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), European Centre for Nature Conservation (ECNC), 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.

National Park Kalkalpen © NP KA
Kalkalpen Wilderness, Austria

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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Join more 100+ forest experts demanding a radical change in German forestry management.

Sign the Open Letter to the German Federal Minister of Forestry and Agriculture

Open Letter to the German Ministry of Food and Agriculture

Federal Ministry of
Food and Agriculture
Minister Julia Klöckner
11055 Berlin

Dear Minister Klöckner,

The current situation of the forest in Germany is worrying. It is a forest crisis not only driven by climate change. The current crisis management of the forestry industry is backward-looking and harmful to the forest. The declaration announced at the meeting of ministers in Moritzburg can be described as a `Moritzburg declaration of bankruptcy´. We call on the state forestry industry to, instead of expensive rushed actions, finally carry out an expert analysis of its own work and to involve all stakeholders in this process. What is called for is a consistent departure from plantation forestry and a radical shift towards a management that treats the forest as an ecosystem and no longer as a wood factory.

On 1stAugust 2019, five forestry ministers of CDU and CSU-led states adopted a so-called “master plan” for the forest in Germany, which was affected by heat, bark beetles, fire and drought. As of 2020, the federal government is to make 800 million euros available as a reaction to climate change. This money is to be used to repair the damage caused, reforest the damaged areas and carry out `climate-adapted´ forest conversion – including the use of non-native tree species that have not yet been cultivated in the forest. Research should therefore focus on on tree species suitability and forest plant breeding in the future – keyword: `Climate-adapted forest of the future 2100´.

Remarkably, the damage caused primarily by the extreme drought of 2018 is attributed solely to climate change. Climate change is meeting a forest that is systemically ill due to the planting of non-native tree species, species poverty, monocultures, uniform structure, average low age, mechanical soil compaction, drainage etc. A healthy, resistant forest would look differently! The master plan emphasizes: sustainable, multifunctional and `active´ forest management remains indispensable – and thereby means that its unnatural state cannot be changed. Reference is made to the `carbon storage and substitution effects´ of wood products. The use of wood, e.g. in the construction industry, should be increased and thus the demand for wood should be further fueled – while knowing that the forest in Germany already cannot meet this demand. In fact, forest owners are suffering from poor timber prices due to an oversupply of trunk wood on the world market.

All these demands make clear: the current forestry strategy, which has been practiced for decades, should not change in principle. The concept is simple: cut down trees – plant trees. At best, the `design´ of the future artificial forests consisting of perfectly calculated tree species mixtures, that are believed to survive climate change without damages, can be changed. In all seriousness, the intention is to continue selling the public a so-called `future strategy´ to save the forest. This strategy seamlessly follows the model of a wood factory, that is met with general rejection and must be regarded as a failure in view of the coniferous plantations that are currently collapsing on a large scale. An essential part of the forests that have currently died is exactly the part that was reestablished in 1947 as coniferous monocultures on a much larger area than today. There is only one difference to the situation at the time: considerable amounts of money are to be made available from taxes for forest owners this time.

Climate change is progressing, and this, without a doubt, has massive impacts on all terrestrial ecosystems, including forests. To pretend that the last two years of drought alone caused the disaster is too cheap. On closer inspection, the disaster is also the result of decades of a forestry focused on conifers – in a country that was once naturally dominated by mixed deciduous forests. People do not like to admit that for more than 200 years they have relied on the wrong species of commercial tree (spruce) and have also created artificial, ecologically highly unstable and thus high-risk forest ecosystems. A whole branch of business has become dependent on coniferous wood. And now the German coniferous timber industry is on the verge of bankruptcy.

It would only have been honest and also a sign of political greatness if you and the forestry ministers in Moritzburg had declared: Yes, our forestry industry has made mistakes in the past, and yes, we are ready for a relentless analysis that takes into account not only purely silvicultural, but also forest-ecological aspects. Instead, you have confined yourselves to pre-stamped excuses that are already familiar to everyone and that lack any self-critical reflection.

Clear is: We finally need resting periods for the forest in Germany, which has been exploited for centuries. We need a new, ecologically oriented concept for future forest – not a hectic `forest conversion´, but simply forest development closer towards nature. This gives the forest as an ecosystem the necessary leeway to self-regulate and react to the emerging environmental changes. We need a systemic forest management that is no less profitable than the present one, but must be substantially more stable and resistant to foreseeable environmental changes. The aid for forest owners that all citizens are now required to pay through their taxes is only politically justified in the interest of common good, if the forests of the future that are being promoted by it, do not end up in the next disaster, some of which is produced by the forest management itself.

That is why the signatories request from the the Federal Government, and in particular you, Mrs Klöckner, a master plan worthy of the name:

On disaster areas (mainly in public forests!) reestablishment through natural forest development (ecological succession), among other things with pioneer tree species, is to be brought about. In private forests, ecological succession for reestablishment must be purposefully promoted. Larger bare areas should be planted with a maximum of 400 to 600 large plants of native species per hectare in order to permit ecological succession parallelly.
To promote ecological succession, the areas should no longer be completely and mechanically cleared; as much wood as possible should be left in the stand (to promote optimum soil and germ bed formation, soil moisture storage and natural protection against browsing). In private forests, the abandonment of use in disaster areas should be specifically promoted for ecological reasons and in order to relieve the burden on the timber market.

Regarding the promotion of reestablishment plantings in private forests: priority for native tree species (of regional origin); choose wide planting distances in order to leave enough space for the development of pioneer species. For the forests of the future: Minimize thinning (low-input principle), build up stocks through targeted development towards old thick trees, protect the inner forest climate / promote self-cooling function (should have highest priority due to rapidly progressing climate change!), prohibit heavy machinery, refrain from further road construction and expansion, permit and promote natural self-regulatory development processes in the cultivated forest and on (larger) separate areas in the sense of an compound system; drastically reduce the density of ungulate game (reform of hunting laws).

Like in the field of organic agriculture, which has been established since the 1980s, the crisis of our forests should be the reason today to transform at least two existing forestry-related universities. They should be turned into universities for interdisciplinary forest ecosystem management. This is a contribution not only to the further development of forestry science and silviculture in Germany, but also of global importance! The goal must be to produce wood through largely natural forest production and to start with it here in Germany, the birthplace of forestry.


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