03/26/2010 - Henry David Thoreau wrote, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” One of the principal goals of the Pew Environment Group is to preserve as much of that wilderness, both on the land and in the sea, as we possibly can.
The term “wilderness” is most often applied to terrestrial landscapes. Oceans, however, cover over 70 percent of the planet and contain a far greater amount of relatively untouched and unexplored areas than exist on land. Yet whether in the sea or on land, those regions that are still deserving of the term “wilderness” are shrinking in ways that we never imagined just a century ago, when the world still appeared vast and much of it unspoiled.
Our quest to protect the world’s remaining wilderness is motivated not simply by the benefits to nature of ensuring that these last unspoiled tracts are spared from the chain saw, the tractor and the relentless expansion of human civilization. We believe there are abundant reasons to preserve wild areas for their value to people.
For unbeknownst to many, wilderness provides innumerable services and resources that are important to the economic, social, aesthetic and spiritual qualities of human life.
Consider that the world’s rapidly shrinking wild forests as well as our oceans generate most of the oxygen in our atmosphere and absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Moreover, most of the species of life on earth reside in these areas and offer huge potential benefits to human society in the form of new medicines, agricultural products and reservoirs of genetic diversity.
The benefits from wilderness, known as “ecosystem services,” are of enormous value. Indeed, an international team of economists recently noted that the advantages we accrue from protected natural areas yield literally trillions of dollars in benefits in the form of fresh water, flood control, improved fish catches, pollination of crops, jobs and other values that never show up on any spreadsheets.
The conservation challenge is urgent. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that although forests still cover about 30 percent of the earth’s terrestrial surface, only 20 per cent of the world’s forests remain in large intact areas. Moreover, deforestation—from conversion to cropland, logging and the harvesting of wood for fuel, among other activities—removes nearly 15 million acres of primary forest per year.
Despite the relatively small amount of terrestrial wilderness that enjoys some kind of long-term protection, preservation of similar areas in the world’s oceans lags far behind. While some 6 percent of terrestrial wilderness areas are protected in one form or other, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our oceans are similarly safeguarded.
Rampant overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, coastal development, ocean dumping and myriad other activities have profoundly altered the world’s marine environment, threatening entire ecosystems and the life they contain. Some of the top predator species such as sharks, tuna and swordfish have declined by 90 percent or more over the past six decades, and many of the world’s commercial fisheries remain vulnerable to collapse.
In response, the Pew Environment Group has worked to protect large tracts of both forest and ocean wilderness for over 15 years.
In Canada’s boreal forest this has resulted in the permanent protection of more than 125 million acres, one and a quarter times the size of the state of California. In the United States we played a critical role in encouraging Congress to designate 158 new or expanded wilderness areas, adding nearly five million acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System. Our Heritage Forests Campaign was the driving force behind the Roadless Areas Conservation Rule, which protects almost 60 million acres of U.S. national forestlands from being opened up to development.
Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy initiative has spearheaded efforts resulting in the preservation of more of the world’s marine environment than has ever been protected before. The Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, established in 2006, followed by the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument in 2009, are the world’s largest marine reserves, cumulatively protecting approximately 235,000 square miles of ocean wilderness. And now we are advocating for the creation of the Chagos Archipelago Marine Park in the Indian Ocean, which, at 209,000 square miles, covers an area bigger than France.
Despite our successes, we believe that the most profound choices affecting the global environment are now before us. In the case of wilderness—as well as the world’s climate—we will not have a second chance to get it right. Once these areas are cut, trawled, paved, fished out or developed, they are not retrievable in the form that took millions of years to evolve.
Following the injunction of Joseph N. Pew Jr., we can only “tell the truth,” employing the best tools of science and communication and striving to ensure that these choices are made with the benefit of information that is both accurate and balanced, with full awareness of the consequences for ourselves and the generations that will follow.
Joshua S. Reichert
Managing Director, Pew Environment Group
Read more about Pew’s work in Pew Prospectus 2010 (PDF).