resource
values, including wilderness values, recognized later in a parks
history? The answer to this question is contained within the 1964
Wilderness Act (P.L. 88-577). The act simultaneously limits and permits
management action to protect both park and wilderness values (which are
arguably the same). In addition, the act makes it clear that wilderness
designation does not supercede a parks enabling legislation or the
National Park Service (NPS) Organic Act, but is supplemental to it. Section
4(a)(3) states that: Nothing in this Act shall modify the statutory
authority under which units of the national park system are created. Further,
the designation of any area of any park, monument, or other unit of the
national park system as a wilderness area pursuant to this Act shall in
no manner lower the standards evolved for the use and preservation of
The act also makes it clear that the NPS and other
agencies have the legal responsibility to meet their mission requirements
and other mandates even in wilderness areas.
In section 4(b), the act gives the NPS (in this case) responsibility
for meeting its mission as well as preserving wilderness character.
Unfortunately, wilderness character is not clearly defined and, thus,
a dilemma arises for the wilderness ecosystem manager. To some, wilderness
character means that wilderness areas should evolve in whatever
direction Nature chooses (be free-willed) after the lands have been designated
as wilderness, regardless of pre-existing condition or future consequences.
This perspective argues that all resource managers (including wilderness/ecosystem
restorationists) and researchers should not be permitted to do anything
in wilderness using motorized equipment. However, this position is not
wholly supported in the act, as in section 2(a), which calls for the preservation,
protection, and administration of wilderness areas in such a manner
as to leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness.
While section 4(c) of the act gives the wilderness administrator strong
direction to accomplish the preservation and protection task without motorized
equipment, it also permits its use if there is justifiable need.
The Organic Act dictates that the National Park Service mission is to
conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife
therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and
by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future
generations. Bandelier National Monument, as one of the oldest units
in the National Park System, was established in 1916 to preserve and protect
prehistoric aboriginal ruins on the Pajarito Plateau because
of their unusual ethnologic, scientific, and educational values.
In October 1976, President Gerald Ford signed legislation creating the
23,267-acre Bandelier Wilderness. The NPS was initially opposed to this
wilderness designation, in part because of a general concern that cultural
resources research and management in a traditional cultural resource
park could be severely constrained. The Bandelier Wilderness, like
most wilderness areas in the National Wilderness Preservation System,
was not pristine when it was designated due to a history of harmful Euro-American
land-use practices, yet the public felt strongly that the area should
be wilderness (McDonald 1987). Additional wilderness-quality lands were
added to the park in 1977, so that today approximately 71% of the park
is designated wilderness, while more than 90% (about 30,000 acres) is
managed as wilderness.
Scientific study in and adjacent to the Bandelier Wilderness since 1987
strongly supports the notion that historic Euro-American use of the area
has triggered unprecedented change in most of the parks ecosystems
(Allen 1989, Davenport et al. 1998); similar changes have occurred throughout
much of the Southwest (Allen et al. 1998, Bogan et al. 1998). For example,
federally sanctioned livestock grazing and fire suppression from 1880
through 1932 catalyzed severe accelerated soil erosion across the parks
extensive mesas that are now dominated by piñon-juniper woodlands
(Gottfried et al. 1995, Wilcox et al. 1996a). These old, relatively shallow
soils are the physical matrix for thousands of aboriginal ruins
that Bandelier National Monument was established to protect (Head 1992,
Bandelier National Monument unpublished data). The Bandelier Wilderness
contains significant portions of these altered ecosystems and aboriginal
ruins. Over 90% of the parks 11,730 acres of piñon-juniper
woodlands are within designated wildernessthus, resolution of any
resource issues related to this community type necessarily involves wilderness
considerations. An estimated 2,500 cultural resource sites located in
the Bandelier Wilderness are subject to accelerated erosion-caused damage,
or risk of loss, within the next century (Powers and Orcutt 1999).2
In sum, the National Park Service, to accomplish its protection and conservation mandate, must respond to known resource threats within the Bandelier Wildernessand the authority to control unnatural rates of erosion, even using motorized equipment, appears to be permitted under the provisions of the Wilderness Act.
