Defining and protecting Wilderness in Europe

In 2013 the Wilderness Working Group (WWG) published an official European Wilderness definition. This definition builds on the IUCN definition for category Ib “Wilderness Areas”. The European Commission further agreed upon this WWG Wilderness definition. The European Wilderness Society developed the European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System based on this commonly agreed definition. All Wilderness partners within the European Wilderness Network are consequenlty designated according to this definition.

Please also read: European Wilderness Definition

Historic development of a European Wilderness Definition

An important milestone for Wilderness in Europe was the agreement on the “European Parliament Resolution on Wilderness” in 2009. This Resolution calls on the European Commission to:

  • Develop a clear definition of Wilderness.
  • Mandate the European Environment Agency to map existing Wilderness areas in Europe.
  • Undertake a study on the values and benefits of Wilderness.
  • Develop a EU Wilderness strategy.
  • Catalyse the development of new Wilderness areas through restoration.
  • Promote the values of Wilderness together with NGOs & local communities.

The Member States of the EU were invited to exchange ‘best practices’ in managing Wilderness. And further develop a code of conduct for tourism in Wilderness as well as to ensure the best protection of Wilderness. The Wild Europe Initiative (WEI) started a collaborative effort to promote the Wilderness concept amongst several European nature conservation organizations in the same year. This included PAN Parks, EUROPARC, WWF, BirdLife International, IUCN, UNESCO, Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), Rewilding Europe, and including personnel from the European Commission and the Council of Europe.

Majella Wilderness Audit 2018
Majella Wilderness, Italy

The Conference of Prague

In May 2009, more than 230 representatives met in Prague at the “Conference on Wilderness and Large Natural Habitat Areas”. Key outcome of this conference was the “Message from Prague”. This message contained 24 recommendations from the participants on policy, research, awareness raising, and partneships concerning Wilderness.  The Wilderness Working Group (WWG) generated a first draft paper based on definition formulated at the Conference: the “Discussion Draft: A Working Definition of European Wilderness and Wild Areas“. The feedback of several members of the WWG, NGOs, and government organisations as well as the practical experience during the first applications of these criteria, led to an update of the criteria at the WILD10 Conference in Salamanca in 2013.

Wilderness and Wild Areas

“A Wilderness is an area governed by natural processes. It is composed of native habitats and species, and large enough for the effective ecological functioning of natural processes. It is unmodified or only slightly modified and without intrusive or extractive human activity, settlements, infrastructure or visual disturbance.”

Wild areas have a high level of predominance of natural process and natural habitat. They tend to be individually smaller and more fragmented than Wilderness areas, although they often cover extensive tracts. The condition of their natural habitat, processes and relevant species is, however, often partially or substantially modified by human activities such as livestock herding, hunting, fishing, forestry, sport activities or general imprint of human artefacts.”

The European Wilderness Definition by the WWG further covers all relevant aspects of the EU level guidance on management of the Natura 2000 framework. The two-folded structure of the definition is an adaptation to the European context. Wild Areas focus on rewilding and restoring natural dynamic processes as well as on linking ecological corridors. This aims at the creation of a Wilderness network, an important task taken up by the European Wilderness Network.

IUCN category Ib – Wilderness Areas

The IUCN definition of category Ib is the basis for the European Wilderness definition by the WWG. Consequently, both definitions have the same understanding of the term Wilderness.

“Wilderness Areas (Category 1b) are large unmodified or slightly modified areas that retained their natural character have no permanent or significant human habitation and are protected to preserve their natural and intact condition. Main objective is to preserve the long-term ecological integrity of such natural areas which are free of any significant human activities or infrastructure. The areas should be of sufficient size to protect the native biodiversity, as well as the ecological and natural processes and ecosystems which are dominant there.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) developed the protected areas categories and their underlying criteria in 1948. Millions of protected areas worldwide have been certified according to them since then. The decisive factor of the protected areas categories are the management objectives of the proteced area. Wilderness can be found in many of the IUCN categories, such as in “National Parks” category II. However, category I mostly protects Wilderness. The IUCN defition for “Wilderness” (Ib) takes up the thoughts of the U.S. Wilderness Act.

Country-specific Wilderness definitions

Several European countries developed their own definitions for Wilderness. For example, Germany, Finland and Sweden. These definitions are often based on already existing ones, either the IUCN definitions or the WWG definitions. Some of them specify these formerly mentioned definitions, like the Swedish definition, which added a size criterion for IUCN Ib areas. Others stick to the content, but add a country-specific objective, like Germany aiming at designating 2% of the countries territory as Wilderness by 2020.

Country-specific Wilderness definitions proof that governments support the protection of European Wilderness. However, they also blur a European-wide definition and standard by adding variations that are all talking, more or less, about the same thing. This makes a European-wide discussion about a uniform protection of Wilderness difficult. To help overcome the challenge with vague descriptions, national Wilderness defintions should aim to use the same wording and context of the already agreed on European Wilderness Definition as much as possible.

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