Natura 2000 as a dynamic network

This is the first part of a two-part article. Read the second part to find out how Wilderness can be integrated into Natura 2000.

Panta rhei – ‘everything flows’ – Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher about the characteristics of nature. There are many people in the field of conservation, who want to hold on to the old and well-known: picturesque forests, rare species, well-known landscapes. But how is this view compatible with natural dynamics and Wilderness, where we know that ecosystem dynamics and natural resources are constantly changing? Can we embed Panta rhei into the Natura 2000 network and land management – and can we do it systematically?

Please also read the second part: Natura 2000 as potential Wilderness

Natura 2000 – an ongoing European chance

Let’s take a look at the current situation. There is an existing network of interlinked areas and biotopes in the European Union, called Natura 2000, which is based on the well-known ‘Habitats Directive’ and the ‘Birds Directive’. This network of areas has been established for years and is currently the biggest system of protected areas in the world.

This network is the most important backbone of nature conservation in Europe and an achievement of European unification. Nature does not have national boundaries, and therefore nature conservation can only be successful on a large-scale level by thinking broadly and without prioritising national borders. A more connected Europe would be beneficial to nature conservation.

There is a big idea behind the Natura 2000 network, but there is often a lack of success on the practical level. This is caused by insufficient implementation and intense pressure from land users, competing industries, infrastructure and agriculture. Additionally, there might be conflicts between the conservation of a protected species and the natural dynamics. Many practitioners often prioritise the conservation of a specific habitat or population over natural changes.

A conservation regime following the directives is focused on specific, defined habitat types and species, some of which depend on a certain type of usage. On one hand, this matches the character of Europe’s landscapes, in which nature and culture are mixing up in new, dynamic ways. On the other hand, it is tempting to hold on to specific conditions that go against nature’s dynamics. But this leaves no room for Wilderness within the Natura 2000 network, which is by definition undisturbed and free from human management and modification. Wilderness itself represents a vital element of Europe’s natural and cultural heritage which offers important environmental, economic and social benefits.

Maramarosh Wilderness Carpathian Biosphere Reserve-19722.jpg - © European Wilderness Society CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Maramarosh Wilderness

Widen your horizon

There seems to be no solution for this problem, when the focus is only one area. But nature conservation needs open horizons on every level. If we widen our perspective beyond the single area to the whole region: Is the forest rich of oak unique due to its features or is it just one of many? Is there a specific species that depends on this area? Often this is not the case and then there is room for natural development. The Habitats Directive in particular is supporting this view of transboundary and biogeographical thinking, by taking the coherence of the area and the representative biodiversity as crucial factors. This framework hence requires communication across national boundaries, cultures and disciplines.

Nature consists of transitions

A focus on specific habitat types can be misleading. The definition of specific habitat types should be thought of as a supportive tool to enable us to work with this huge variety of landscapes and habitats in a pragmatic way. Borders are fluent and in nature do not exist at all. The focus of the Natura 2000 network is to show the European diversity and to carry it into the future. But transitions and new species compositions, which differ from the status quo, should be permitted to develop in a natural way. Nature is always developing, and Natura 2000 should reflect that.

This is the first part of a two-part article. Read the second part to find out how Wilderness can be integrated into Natura 2000.

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