Late last summer I went backpacking with three other Sea Grant fellows through 20 miles of Desolation Wilderness just south west of Lake Tahoe in California. Desolation Wilderness is a federally protected wilderness area full of beautiful alpine lakes, towering trees, and desolate expanses of granite. We started on the Pacific Crest Trail from Echo Lake, meandered past Aloha Lake, and camped between La Conte and Aloha our first night. Despite the massive blisters on my feet, the next day we headed out past Heather Lake and up to Gilmore Lake where we gladly ditched our packs and hiked up to Mt Tallac (elev 9,700’) for an incredibly picturesque view of Lake Tahoe and surrounding smaller lakes.
To me, the ability to walk out into the woods and get a little lost in federally protected areas is an incredible privilege and something I might consider a right that every citizen of the US has to these pristine areas. I’m incredibly grateful for the Wilderness Act of 1964 that established the National Wilderness Preservation System, which allows Congress to designate areas to be “administered for the use and enjoyment of the American people in such a manner as will leave them unimpaired for future use and enjoyment as wilderness” by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the US Forest Service. Though I may never be able to afford beautiful lakeside property, in a way, through the Wilderness Act I’ll always be a sort of co-owner of an amazing expanse of wilderness areas. And I’m perfectly happy to hike many miles into these areas and carry what I need on my back to experience a little peace and quiet.
While reflecting on my “co-ownership” of national forests, I started to think about the oceans and whether we have a parallel system in the marine environment. Of course there is the National Marine Sanctuary System, and I was fortunate to grow up near Monterey Bay next to the beautiful Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary established in 1992 and expanded in 2009. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act in 1972 was a great step forward to protect coastal areas by allowing the Secretary of Commerce “to designate and protect areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational, or esthetic qualities as national marine sanctuaries”. Some states have begun to establish networks of Marine Reserves along their coasts, which goes a step or two further in protecting marine resources.
In 1999, California passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) to design and manage an improved network of marine protected areas off California’s coast through a process that involved stakeholder engagement and the best available science. California was divided into four regions: south coast, central coast, north central coast, and north coast. Just a few months ago in December, the north coast reserves went in to effect and the California Marine Life Protection Act process ended its planning phase and moved into implementation. Approving the final series of marine reserves may seem like a small thing, but to those who have been through the process from the beginning over a decade ago this is a momumentous moment in California’s own mini Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) process to establish a network of marine reserves along the entire CA coast.
Preservation of these terrestrial and marine ecosystems through marine santuaries, marine reserves, national forests, and national wilderness areas sets aside large swaths of land and ocean to be enjoyed by many generations into the future. The goals and objectives of the two types of protected areas are slightly different, but knowing there are places in the world set aside for the protection of species and wildlife is reassuring. I think the folks who created Desolation Wilderness in 1899 would be pleased that a group of three girls could venture into the wilderness over a century later with nothing but the packs on their backs to explore and enjoy this national wilderness. Marine reserves and National Sanctuaries similarly preserve a wealth of ecosystem services as well as areas for people to enjoy for years to come. So, I encourage you to go out and explore these areas be it carefully walking through the intertidal to see the animals and algae living in tidepools, kayaking across the surface, SCUBA diving through the kelp forest, or just lazing on the beach.