Should federal land managers intervene if wilderness ecosystems are
degraded and unsustainable due to the historic activities of motorized
societies? Soils in areas now occupied by woodlands likely formed
under different vegetation during cooler, moister conditions of the late
Pleistocene; in other words, they are over 10,000 years old, and many
are over 100,000 years old (McFadden et al. 1996). Changes in climate
and vegetation in the early Holocene (8,5006,000 years ago) led
to at least localized episodes of soil erosion on adjoining uplands (Reneau
and McDonald 1996, Reneau et al. 1996). During this time, the dominant
climatic and associated vegetation patterns of the modern southwestern
United States developed, including grasslands, piñon-juniper woodlands,
and ponderosa pine savannas (Allen et al. 1998). On the basis of local
fire history (Allen 1989, Morino et al. 1998, Touchan et al. 1996), dense
piñon-juniper age class (Bandelier National Monument unpublished
data, Julius 1999) and soils data (Davenport 1997, Earth Environmental
Consultants 1974, McFadden et al. 1996), we believe that many sites within
Bandelier now occupied by piñon-juniper woodlands were formerly
more open grassland, woodland, and ponderosa pine savanna communities,
with well-developed soils and herbaceous understories that: 1) protected
the soil from excessive erosion during intense summer thunderstorm events,
and 2) provided a largely continuous fuel matrix, which allowed surface
fires to spread and maintain these vegetation types.
Native American effects on local woodlands are thought to have been insignificant
or highly localized until the late twelfth century, when the Ancestral
Puebloan (also referred to as the Anasazi) population began to intensively
occupy and utilize the Bandelier area (Powers and Orcutt 1999). Cutting
and burning of piñon and juniper trees for cooking, heating, building,
and agricultural activities likely led to significant deforestation of
upland mesas from about 11501550 AD. Thus, Ancestral Puebloan land-use
practices favored herbaceous vegetation. Intensive soil disturbance certainly
occurred in farmed areas and around habitations, but there was probably
little net change in landscape-wide erosion rates due to the small size
and dispersed locations of fields and villages.
Euro-American settlement of the adjoining Rio Grande valley and the introduction
of domestic livestock grazing began in 1598. It is unlikely, however,
that significant livestock grazing (that is, with substantial widespread
effects on the herbaceous understory, fire regime, or erosion rates) took
place in much of Bandelier until railroads linked the Southwest to commercial
markets in the 1880s. Millions of sheep and cattle were placed in the
New Mexico landscape at that time. Livestock grazingand overgrazingwas
allowed in Bandelier until 1932, and feral burros were similarly allowed
to cause grazing impacts until about 1980 (Allen 1989). Sharp reductions
in the herbaceous ground cover and associated organic litter resulted,
effectively suppressing previously widespread surface fires (in concert
with institutionalized fire suppression initiated by the federal government
in the early 1900s). Severe drought during the 1950s contributed to declines
in ground cover (Allen and Breshears 1998). Fire-sensitive piñon
and juniper trees became established in densities unprecedented for at
least the past 800 years (Bandelier National Monument unpublished data,
Julius 1999). As these trees grew, they became increasingly effective
competitors for water and nutrients. Thus, a positive feedback cycle was
initiated that favors tree invasion and decreased herbaceous ground cover
in mesa-top settings.
This land-use history has resulted in degraded and unsustainable ecosystem
conditions in todays Bandelier Wilderness. The intercanopy soils
of Bandeliers woodlands are apparently eroding at net rates of about
one-half inch per decade (Bandelier National Monument unpublished data,
Earth Environmental Consultants 1974, Wilcox et al. 1996a,b). Given soil
depths averaging only one to two feet in many areas (Davenport 1997, Wilcox
et al. 1996a), there will soon be loss of entire soil bodies across extensive
areas of the Bandelier Wilderness.
Ecological thresholds have apparently been crossed such that harsh physical
processes are now dominant across Bandeliers degraded piñon-juniper
woodlands (Davenport et al. 1998). The loss of organic topsoils, decreased
plant-available water, extreme soil surface temperatures, and freeze-thaw
activity severely impede herbaceous vegetation establishment and productivity
(Davenport et al. 1998, Jacobs and Gatewood 1999, Loftin 1999). Reductions
in ground cover cause increased runoff from summer thunderstorms (Reid
at al. 1999), with associated increases in erosion (Wilcox at al. 1996a,b).
Reestablishment of herbaceous ground cover under todays desertified
mesa-top conditions may also be difficult due to depleted soil seed banks,
highly efficient seed predators, particularly harvester ants (Snyderman
and Jacobs 1995), and an unnaturally large elk population (Allen 1996).
Herbivore exclosures established in 1975 show that protection from grazing,
by itself, fails to promote vegetative recovery in Bandeliers piñon-juniper
ecosystems (Chong 1992, Potter 1985). Without management intervention,
this human-induced episode of accelerated soil erosion appears to be highly
persistent and irreversible (Davenport et al. 1998). To a significant
degree, the parks biological productivity and cultural resources
are literally washing away.
Do these conditions and their causes justify taking corrective actions?
After all: 1) erosion is a ubiquitous geomorphic process; 2) localized,
and perhaps regional, episodes of accelerated erosion have occurred naturally
in the past (Reneau et al. 1996); and 3) it is impractical to preserve
the cultural resource sites at Bandelier in stasis.3 In addition, some
wilderness advocates are understandably concerned about a loss of wildness
if local land managers have too much latitude to manipulate wilderness
resources, even to achieve high-minded and defensible goals.
Given this information, there is no question that we must assess the
problem and possible solutions cautiously and responsibly. The decision
to implement drastic restoration measures must be made with extreme humility.
Yet, it is clear that delays in making this decision in the Bandelier
Wilderness come at a high and ongoing cost.
While a basic tenet of wilderness is that the imprint of mans work [is] substantially unnoticeable, human impact on essential ecological patterns and processes is profound in the Bandelier Wilderness. If one understands wilderness exclusively as the absence of apparent evidence of human management in the short term, then management intervention is not warranted in Bandelier. Unfortunately, the piñon-juniper ecosystems of the Bandelier Wilderness seem unable to heal themselveswhich leaves wilderness managers, and the public, with some profoundly difficult choices.
Can we restore the natural range of variability and will
it be sustainable? The answer to this question lies in scientific
study to define the natural range of variability, and experimentation
to address and test sustainability. Let us look again at the Bandelier
woodlands to see what has been discovered.
Since most of the soils of the parks piñon-juniper woodlands
are over 100,000 years old (McFadden et al. 1996), we can be sure that
the natural range of variability in these ecosystems generally allowed
for soil development and stability, rather than the high rates of degradational
erosion observed in recent decades. From this fact of long-term soil persistence
we can infer that some type of vegetation was protecting the soils from
excessive erosion over time, including the last 8000 years of the Holocene
during which a modern climatic regime prevailed. We believe that an effective
herbaceous ground cover must have been the now-missing glue which held
soils in place, given that there is no evidence of formerly closed-canopy
woodlands (indeed, the ages of local piñon and juniper trees are
largely quite young) (Bandelier National Monument unpublished data, Julius
1999), and since fire-scar studies show a history of recurrent surface
fires that could not have occurred without herbaceous vegetation.
