A study, recently published in the scientific journal Nature, described the loss of Earth’s remaining wildlands. Using maps of roads, urban areas, and other human development, the authors of the study evaluated the location of the wildest places on Earth and tracked their recent decline.

As Earth’s wildlands decline, wildlife habitats are fragmented, nature’s processes upon which we depend are disrupted, and opportunities to find quiet spots to recreate are diminished. Each of us may feel like we have very limited – if any – influence on how large tracts of boreal forest in Siberia, tropical forests of the Amazon, or deserts of Australia are managed or protected (all places highlighted in the global map of wild areas featured in the study).

However, a closer look at the global maps of Earth’s remaining wildlands reveals a few precious wild spots in the lower 48. Zoom into maps of Earth’s remaining wildlands and you will see the global value of our backyard — the Greater Yellowstone Area. We can feel proud of what remains so close to home.

We should also feel empowered. We have an opportunity to help shape the future of these globally significant wildlands through the current planning process taking place right now on the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Through this management plan, the Custer Gallatin National Forest establishes the north star that will guide decisions regarding timber harvests, recreation and the amount of recommended wilderness areas.

Reviewing and commenting on the Custer Gallatin National Forest plan revision represents an often-underappreciated opportunity to shape the forest’s future. While the Forest Service staff have been hard at work assessing the conditions and drafting alternative plans, a group of citizens representing different perspectives co-developed a vision for the Greater Yellowstone portion of the forest. This group, known as the Gallatin Forest Partnership (or GFP), developed recommendations based on maintaining the wild condition of the landscape amidst ongoing and projected future developmental pressures in the area.

The GFP proposes about 230,000 acres of conservation protections for the Gallatin and Madison ranges that will stop new roads, industrial development, and mineral extraction across this landscape. The GFP proposes wilderness protection in the heart of the Gallatin Range and additions to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, including connecting the Spanish Peaks to Bear Trap Canyon. In addition to new wilderness, the GFP proposes designations that maintain existing recreation access while limiting future recreation development in areas not recommended as wilderness.

The lands considered by the GFP are some of the wildest in the lower 48, and they also represent important linkages for wildlife that need to move between Greater Yellowstone and surrounding lands. The lower elevation Douglas-fir forests of the landscape represent habitat types not well-represented in existing conservation reserves. This makes these lower elevation forests important priorities for elevated levels of conservation protection. Few argue this landscape isn’t worthy of protection.

But, exactly how we protect these wildlands is the rub. Important questions remain, especially concerning what type and intensity of recreation the land and wildlife can endure. Fixing the recreational footprint and limiting new infrastructure, as the GFP recommends, is an important step in safeguarding these wildlands. Identifying areas for wildlife movement and security where recreational impacts are relatively intense should also guide our science. Investing in research and monitoring to understand the effects of our different kinds of recreation on wildlife should be a top priority in this special place. What we learn should guide future planning.

Conservation is increasingly recognizing the value of multi-stakeholder “governance” of public land. When diverse interests develop a collective vision of maintaining shared values, we end up with better, politically enduring solutions to conservation challenges. Protecting the remaining wildlands in the U.S. requires such an approach that honors diverse perspectives and commits to making science-informed adjustments as we learn more. Future generations will thank us, and the wildness of the landscape depends on it.

Travis Belote, Ph.D., is a research ecologist with The Wilderness Society in Bozeman.