Study identifies strategies for preserving and connecting vulnerable habitat to preserve wild, connected and diverse protected lands

Mar 13, 2017
Scientists from The Wilderness Society and other organizations continue to work to identify the best strategies for preserving and connecting vulnerable habitat in order to protect species and biodiversity in an age of climate change and fragmentation.

The most recent paper, “Wild, connected, and diverse: building a more resilient system of protected areas,” will be published in Ecological Applications, a journal of the Ecological Society of America. 

Authors: R. Travis Belote, Matthew S. Dietz, Clinton N. Jenkins, Peter S. McKinley, G. Hugh Irwin, Timothy J. Fullman, Jason C. Leppi, Gregory H. Aplet.


Conservation reserves like national parks and wilderness areas serve a critical role in maintaining natural areas that protect wildlife and their habitat. These species and their habitats represent our nation’s natural heritage and conservation legacy for future generations. As impressive as the existing parks and wilderness areas are, conservation scientists have warned that they may be insufficient to sustain species in the face of ongoing climate change and habitat loss.

Historically, protected areas have been established in an ad hoc fashion with little concern for representing the diversity of ecosystems or species. Likewise, protected areas have not traditionally been intentionally connected, leaving many areas vulnerable to fragmentation by development and the ongoing impacts of human activities. 

Faced with these pressures, calls have been made to protect the Earth’s remaining wildlands and complete the system of protected areas by establishing conservation reserves that better represent the diversity of habitats; increase connectivity to facilitate biota movement in response to stressors including climate change; and promote species persistence within intact landscapes.

Using geospatial data, the authors conducted an assessment for expanding conservation reserves within the contiguous U.S. to (1) include the wildlands unprotected areas, (2) establish a connected network, and (3) better represent ecosystem diversity and hotspots of biodiversity.

Expanding protection to lands with these qualities is ultimately expected to create a more resilient system of conservation areas for protecting the nation’s biological heritage in the future. The authors describe resiliency as the capacity of a protected area system to sustain biodiversity and natural processes across a network, even as ecosystems change within individual protected area. While the term may be defined various ways, the ability of populations and species to persist among a system of protected areas under changing environmental conditions likely requires that additional lands be protected.

Maps displaying wildland conservation value reveal high-value areas concentrated throughout the western U.S., where lands tend to be less modified by humans and where large concentrations of protected areas exist. Large regions of high integrity in the West are also composed of ecosystems not currently well protected. Many of these lands of the West are managed by the federal government and provide opportunities for expanding protected areas through conservation designations and agency management plans.

Several high-value regions are also distributed throughout the eastern U.S., including the Southern Appalachian Mountains and Cumberland Plateau, the Allegheny Plateau of Pennsylvania, the Southeastern Coastal Plain, the Sand Hills of Nebraska, the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, east Texas and central Louisiana, Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the Northern Appalachians of New England. Other ecosystems with limited levels of protection that are important for connectivity occur in the mid-Atlantic, southeastern, and northeastern states. In these regions, most of the ecosystems have less than 5% of their distribution in protected areas. These areas may be relatively wild and important for maintaining a regional network of protected areas.  

The analysis in this paper will serve as a resource for local conservation biologists and land managers in evaluating the national significance of local or regional lands. Regional conservation planning and monitoring coordination (e.g., through Landscape Conservation Cooperatives) may be an important means to sustain these regional connected networks of protected areas. 

Building a resilient protected area system of the future is likely to be a continuing project, growing and improving as more is learned about species, ecosystems, threats, and the nature of future change through coordinated monitoring programs. The authors hope that the assessments here can offer a “guiding star” for the construction of that future system. On the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service last August, President Obama reminded us that “The fundamental idea behind the parks is the country belongs to the people.” And, alluding to the importance of future land conservation, President Obama added “We’re not done yet.”

The Wilderness Society’s new research may help identify which lands to conserve next. 

Contact: Michael Reinemer, Deputy Director, Wildland Communications, 202-429-3949, 703-966-9574 cell,