Controlled, progressive experiments within and outside of the Bandelier
Wilderness since 1992 (Chong 1993, 1994, Jacobs and Gatewood 1999, Snyderman
and Jacobs 1995) have shown that undesirable losses of soils, herbaceous
vegetation, and cultural resources can be mitigated through active management
to thin the smaller trees and leave scattered slash in the form of lopped
branches from cut trees. This treatment directly reduces tree competition
with herbaceous plants for scarce water and nutrients, and the application
of slash residues across the barren interspaces greatly reduces surface
water runoff and ameliorates the harsh microclimate at the soil surface,
immediately improving water availability for herbaceous plants. This restoration
approach has produced a two- to seven-fold increase in total herbaceous
cover (at three years post-treatment), relative to both controls and pretreatment
conditions (Jacobs and Gatewood 1999), while also increasing the diversity
of herbaceous plants. Recent, ongoing research shows striking decreases
in sediment movement on treated hillslopes (Bandelier National Monument
unpublished data). This tree thinning and scattered slash treatment method
is labor intensive and requires extensive use of chainsaws to limb and
flushcut the piñon and juniper, given the hard, dense wood of these
species (especially juniper) and the large number of trees that require
Other treatment methods to restore herbaceous ground cover were tested.
Seeding in the absence of tree thinning was ineffective, and seeding combined
with a thinning and slash treatment conferred little additional benefit.
Alternative tree thinning techniques are unlikely to be effective, safe,
or practical, as: surface fire cannot currently carry through the barren
understory of Bandeliers piñon-juniper woodlands; girdling
and herbicide treatment do not generate the on-the-ground slash necessary
for the creation of microclimatic conditions that facilitate vegetation
recovery, as dead trees would be left standing; and exclusive use of non-motorized
tools would take too long, given the urgency of the situation, and also
place too many people in the wilderness environment for extended periods,
causing other unacceptable wilderness impacts.
In the Bandelier case-study, through scientific investigation, we are confident that a range of natural variability (Landres et al. 1999, Swetnam et al. 1999) is reasonably defined. We have also found a seemingly effective restoration technique, but the long-term outcome will only be known as time progresses. The treated areas, though initially dominated by biannual forbs, are becoming increasingly populated by native perennial grasses, which represent conditions that are more natural and sustainable. Will the restored herbaceous cover be able to reduce erosion rates to natural, sustainable levels? Based on initial data from an ongoing study, it appears likely. However, the substantial quantities and distribution of the woody slash used in this restoration approach could support large, unnaturally intense fires. The potential for widespread fire can be eliminated by limiting the size of treatment blocks and dispersing them across the park landscape. In addition, shallow soil sites with rocky substrate which are considered to be relict woodland areas will not receive restoration treatment. The resulting mosaics of fuels and vegetation will provide a margin for error and mitigate aesthetic concerns. Prescribed fire will be introduced to eliminate excessive woody fuel loads and prepare treated areas for naturally occurring fires once adequate herbaceous cover is successfully restored and capable of surviving fire.
If restoration is possible, what should our goal or target conditions
be in wilderness? Achieving agreement on target conditions is the
crux of the wilderness restoration dilemma. Ideally, a naturally functioning
ecosystem exists when a wilderness area is set aside. However, established
wildernesses are generally far from pristinethat is, they do not
fully retain their primeval character and influence.
In the Bandelier Wilderness our vision of target conditions for piñon-juniper
woodlands is functional (as opposed to structural or compositional): to
reestablish biotic dominance over rates of erosion and enable natural
fires to move across the landscape unimpeded.
We do not focus on what the Bandelier Wilderness will look like in our description of target conditions. The type of experience a person may have in the wilderness is also not defined. Although wilderness involves scenery and human experience management, it is not necessarily or solely defined by them.
Is it appropriate to conduct large-scale ecosystem restoration work
in wilderness? The Organic Act and other federal laws mandate protection
of park and wilderness resources and values when we know they are threatened.
In response to these laws, resource management activities such as exotic
plant control, application of prescribed fire, and wildlife reintroduction
are routinely and legally accomplished in federal wilderness areas. None
of these laws, including the Wilderness Act, specify that a no action
decision is justifiable based solely on the magnitude or scale of the
possible mitigation alternatives. Therefore, National Park Service resource
managers are obligated to: 1) consciously decide on a course of action
when we detect a threat no matter how large or significant, and 2) make
responsible decisions about the type and scale of our response to all
kinds of resource threats.
