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Investigating ecosystem representation and habitat fragmentation across the National Wilderness Preservation System

February, 2014 to September, 2014


Representation of ecosystems is often put forth as a goal of conservation planning. The aim is to protect all major ecotypes in order to conserve the evolutionary potential for the entire protected area network. The Nature Conservancy estimates that 85 - 90% of all plant and animal species can be protected by ensuring ecosystem representation. However, past work has demonstrated that the protected area network for the U.S. does not capture the full range of ecological systems or geophysical features necessary for species and habitat conservation. Furthermore, climate change and anthropogenic disturbances (e.g., habitat fragmentation) will have an increasingly significant impact on ecosystems and broad-scale ecological processes.

One major role of the National Wilderness Preservation System (NWPS; see map below) is the unique level of protection it provides to imperiled ecosystems. Wilderness areas are host to a relatively intact suite of broad-scale, long-term ecological and evolutionary processes. These areas are host to enormous biodiversity, provide critical ecosystem services, buffer against climate change, and serve as reference points to assess the health of ecosystems. Therefore, wilderness areas provide critical opportunities for conservation planning, but an updated, more detailed analysis of ecosystem representation is needed to address management decisions in a time of accelerating environmental change.


This project is using analyses from existing studies, combined with the development of new methods, to (1) highlight where specific ecotypes are underrepresented or missing from the current protected area network, (2) investigate how fragmentation of ecotypes on non-protected lands may have a major impact on the survivability of many species on protected lands, and (3) identify potential ecotypes for future protection.

This research is using finer-scale analysis than previously attempted, to show the following:

  • The effect of geographic location and size class distribution on ecosystem representation in the NWPS.
  • The diversity of ecosystems represented in each wilderness by agency.
  • The spatial relationship between wilderness areas and adjacent land use types that result in fragmentation or otherwise threaten ecosystem integrity (i.e., urban areas).

Management Implications

This foundational analysis will inform management of current agency land management portfolios, and can also be used to prioritize future designations. Specifically, this analysis will:  

  • Allow individual agencies to evaluate shortfalls and gaps in ecotypes in a spatial context, and inform decisions to designate new wilderness. This analysis can also support agencies exploring alternative approaches to increase representation and conservation of ecotypes, such as evaluating multi-use federal lands that have high ecological value for greater protection.      
  • Allow agencies to look at the bigger picture together in order to ensure full representation of ecosystems in the NWPS. A multi-agency approach is critical to achieving this goal.
  • Help agencies better understand adjacent land use threats to wilderness ecotypes. This could inform the need to increase the NWPS not only to represent all ecotypes in the US, and to ensure species survivability where wilderness areas are too small (often the case in the Eastern US).            
  • Use results to inform subsequent studies focusing on how and where climate change and habitat fragmentation is currently impacting ecosystems in the NWPS, and provide a spatial understanding of how future trends might impact these areas.    


The outcomes of these analyses will be summarized and discussed in a peer-reviewed paper, which will be presented at National Wilderness Conference in October 2014.  

Map of the National Wilderness Preservation System (excluding Alaska and Hawai’i) as of 2008. Prepared by the National Atlas of the United States of America.
Map of the National Wilderness Preservation System (excluding Alaska and Hawai’i) as of 2008. Prepared by the National Atlas of the United States of America.

Project Contact: 

Principal Investigators: