Hells Canyon landscape

The USFS road to Hat Point, the highest part of Hells Canyon’s rim on the Oregon side, provides views of the diverse landscapes, slopes, and slope aspects that comprise the diversity of Hells Canyon.

Intact landscapes such as the Greater Hells Canyon Region provide the highest conservation value for a variety of important ecosystem services. For example, these areas retain much of the world’s remaining old growth forests, store large amounts of carbon, contain critical habitat for threatened and endangered plant and animal species, serve as strongholds for clean water and native fisheries, support robust insect and pollinator communities, serve as genetic repositories for species evolution, harbor intact cultural sites, support local economies, and the list goes on.

Together, these values promote resilience and give ecosystems the tools they need to respond favorably to climate change. The larger the size of the area, the larger the conservation value. Larger areas can accommodate processes and species that require a lot of space. And larger intact areas have conservation qualities that extend to the surrounding landscape.

For example, a recent study by Di Marco and others, published in the journal Nature last year, found that intactness is positively related to biodiversity. This global evaluation found that extinction rates are halved in wilderness areas compared with unprotected areas. It also found a buffering effect on biodiversity for lands adjacent to protected areas.

We experience this effect in northeast Oregon. Here, rare wildlife like wolverine are able to survive thanks to large protected areas. And many species of fish and wildlife move unimpeded from the security of protected wildlands onto adjacent public and private lands. Clean air and pure water also flow freely from these ecologically intact lands to support our farms and communities.

Intact landscapes are critical to the survival of people. Indigenous cultures have helped sustain the integrity of these areas for thousands of years, as people moved through the landscape in unison with seasonal cycles. Today, the Nez Perce and other Native Americans are providing direction on how to repair our relationship with the environment. Intact landscapes can serve as focal areas for securing and renewing these relationships for future generations, such as hunting, gathering, fishing, and even returning cultural burning practices to the land.

Large intact landscapes are also relatively safe places for natural disturbance regimes to function, allowing plant communities to adapt to changing conditions using the tools they’ve used forever. Hells Canyon is known for its fire-adapted ecosystems, where fire is a natural and restorative force that helps maintain and renew the vegetation mosaic. Over time, natural disturbances facilitate shifts in species composition, including towards species better adapted to the changing climatic conditions. This is how ecological resilience is built into natural systems.

Scientists calculate roadless area per capita as a form of wealth to local communities, underscoring the benefits to those of us fortunate enough to live near intact areas like Hells Canyon. Speaking as an ecologist, it is incredibly encouraging to have places like Hells Canyon to help buffer our region’s response to current and future stressors that our ecosystems will face.

It may be surprising to some that few areas in our neck of the woods are actually large enough to be considered truly intact on their own. This underscores the importance of protecting and connecting intact areas with significant corridors if we wish to see these landscapes continue to remain resilient into the future.

There is still much we don’t know about our current period of climate change, and how ecosystems will be impacted. We do know that it is the rapid rate of change that truly sets this period apart from previous longer term geologic scale climatic oscillations. And while we have some evidence of how these ecosystems have responded to past disturbances, we really are in uncharted waters with where the climate system is going in the future. All of this highlights the great need for empirical research to understand how these areas will actually respond. It also underscores the critical importance of landscapes like Hells Canyon as baselines for assessing ecological integrity and processes in natural habitats of our region.

David Mildrexler is a systems ecologist with Eastern Oregon Legacy Lands, and holds a Ph.D. in ecology. He lives in Joseph.

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