Although the Bandelier Wilderness piñon-juniper woodlands restoration project is considered relatively large-scale (affecting up to 8,000 acres of wilderness), evidence of management intervention (in the form of cut marks on small stumps and scattered slash mulch) superficially disappears within roughly ten years depending on site conditions. Further, we hypothesize that if fire is reintroduced to accelerate woody material decomposition and degrade the flush-cut stumps, the evidence of management intervention will be substantially undetectable in 20 years. (To deal effectively with the threat of a wildfire consuming the woody materials too soon after treatment, we must treat the woodlands in patches, thus creating a mosaic of conditions and appearances.) Perhaps the relatively short duration of the evidence of management intervention matters more than the spatial extent or appearance of that evidence.
If we start manipulating designated wilderness to reach an unimpaired
condition goal, when and where will management intervention end?
This question must be answered if management intervention is to be seriously
contemplated. There is justifiable public concern that federal wilderness
managers could abuse the wilderness resource in the name of ecosystem
health restoration. Management intervention should not be a license to
control Nature, harvest resources, or create stasis; it should be a means
of facilitating natural healing of motorized societies impacts to
We believe this question can only be addressed through extensive scientific
research both to diagnose the sustainability of wilderness ecosystems
and to understand the causes and effects of unnatural change. As a starting
principle, we suggest that management intervention should end when the
natural processes present before industrial-age humans are once again
working in formerly dysfunctional or impaired ecosystems.
In the Bandelier case-study, based on over ten years of on-site research,
this end point would be achieved when there is sufficient herbaceous cover
to carry naturally occurring fires. The herbaceous cover will reduce soil
erosion (and associated cultural resource loss) to natural rates, and
fire should maintain the restored herbaceous cover and prevent recurrence
of the erosion problem. After restoration, the piñon-juniper wilderness
ecosystem will be left alone to evolve, driven by natural processes. We
submit that this level of restoration would restore important aspects
of wildness or free-will to the Bandelier Wilderness, consistent
with the definition of wilderness established in the 1964 Wilderness Act.
Although there are no simple answers to the wilderness questions presented here, we suggest that a research-based management approach, including identification of a process-oriented goal to achieve an ecologically functional endpoint, sets the stage for making rational decisions about whether and how to intervene when unnatural conditions exist in wilderness areas. We have a choice when we know that the land is sick. We can make believe (Leopold 1953) that everything will turn out right if Nature is left to take its course in our unhealthy wildernesses, or we can interveneadaptively and with humilityto facilitate the healing process.
We thank Dorothy Hoard for her long-term efforts to establish and care for the Bandelier Wilderness, as well as for her leadership of the Friends of Bandelier, who have contributed funds on many occasions to support the research cited in this paper. We also thank Bandeliers Superintendent Roy Weaver for his uncommon vision and commitment to doing the right thing. Finally, we are indebted to all the staff at Bandelier National Monument from 19901999 for their past and present support of the work outlined in this paper.
Charisse A. Sydoriak, former chief of natural and cultural resource management and research at Bandelier National Monument, is a natural resource specialist with the National Park Service (Intermountain Regional Office, Division of Natural Resources, Research, and Technology, 12795 West Alameda Pkwy, Lakewood, CO 80225). Dr. Craig D. Allen is a research ecologist with the US Geological Survey, Fort Collins Science Center, Jemez Mts. Field Station (HCR-1, Box 1, # 15, Los Alamos, NM 87544). Brian Jacobs is vegetation specialist at Bandelier National Monument (also at HCR-1, Box 1, # 15, Los Alamos, NM 87544).
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An earlier version of this article originally appeared in: Cole, David N., Stephen F. McCool, William T. Borrie, and Jennifer OLoughlin (compilers). 2000. Wilderness science in a time of change conference, Volume 5: Wilderness ecosystems, threats, and management. USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-15-VOL-5, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, UT.
For the purposes of this discussion, natural is defined by
words and phrases used in the 1964 Wilderness Act: a community of
life untrammeled by man; land retaining its primeval character
and influence; or existing in an unimpaired condition.