50 Years Later: Honoring the Wilderness Act Through Citizen Science

Before I became a conservation scientist, I was a nature-loving kid who grew up in a family of amateur naturalists. We were always tromping around in natural areas, observing plants and birds or collecting seashells. When I was eight, my parents gave me my very first garden -- and I was hooked. I loved tending my plants and watching them grow, then venturing out into the prairies and forests to admire nature's "garden," in all its chaotic abundance, beauty and intricate interactions.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson recognized the beauty and importance of wild lands and signed the Wilderness Act into law. The law defined "wilderness" for the first time in a legal sense, and designated areas of the United States that would be protected from human development:

"A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

The Wilderness Act is a reminder of the importance of protecting and preserving our wild spaces -- in the United States and around the world. As I look forward to the next 50 years, I see amazing opportunities for conservation and discovery, and unprecedented risks and challenges facing our natural world.

Today, fifty years after the Wilderness Act, our planet is under more pressure than ever before. Complex anthropogenic, or human-caused, forces like agriculture, urbanization, invasive species and climate change have profound effects on our natural ecosystems. For example, the tallgrass prairie once blanketed large portions of the Midwest, from Illinois through Kansas and extended all the way from Texas to Canada. In the last two centuries, conversion to agriculture and development have virtually erased the tallgrass prairie from the map.

The Wilderness Act helps to protect our wild lands from competing land uses, but it is no match for climate change. The actions we take in our urban and suburban communities can affect our wilderness areas. To preserve the plant species and healthy ecosystems we depend on for everything -- from food and medicines to clean water and the very air we breathe -- we must rise to the challenge and work to curb and mitigate climate change.

But you don't need a Ph.D. to play a role in the conservation of our wilderness -- every citizen can be a scientist by opening their eyes a little bit wider to the natural world around them. "Citizen scientists" are individuals who, while they may not have a formal background in science, take an interest and participate in research efforts.

For example, the citizen science program Project BudBurst collects the observations of a network of people across the U.S. who monitor plants as the seasons change. The observations of these citizen scientists are used to track trends in phenology or the timing of life cycle events, like leafing out, flowering and fruiting, which can help us understand how climate change is affecting plant species and communities. The early results of Project BudBurst suggest that several species of plants are blooming up to a month earlier than they did in the latter half of the 1900s. On its own, this might not seem like a problem, but if plant life cycles become mismatched with those of their pollinators, the plants may be unable to reproduce.

The time I spent in nature as a child played a key role in shaping my values and led me to a career in botany and conservation. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, let's not just look back, but also forward to the opportunities and challenges of the next 50 years. Today, it is no longer enough to prevent development on wilderness land -- we must also all work together, regardless of location or profession, to protect our wilderness from threats like climate change.