Why do we conserve large stretches of nature? The answer may lie in the ability of untouched ecosystems to serve as model specimens.

A view of the autumn landscape facing east from Blue Ridge in Henry Coe State Park in Morgan Hill, November 2016. Ecologist Aldo Leopold helped to promote the idea of wilderness as a reservoir of scientific knowledge. (Image Credit: Andy Semenza)

Looking southeast from Blue Ridge, one can gaze for miles out over the unending series of ridges, roughened in the distant autumn sunlight by stands of oaks among the grasses. And not just any oaks, either—valley oaks, blue oaks, coast live oaks, canyon live oaks, interior live oaks. That’s just the oaks; ponderosa pines crown the ridge crests, chamise blankets the steep eastern flanks of the hills, fist-size dandelions push their way up between the thigh-high grasses still laden with dew.

Twenty minutes down East Dunne Avenue from Henry Coe’s northern entrance, one can pass by scores of weekend boating enthusiasts plying the waters of Anderson Lake, whether in kayaks or in their yachts. Anderson Lake and Henry Coe are both “parks,” but they seem hardly comparable in their identities. Cement slipways plunge into Anderson Lake, a manmade reservoir, from a sprawling parking lot ringed by scattered picnic tables.

Only a few miles away, a lone backpacker may tread Coe’s trails in utter solitude, gaining ridges occasionally dusted by snow in good years, his only companions Stellar’s Jays, tarantulas in the fall, and elusive mountain lions more present in his mind than in the brush around him.

Why do both these “parks” exist? Why hasn’t the sprawl of Silicon Valley extended its suburban tendrils into the surrounding hills? From the very inception of the conservation movement, the opposing forces of industry and conservation have battled in starkly polar terms: Progress and civilization versus the preservation of untarnished nature. Indeed, why should the Hetch Hetchy Valley have remained untouched while the modern achievements of science and engineering might be able to dam the Tuolumne and convert the wild domain of nature into the utilitarian domain of society, tamed by science and civilization?

In the years following the construction of the O’Shaughnessy Dam in Hetch Hetchy, Aldo Leopold’s popularization of ecology and land health as well as other environmental thinkers’ works led to a gradual shift in the academic and public perception of nature in relation to science. No longer was wilderness necessarily the subject of scientific civilization, but rather a model for scientific exploration itself—a natural experiment, an insight into the evolutionary history of humans and the planet.

And yet, while the idea of wilderness as a useful insight into the workings of nature has remained an integral part of conservationist philosophy over the intervening decades, its domain as a scientific tool has largely been constrained to ecology itself. After all, is an intact ecosystem not an apt model for ecosystems at large?

Nonetheless, although myriad other reasons for wilderness preservation, we can learn so much more from wilderness in the scientific sphere. As the biological sciences grew increasingly reductionist in the mid-twentieth century—leading to groundbreaking advances in understanding the structure of DNA or the progression of countless diseases—Leopold’s ideas as an ecologist became lost in the fray. While the ideology of wilderness as a recreational tool remained in conservation, some of his ideas concerning the interaction of land and humans fell by the wayside when it came to scientific methods themselves.

Today, we are beginning to realize the utility of some of those Leopoldian ideas. What can the natural environment tell us about our evolutionary history, our current biology, and our future?

Certainly, wilderness can act as an essential tool for understanding how fires spread or how fertilizers impact nitrogen levels, but the possibilities exceed understanding the wilderness itself. Understanding the systems of wilderness can often be directly applicable to human health—most infectious strains of influenza A (H1N1, H5N1, e.g.) and countless other dangerous diseases like Ebola have emerged from the natural environment, often not well understood zoonotic potential and unpredictable pathways from avian to mammalian to human hosts. And so, wilderness can essentially serve as a natural laboratory, a pristine comparative study tool (Mettermeier, 2000).

Furthermore, wilderness can produce a bank of potential treatments to the very diseases that emerge from the forests themselves.

Take quinine, the antimalarial agent derived from the bark of the Cinchona officinalis tree of the Amazon. Not only medicines, too, but the unique adaptations of the natural world; take the Tungara frog or Engystomops pustulosus, also from the Amazon, for instance, which creates nests with an unusually resilient foam that are being investigated for utilization in carbon sequestration techniques (Nobre, 2016).

Deborah Gordon of Stanford University has been conducting research studying the networks produced by ant colonies in the dry forest of Jalisco, Mexico, gaining insight into distributed processes in computing and artificial human networks (2016).

Even in the cities of Japan, far away from wilderness, the Shinkansen bullet trains race onward at near 200 miles per hour, with many of their components, from the elongated noses to the maglev systems, designed by an ornithologist well-versed in the anatomy and physiology of kingfishers and owls, a production process otherwise known as biomimicry.

And so, we can derive substances and compounds from wilderness, we can mimic the inhabitants of wilderness, and we can understand their systems to enhance our own artificial constructions. Finally, wildernesses, particularly arboreal regions, may serve as invaluable carbon reserves due to their high levels of biomass.

Wilderness, then, does not simply hold aesthetic or recreational or even moral value: it also serves an invaluable and ancient purpose as a reservoir of scientific knowledge, and, in its fringes, a laboratory.