April 19, 2022
How to Live in a World on Fire: Reconceptualizing Wilderness Management
By Sara Amish
I didn't know what it meant when my parents said we were moving. The town was called Hamilton—I thought the name was funny because it sounded like "ham." Moving only became real when they sold the chickens, although the three ducks would accompany us. When we pulled up to the rental house, the hoses were running on the lawn, water soaking into the already green grass. Then, as I looked up, black leaves floated from the blue sky, their veins traced in fire. A wildfire was creeping down the mountain, and an evacuation notice had just been announced. We "evacuated," without unpacking, to a blank white hotel, but the ducks had to be left behind. I would swear to you after that, their feathers went from white to smoky gray.
I have always lived in a world on fire. The fires of 2000, one of my first memories of my hometown, are still spoken of in hushed tones. But every year, another fire, another mountain valley, adds to this list of names. The Roaring Lion Fire, the Lolo Fire, they are all linked to a feeling as well as an event. There are historical as well as ecological factors driving these fires, but suffice to say, some of them are natural and contribute to the health of the ecosystem and some are due to the increasing impacts of climate change.
Remarkably, all of these fires share one commonality: they originate in the Bitterroot-Selway Wilderness. A wilderness area is, as defined by the 1964 Wilderness Act, a place managed by the Forest Service such that man is only a visitor. While this view ignores the presence of Indigenous peoples on the land prior to settler colonization, the fact remains that this land has this designation with the intention of preserving the natural ecosystem within its boundaries. The most well-known example of this type of protection is the National Park System (NPS). The NPS differs a little as it provides for the enjoyment of all and the preservation for future generations, but the essence is the same: draw a boundary and everything that falls within is to be preserved as is.
These ecosystems are defined by what is known as their climatic envelope. Essentially, the combination of temperature and rainfall for a certain area drives what it looks like, what species live there, and how it functions. However, climate change is impacting both temperature and rainfall differently, decoupling them and creating new environments, although still inhabited by old residents.1 Through this process, the environments we have conserved will change.
As climate change impacts increase, managers for these protected spaces will increasingly weigh what kind of action to take. Do they attempt to preserve the ecosystem as it was when the park was founded or do they try to accommodate the shifting climatic envelope? For example, Yellowstone National Park has spent millions of dollars attempting to control invasive lake trout in Yellowstone Lake.2 And that is just an invasive species we brought in—what about species that migrate in response to changing climatic conditions? What does it mean to manage a space in flux, to triage an ecosystem? The idea that these places should be preserved unchanged for future generations is baked into their very foundations. Over the years the National Park Service has struggled to determine what that means and how to best provide a great experience to current as well as future visitors. As these ecosystems change, these choices will have to be made, often ahead of science or beyond the insights of data, the curse of living within a trend line.
I argue that we need to reconceptualize how we think of national parks and protected space overall. It’s not about setting boundaries around spaces, thinking that what is within the boundaries will remain unchanged. We know so much more about how ecosystems function than when they drew a square around the volcanic caldera of Yellowstone.3 Now we know that there are many interlocking cycles—between predator and prey, biotic and abiotic, plant and fungi—that determine how ecosystems function, and that it takes an integrated approach to truly protect them. Management doesn’t mean locking in those changes, but it does mean managing for the total health of each ecosystem and building up their collective resilience.
This means that sometimes the world will burn, as fire plays an important role in many ecosystems. My hometown will continue collecting stories of wildfires and each year a new myth will be born. But sometimes the world will burn because the ecosystem is changing. And this is the change that is new, that will require we actively adapt. That will take flexible, science-based management as well as policy support. With no easy answers, it will also include incorporating local communities, including tribal governments, who often face the brunt of this change, into the decision-making process. It will take all of us together to navigate this change and live in this brave new world.
 “The Ability of Climate Envelope Models to Predict the Effect of Climate Change on Species Distributions - HIJMANS - 2006 - Global Change Biology - Wiley Online Library,” accessed March 9, 2022, https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/doi/full/10.1111/j.1365-2486.2006.01256.x.
 Admin, “Lake Trout Suppression Program Churns on despite Pandemic,” accessed March 9, 2022, https://www.explorebigsky.com/lake-trout-suppression-program-churns-on-despite-pandemic/35110.
 “History: Setting Yellowstone’s Boundaries,” Big Sky Journal (blog), February 4, 2020, https://bigskyjournal.com/history-setting-yellowstones-boundaries/.
Sara Amish is a MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School and a research assistant with the Belfer Center’s Arctic Initiative. She also serves on the executive committee of the Climate, Energy, and Environment Professional Interest Council (CEEPIC). She graduated from Montana State University with degree in biology, focusing on conservation biology and ecology. Sara applies systems thinking to the intersection of biological and human systems. From trail guiding in Yellowstone National Park to serving as an AmeriCorps member with a regional land trust, she has found a multitude of ways to advance conservation and protection of natural resources.