The future of Wilderness in Europe

Wilderness is a word that raises various connotations all of over the world. While some people from the nature conservation arena consider the concept of protecting Wilderness an obsolete term, the concept of Wilderness has gained considerable momentum in Europe during recent years. The different rewilding initiatives across Europe also use – often misuse – the term Wilderness. Even different governmental bodies across Europe define Wilderness different from each other.

During the Future of Wild in Europe conference in Leeds, UK, in September 2016, I presented a concept of improving the policy of Wilderness protection through the better understanding of how Wilderness policy developed in Europe during the past decade. A clear political milestone was the adoption of the European Parliament Resolution on Wilderness in Europe on the 3rd of February 2009, which called on the European Commission and the Member States to take several concrete actions including the followings:

  • 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, which opens up the opportunity for restoring Wilderness attributes or “rewilding”
  • promote the values of Wilderness in cooperation with NGOs & local communities.

Based upon

  • a literature review,
  • the development of an online questionnaire addressed to the representatives of the EU member states,
  • interviews with key stakeholders,

my conference paper looked at the actions towards implementing better Wilderness protection in Europe with special attention paid to the Wilderness Guidelines for Natura 2000 managers and the EC Wilderness Register. In order to define the future of wild in Europe, my paper concluded what steps were still required in order to implement the EU Agenda on Wilderness and Wildland across Europe. The research came up with 11 key recommendations, which I hope Wilderness protection organisations would adopt in their policy work in the years to come to ensure the implementation of Wilderness across Europe. With this post, I am introducing the first 2 key recommendations linked to the definition of Wilderness.

The technical definition of Wilderness was developed with the involvement of key European civil society organisations and more than 230 Wilderness advocates and governmental representatives. The European Commission indirectly accepted this definition by using it as a reference in its Wilderness guidance and Wilderness register documents. Consistency is an important factor and while a technical definition might be considered as a living phrase, which require regular update, this paper suggest not altering the definition until 2030.

The graph below demonstrates the key difference between Wilderness (a status) and rewilding (a process). Rewilding as an approach might be applied at the full continuum of Wilderness from urban green spaces to wildlands! Wilderness though exists only at the end of the spectrum!

Figure 1: The Wilderness continuum

Key recommendations for a successful implementation of Wilderness policy across Europe:

  1. Keep the current European definition of Wilderness and wild areas as a European wide definition! The difference between Wilderness, wild areas and rewilding as a process must be clear in any communication. The European Wilderness Society in its European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System is doing that.
  2. Collect evidences of the best practice use of the definition and also arguments for change after 2020. In 2016 the first three Wilderness were certified with exactly this definition as a basis.

The implementation of these recommendation would eventually result in strengthening one European approach towards Wilderness stewardship instead of a nationally (or even regionally) divided understanding, which in my view would mean the end of Wilderness protection in EUROPE.

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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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