Wilderness is not an extravagance or a luxury, it is a place of original memory
                    where we can witness and reflect on how the world is held together by natural laws.
                              – Terry Tempest Williams

     Old Growth Forest  /  George Wuerthner

People value wilderness for different reasons. Most see it is as a place of solitude to shed the tensions of modern life and crowded living, for meditation or reflection, a place for quiet outdoor recreation, or a place where a person can be free, independent, and self-reliant. Others value wilderness as a natural and intrinsic part of the landscape and believe it should exist, for its own sake, regardless of whether or not they actually get to visit and enjoy such places. These are all valid reasons to conserve wilderness. However, there is another important reason: wildlands are absolutely essential to the conservation of biodiversity.

Just as people need large, quiet areas for solitude, there are species, natural communities, and ecological processes that need large areas with relatively little human disturbance in order to persist and express their full natural potential. Such places more closely embody the literal ancient English meaning of the word wilderness as self-willed land.

    Pine Marten
    Erwin & Peggy Bauer / USFWS

For instance, certain species in the northeast, including a number of neo-tropical migrant birds, certain lichens, and probably many species of invertebrates and fungi that we barely understand, thrive within mature or old growth forests that contain complex structural conditions such as a variety of size- and age-classes of trees, an abundance of standing and fallen woody debris, and intact soils that take hundreds of years to develop and are not easily replaced after logging. Wide ranging animals like the American marten and other “area sensitive” species require large areas of permeable habitat, where they can roam free. Natural disturbances such as wind and ice storms, native insect outbreaks, floods, and fire, when allowed to operate at their natural frequency, intensity, and quality, allow ecosystems to obtain high ecological integrity and to approximate the conditions under which the native species and communities most recently evolved, maximizing the probability of maintaining the full range of native biodiversity.

However, certain natural disturbance events can affect very large areas and will not have their full beneficial effect on ecosystems unless protected areas are large and resilient enough to absorb them and to provide sources for recolonization. Human induced manipulations of the landscape, such as development, forestry, fire suppression, and flood control degrade the integrity, resiliency, and distribution of habitats and ecosystems. Invasive exotic species further threaten ecosystem integrity and usually follow intensive human activities, particularly road construction which, besides being a disturbance itself, almost always leads to more human disturbance (and more roads).  In order to protect the full range of biodiversity, we must protect areas of land that are truly self-willed, where the influence of humans is minimal – and these areas must be large.

 Nurse Log  /  Howland Research Forest, Maine

This does not mean the entire landscape needs to be “locked-up” and completely off limits to human use. But it does mean that large, protected wildland areas must be a significant component of the overall system of conserved lands in the north woods and that such areas must be chosen carefully and strategically. Wildland areas do not have to be pristine areas untouched-by-man; they can heal or “rewild”. In fact, most privately protected wildland areas in the northeast were recently managed as industrial timberlands. However, wildlands should, ideally, contain representative examples of high quality ecosystems, natural communities, and/or imperiled species. The effective size of wildland areas should be maximized by having adjacency, or proximity, to other protected areas. Wildlands should also enhance connectivity for wide-ranging and area-sensitive species by being located in priority areas determined to be important for such purposes. Human use in wildland areas should be limited to quiet, non-motorized recreation and non-invasive ecological research. Active management should be minimal and limited to actions necessary for ecological restoration, such as the removal of roads, dams, and other structures, suppression of invasive species, or prescribed burns.

The matrix of surrounding land, in which protected wildlands are distributed, should provide a buffer from heavy human influence and be “permeable” to the dispersal of species and natural processes, allowing for connectivity between protected wildland areas. The primary conservation goal in such “buffer” areas is generally to maintain natural cover, protect water quality, and protect specific occurrences of rare species or natural communities where they occur, which is compatible with sustainable forestry practices and responsible motorized recreation. Conserving such “compatible use” or “working lands,” in addition to wildlands, can provide a wide variety of outdoor recreation opportunities and help sustain vibrant rural economies and cultural heritage by providing economic alternatives to residential development.

While Sweet Water Trust views the conservation of working lands (such as forestry conservation easements) as necessary and complementary to wildland conservation, it is clear that wildland specific conservation efforts are underrepresented across the landscape. For example, only about three percent of all the protected land in Maine is protected as wild (see our Maps page). Protecting wildland is often the hardest kind of conservation work to accomplish; it’s usually much cheaper and politically easier to protect “working” land. For these reasons, Sweet Water Trust remains one of the only philanthropies operating in the Northeast that is solely dedicated to funding conservation projects that include a significant, and scientifically informed, wildland component. To ensure that such wildland conservation is permanent, Sweet Water Trust, as a condition of its grants, requires that conservation easements be placed on fee-owned land as a second layer of protection.




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(9 MB)

Wild Carbon highlights the essential role that old and wild forests play in sequestering carbon. In this Northeast Wilderness Trust publication, climate resilience expert Dr. Mark Anderson synthesizes recent science on forest carbon and wild lands. This paper illustrates clearly that protecting wild forests is one of the most effective and cost efficient methods available to address climate change.








