Fragmentation and the Wildness Index

The Wilderness Society (TWS) has developed a national map of “wildness” showing the degree to which regions of the United States are influenced by human infrastructure and influence. In the South, growing cities are increasing the influence of humans on the landscape, but many relatively remote and unaltered areas remain, especially in the Southern Appalachians, southwestern Florida, and in the swamps and wetlands of the coastal plain.

Wildness is an attribute of the land reflecting its naturalness and its freedom from human influence. As such, wildness captures not only important elements of ecological integrity, but aspects of the land relating to the human experience of a place, such as its remoteness and its provision of solitude. This map depicts an index of wildness created by combining information representing this naturalness and freedom: population density, distance from roads, pollution, as well as ecosystem composition, structure, and function.

Wildness is both continuous and relative. A wildness map of any area assigns all lands in that area some degree of wildness, from a relative high to a relative low. Expand or contract the area being mapped, and the wildness rating of a place within those areas may change. For instance, in the context of the contiguous United States, much of the Appalachian Mountains are only moderately wild; the vast open spaces of the West are far wilder by comparison. In the same context, even the largest of city parks receives the lowest wildness ranking. In the context of the eastern United States, however, the Appalachians are some of the wildest lands, and in the context of a metropolitan area a city park would also receive a high wildness ranking.

Potentially important conservation lands are not limited to those with the highest wildness index values. Any area more wild than its immediate surroundings plays an important role in preserving the wildness values of freedom and naturalness. A healthy, resilient, and pleasant landscape will often be made up of a mosaic of protected lands, each making its own unique contribution to the whole.

By itself, wildness mapping can help us visualize general land condition, corroborate the importance of lands already targeted for protection, and suggest areas where restoration work is needed. In conjunction with other information, wildness can help develop a robust plan for the protection of a network of wildlands stretching from the most intimate urban green space to our nation’s largest wilderness area.


Aplet, G.A., J.L. Thomson, and M. Wilbert. 2000. Indicators of Wildness: Using Attributes of the Land to Assess the Context of Wilderness. Wilderness Science in a time of Change Conference, USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-15-Vol-2, p. 89-98.