Do wilderness areas need buffer zones?

The Eagles Nest Wilderness in Colorado.

Researchers propose new ways to limit impacts

Staff Report

FRISCO — A growing population and increasing development may be threatening the ecological integrity of some wilderness areas in the U.S.

Protecting those areas may require establishing buffer zones to limit the impacts, according to University of Georgia researchers who took a close look at development trends near public lands.

Those boundary zones have become prime real estate, and construction and growth near the National Wilderness Preservation System is beginning to degrade the quality of these lands and erode biodiversity, said Lauren Ward, a graduate student at UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources.

“People like the idea of having a national forest in their backyard,”Ward said. “But from over-applying lawn care chemicals to introducing invasive plant and animal species, landowners’ choices can have far-reaching negative impacts on neighboring wilderness areas.”

In an article published in the journal Illuminare, Ward and Gary Green, an associate professor in the Warnell School, propose that federal agencies overseeing these wild areas begin creating zones to help wilderness managers better preserve and protect them.

Encroachment into wilderness areas will only continue to worsen as the U.S. population grows, Ward said, with some estimates predicting the number of people doubling by 2050.

In the article, Ward and Green lay out three factors influencing the encroachment into wilderness areas: population growth, increasing technology and global climate change. These factors could lead to loss of undeveloped land surrounding protected wilderness areas, soil erosion, air pollution, reduced water quality and the spread of invasive species.

Ward and Green propose that wilderness managers establish five zones around these protected areas:

  • A central “core zone” where all human activity would be banned;
  • A zone surrounding the core to be used for scientific research and environmental education;
  • Cultural and historical zones that would allow managers to protect and improve the unique qualities of each site;
  • A recreation zone where all users would be allowed for outdoor play;
  • A buffer zone surrounding them all to help minimize outside impacts. In some cases, it might be necessary to work cooperatively with private landowners around wilderness areas.

“We believe that encouraging landowners to embrace an attitude of stewardship through education and incentives will be the best approach,” Green said.

Buffer zones have come up repeatedly over the decades as the U.S. population grows, bringing with it concerns about American wild lands disappearing with an increase in development.

Studies show these concerns are valid: Previous research shows that counties with protected wilderness areas have experienced an uptick in population compared to those without these lands. One study found that the number of houses built within 30 miles of these protected wilderness areas will increase by 10 million from 2000 to 2030.

This trend not only would convert undeveloped land into human-occupied property, but it would also lead to the development of more roads and utilities to support those people now living close to these protected lands, Green said.

Once roads are in place, people who would normally have been unable to visit these areas would be more likely to visit. New and inexperienced users could even lead to more demands for help or rescue when cellphones and other technology they rely on fails them.

“Wilderness is easy to destroy, but it is nearly impossible to re-create. Americans should continue to protect natural wild lands for future generations to enjoy,” Ward said.

The zones are just a proposal, Ward explained, so it would be up to wilderness managers to use them as a flexible tool and work with local communities to promote sustainable development and ecologically responsible land uses. Their study also focuses on how these managers can use buffer zones to help better manage natural resources and mitigating outside influences.

The agencies could mandate buffer zones by providing federal funding for them, or they could work at the local level by creating tax incentives or conservation easements, she said.

The paper on “Wilderness Zoning: Applying an Adapted Biosphere Reserve Model to Wilderness Areas” is available online at


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