“You cannot save the land apart from the people or the people apart from the land. To save either, you must save both.” ~ Wendell Berry.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the landmark Wilderness Act, so I thought I’d add a carbon perspective to the debate: Is there a role for wilderness in the twenty-first century?

In 1997, I picked Berry’s quote to be the motto of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building economic and ecological resilience in western working landscapes. I chose it partly as a pushback against the dominant ideology of the conservation movement at the time, which believed that land and people had to be kept as far apart as possible. This was especially true of wilderness advocates, who frequently cited the Wilderness Act’s definition of wild land as places “untrammeled” by humans. It was a prime example of the movement’s zero-sum thinking: that nature could only advance as far as people retreated. It was an ideology that extended beyond wilderness to include protections for endangered species, large carnivores, old-growth forests, native plants and biodiversity generally.

Nearly twenty years on, however, it’s this zero-sum ideology itself that has beat a steady retreat.

It’s done so for three reasons. First, the rise of sustainable and regenerative land management practices, including ranching and logging, has tossed into the clinker the belief that human use of land is always less desirable than leaving the land “alone.” Furthermore, the rise of ecological restoration work, once taboo, demonstrates that humans can be healers of ecological wounds, not simply the source of the wound in the first place. In this way, rural residents became part of the solution and not just an obstacle to conservation, as activists portrayed them for decades.

Second, the concept of “pristineness” in nature, key to the wilderness movement, turned out to be largely a myth. Native Americans, for example, had a big impact on the environment of North America for centuries, right up until most of them died from colonial diseases or were ruthlessly rounded up by the US Government. Their deaths and displacements fueled the romantic notion among nineteenth-century white conservationists of an Eden-like emptiness of the land, ripe for protection from the sullying hands of humans (the creation of Yosemite National Park is a classic example).

Additionally, ongoing erosion and other effects of destructive management from the past in areas now protected as parks and wilderness areas also belies the assertion of the land’s “pristineness.”

Third, evidence of industrially produced pollution can now be detected on every acre of land on the planet. Toss in the ecological effects of human-caused climate change, now starting to take hold, and the definition of wilderness as “untrammeled” by humans must be rethought. Take bark beetles, for example. Warming winters and over-grown forests, the latter a consequence of the suppression of natural fire by forest managers, have combined in recent years to create an explosion of tree-killing beetles across North America. Millions of acres have been decimated—and the beetles don’t stop at park or wilderness boundaries. What can “protection” mean in this context?

However, the nation’s parks and wilderness areas are a big part of our culture and history and continue to be supported by many Americans. Therefore, it might be more fruitful to ask: what role do they serve in the twenty-first century? How do we square, for example, the mission of the National Park Service, established in 1916, to preserve “unimpaired for future generations” the natural and cultural resources of our nation with rising sea levels, bigger wildfires or persistent drought under climate change?

I’ll propose two answers, both viewed through the lens of soil carbon, one conventional and one not.

The conventional answer harkens back to the original intention of parks and wilderness areas: to forbid the destructive behavior of human beings. Formally protecting wild forests from logging, for example, or conversion to other agricultural uses is critical to maintaining their role as one of the great carbon sinks on the planet. Research has shown that billions of metric tons of carbon, pulled out of the atmosphere by photosynthesis, are stored in trees and other vegetation, as well as the soil in which they grow. When forests are cut down and the wood is torched, much of this stored carbon is released back into the air as carbon dioxide.

Protection is critical, especially the reminder of the world’s old-growth forests, which have been decimated by humans and their chainsaws. This is why some conservationists call what they do protecting “wild carbon.”

Whatever it’s called, many groups are working hard to educate the public and develop financial incentives to support the permanent protection of forests as an essential climate change mitigation strategy. In fact, an international effort called REDD, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, has been underway since 2008. Under the auspices of the United Nations, REDD is working to include forest protection in high-level negotiations on a potential climate treaty. Whether this effort is ultimately successful or not, it has certainly redefined the role of wilderness and forest protection in the twenty-first century and placed it within a carbon context.

My unconventional answer also involves the idea of “wild carbon,” though it views the “wilderness” to be protected as underground instead. I’m talking about soil, of course. It’s a vast wilderness that remains largely unexplored by scientists and other adventurers. Only 10 percent of the total microorganisms in soil have been identified and cataloged to date. As a result, we barely understand the complex and diverse array of relationships among these critters.

Then there’s the matter of soil health, including questions about the health of soils in national parks and wilderness areas. We assume they’re in good shape–but are they? From a climate perspective, are they net sinks for CO2 or net sources? If it’s the latter, what’s our response?

Carbon is the key to all of this. It is the link between above ground and below ground wildernesses, between protection strategies and hands-on practices that improve and maintain an ‘untrammeled’ microbial universe in soil and between the many questions we’re asking about the future and the answers that we are seeking.

Trouble is, we’re above-ground thinkers and actors. We like what we can see. But it’s the below-ground wilderness that may matter most in the long run. That’s because soil is the foundation of a huge amount of life and health on the planet, including our own. If we’re going to save either the land or ourselves, we had better save the soil. Here’s the good news: we know how. Here’s the challenge: whether we succeed or not is mostly a matter of will. It’s up to us.

Solutions exist. Let’s get going.

For more about soil carbon see Grass, Soil, Hope: a Journey Through Carbon Country, published by Chelsea Green Press. http://www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/grass_soil_hope

Here’s an electron microscope image of the underground wilderness:bacteria