Fish and
Wildlife Resources

University of Idaho
Moscow, ID 83844-1136

Office Phone:
(208) 885-5171
Office Fax:
(208) 885-9080

Wilderness Symposium

The Global Relevance of the Central Idaho Wilderness

A Proposal to Implement the University of Idaho Wilderness Summit 2008:
Setting a Unique and Critical Research and Education Agenda
for the Central Idaho Wilderness Complex. An Agenda in Support of Interdisciplinary Science, Wise Resource Management and Informed Policy Development in a Rapidly Changing World



The rates of climatic change and globalization necessitate a strategic inventory and evaluation of our nation’s most pristine ecosystems. These systems serve as baselines for scientific discovery and bellwethers of ecological change and their margins provide an increasingly important opportunity to understand the relationship between economic and political struggles over natural resources.

We propose that the University of Idaho host an interdisciplinary symposium that convenes an international panel of experts from across relevant fields to evaluate the Central Idaho Wilderness as a valuable resource with which to increase our understanding of pressing global environmental issues and the human dimensions of wilderness conservation and management. Faculty at the University of Idaho have unique access and expertise to explore these issues and have been encouraged to elevate that opportunity to a national and international level.

Specific outcomes of the proposed symposium will be 1) a wilderness symposium of global interest and significance, 2) a volume of the proceedings that integrates scientific and social aspects of wilderness research, 3) a heightened platform for future interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research, education and outreach, and 4) increased exposure and external funding support for research and education programs that we are uniquely positioned to conduct.


Statement of the issue and objectives – Project Narrative

The rate at which climatic change and globalization are occurring necessitates a strategic inventory and evaluation of our nation’s most pristine ecosystems as well as a prioritization of research objectives and resources. Wilderness ecosystems and their developing margins provide an increasingly important venue for scientific discovery as well as a unique opportunity to understand the relationship between economic, social and political struggles over natural resources. Recently referred to as the "crown jewel of American natural areas" in a New York times article about disappearing pristine lands, the Central Idaho Wilderness represents a significant fraction of the limited remaining pristine wilderness (0.9% of all land) in the lower 48 states (Fig. 1).  This piece of pristine land represents the unreplicated vestiges of habitat for many endangered aquatic and terrestrial organisms that inhabit a unique geologic setting. 

National scientific organizations (e.g. LTER – long term ecological research) and funding agencies (NSF) are increasingly recognizing the need to incorporate the implications and effects of human activities and economic forces into our understanding of ecosystem processes. Wilderness locations provide unique investigative windows into dynamically coupled human and natural processes in two ways. First, wilderness locations provide a reference condition for ecosystem processes as far ranging as nutrient cycling and population dispersal. Secondly, only at the margins of wilderness locations can we truly understand the social and scientific issues of human development and exploitation on natural systems.

Central Idaho Wilderness has unique potential for supporting quality, far-reaching interdisciplinary science and social science. These opportunities are likely to be representative of many scales of space and time and present unique opportunities for interdisciplinary work. Some of these scientific opportunities are being actively explored, others have yet to be investigated or even conceived. Along the internal margins of these two ends of wilderness research there exists the essential social and philosophical questions of the value of wilderness to the human condition and the tenuous relationship between scientific exploration and wilderness ethics. Our goal is to foster interdisciplinary expertise and forge new collaborations that will bring a heightened sense of awareness for the potential of this region. The remoteness and lack of arable land of the Central Idaho Wilderness are a direct consequence of regional geologic processes. We are still learning about the geologic setting that establishes the physical stage for the Central Idaho Wilderness and how these landforms change over time scales that are relevant to organisms and humans. Hydrologically, the wilderness represents a place where climate-induced changes in snowmelt timing and water temperature can be studied in the absence of confounding anthropogenic factors. At an atmospheric scale, the Central Idaho Wilderness offers unique opportunities for comparisons across elevational and continental air mass gradients that are virtually unaffected by downwind industrial sources. Combined, these geologic and atmospheric forces establish a unique and relatively pristine physical habitat template. At a biological level, this template provides the last untrammeled land at the nexus of the southern distribution of some large mammal species, the eastern limit of wild anadromous fish stocks and the northern distribution of many plant species. Each of the species’ distributional boundaries presents potential for unique plant animal interactions. Additionally, the extensive boundaries between public and private lands, wilderness and urban and political entities within this wilderness offer unique opportunities to study the role impact that humans have, both scientifically and socially on the wilderness; past, present and future.

The University of Idaho is in a unique position to capitalize on the scientific and social scientific opportunities of the Central Idaho Wilderness. The university owns and manages several research stations and educational platforms both within and at the periphery of the Central Idaho Wilderness, for example, Taylor Wilderness Research Station in the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness (Fig. 1). The university has accumulated faculty that are interested in the ecosystems processes (population dynamics, genetic and life history diversity, hydrology, geomorphology, and natural disturbances) that occur in wilderness settings, as well as human dimensions of wilderness conservation and natural resource management. Partnering agencies, such as the Idaho Geological Survey, have a long history of research in the Central Idaho Wilderness. Lastly, emerging international research efforts are increasingly interested in ecosystem processes that can be uniquely studied in the Central Idaho Wilderness. Collaborations between Dr. Kennedy and Flathead Lake Biological Station are formalizing the inclusion of Big Creek in the Middle Fork of the Salmon River into the Salmonid Rivers Observatory Network (SaRON). With the collaborations of Dr. Peter Goodwin, Center for Ecohydraulics Research, we are beginning to appreciate the potential importance of this region as a site for comparative aquatic research across an international research triangle that includes collaborative efforts of CIEP in Patagonia, Chile and the University of Siena, Italy.

We have an increasingly rare resource and unique opportunity in the Central Idaho Wilderness where research and management questions have reached a critical moment in a global climate of change.  We recognize that as an institution we cannot address this issue alone, but that it requires the interdisciplinary input, collaboration and vision of international and regional leaders. Because of our unique geographic location, our existing resources in faculty and the interdisciplinary initiatives underway at the University of Idaho, we are in a unique position to galvanize this effort.

We are proposing to host an international and interdisciplinary symposium in 2008-2009 that addresses the role of the Central Idaho Wilderness in the scientific, economic and political understanding of the 21st century and integrates university faculty with international leaders in these fields. Specifically we will address the questions: What have we learned or can we learn about ecosystem processes from the Central Idaho Wilderness? What can this geographic region bring to our understanding of the central scientific challenges of this century; e.g. climate change, biodiversity loss, exotic species, and population viability of endangered species? How do wilderness environments assist our understanding of human dominated ecosystems? And, lastly, at what cost do we trade-off scientific exploration and discovery with wilderness ethics and management? The proposed symposium provides a framework for explicitly integrating aspects of previously funded Strategic Initiatives (Water of the West, Building Sustainable Communities, and Sustainable Idaho) that have interests in the social and scientific aspects of wilderness processes and resource sustainability in a dynamic human landscape. The specific objectives of the meeting will be:

  1. To document the historical research that has been done in the Central Idaho Wilderness – Frank Church-River of No Return and Selway-Bitterroot wilderness areas.
  2. To coordinate ongoing research and facilitate future research through the creation of new collaborative interdisciplinary research groups across the region.
  3. To place the Central Idaho Wilderness into a global context of research that is being conducted in remote and pristine areas.
  4. To formalize the potentially important role of the Central Idaho Wilderness in the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative from a biological, social and economic perspective.
  5. To discuss the role of wilderness regions in the current scientific climate that encourages the establishment of environmental observatories.
  6. To discuss the role of wilderness regions in the context of global climate change.
  7. To explore the critical relationship between research and management in wild places.




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