Sweet Water Trust and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) collaborated on a booklet that summarizes a scientific approach to forest protection, and provides a glimpse of the successes that creative partnerships have already achieved. That booklet, entitled Determining the Size of Eastern Forest Reserves, highlights the work of TNC's Eastern U.S. Conservation Region and its director of conservation science, Dr. Mark Anderson.




  View description
and reviews

A recently published handbook helps land trusts evaluate and conserve biodiversity on land protection projects, suggesting how to gather biological information through freely available data sources and on the ground inventories and how to use that information for project selection, easement drafting, management plans, fundraising, and meeting IRS requirements and LTA Standards and Practices. This Sweet Water Trust supported guide, entitled Documenting and Protecting Biodiversity on Land Trust Projects - an Introduction and Practical Guide by Christopher R. Wilson, published by the Land Trust Alliance, has been described by renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben as a "mandatory manual."


Several other resources are available to help conservationists determine important areas for biodiversity conservation in the northeastern U.S. For example, state Natural Heritage or Natural Areas Programs can provide site specific information (usually for free) regarding the occurrence of rare species and natural communities on land protection projects and surrounding areas. On the ground biological inventories are always helpful and are particularly important if a mixture of uses, such as wildland and working land, are planned for the same project area (see links below). Additionally, landscape-scale conservation plans are available that help determine generalized priority areas for conservation across large regions, such as states or ecoregions. The most important of such plans in the northeast include The Nature Conservancy’s Ecoregional Assessments (or Ecoregional Portfolios), Two Countries, One Forest conservation planning, and State Wildlife Action Plans. The use of the above data sources not only helps to ensure that a conservation project will accomplish its goals and get the “biggest-bang-for-the-buck”; their use also increases funding opportunities.


For further information on the following subjects, we recommend these web sites and publications:


Center for Biological Diversity:  www.biologicaldiversity.org

Defenders of Wildlife:  www.defenders.org

The Nature Conservancy:  www.nature.org

Northeast Wilderness Trust:  www.newildernesstrust.org

Sierra Club:  www.sierraclub.org

Two Countries, One Forest:  www.2c1forest.org

The Wilderness Society:  wilderness.org

Wildlands Network:  www.wildlandsnetwork.org

Also see our Maps section for detailed maps showing the extent of protected wilderness in the Northern Appalachians.



Beginning with Habitat [ www.beginningwithhabitat.org ]

LandScope America [ www.landscope.org/map/ ] – a map viewer allows users to view overlays of spatial data relevant to their projects areas, such as aerial photography, vegetation and habitat types, protected areas, as well as State Wildlife Action Plan - Focus Areas, TNC Ecoregional Portfolio areas, and other conservation planning efforts.

Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife - Biomap [ www.mass.gov/anf/research-and-tech/it-serv-and-support/application-serv/office-of-geographic-information-massgis/datalayers/biomap2.html ]

NatureServe [ www.natureserve.org/visitLocal/index.jsp ] – links to state Natural Heritage Programs who can provide site specific data regarding occurrences of rare species and natural communities.

The Quabbin to Cardigan Partnership (Q2C) [ www.q2cpartnership.org ]

State Wildlife Action Plans (SWAPs) [ wildlifeactionplan.org/state-wildlife-action-plans-swaps ] – can be downloaded from the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies website. At this time, Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts are the only states in the Northeast that explicitly map SWAP - Focus Areas.

TNC Ecoregional Conservation Assessments (Ecoregional Portfolios) [ www.conservationgateway.org/ConservationPlanning/SettingPriorities/EcoregionalAssessment/Pages/ecoregional-assessment.aspx ]

Two Countries One Forest - Northern Appalachian/Acadian Ecoregion Conservation Planning Atlas [ www.2c1forest.org/atlas/index.html ]

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wetlands Inventory [ www.fws.gov/wetlands/Data/Mapper.html ] – the NWI website contains an easy to use wetlands mapping tool for the viewing of wetland data and creating basic maps.

USGS GAP Analysis Program - Protected Areas Database of the United States (PAD-US) [ gap.uidaho.edu/padus/protectedareas.html ] – website allows users to view and create maps of lands protected for biodiversity.



Cutko, A. 2009. Biodiversity Inventory of Natural Lands: A How-To Manual for Foresters and Biologists. Arlington, Virginia: NatureServe. [ www.natureserve.org/publications/BiodiversityInventoryManual_Main.pdf ]

Wilson, C.R. 2011. Documenting and Protecting Biodiversity on Land Trust Projects - an Introduction and Practical Guide. Washington, D.C.: Land Trust Alliance. [ see the link above for a complete description and reviews ]



Crooks, K and M. Sanjayan, eds. 2006. Connectivity Conservation. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Foreman, D. 2004. Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Groves, C.R. 2003. Drafting a Conservation Blueprint: A Practitioner’s Guide to Planning for Biodiversity. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Noss, R.F. and A. Cooperrider. 1994. Saving Nature's Legacy: Protecting and Restoring Biodiversity. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Soule, M. and J. Terborgh, eds. 1999. Continental Conservation. Washington, DC: Island Press.