Rewilding can lead to Wilderness

A recent discussion with my colleagues revealed ongoing confusion between differences in European Wilderness and Rewilding. As a result we will try to clarify the differences.

The ‘Wilderness Continuum’ provides the best answer to this question. Developed by the team of Wilderness experts including Bob Aitken, Mike Mc Closkey and adapted by Rob Lesslie.

To summarise the main aspects of these two categories:

What is Wilderness?

Wilderness is found in areas where natural processes govern. They are composed of native habitats and species, and large enough for the effective ecological functioning of natural processes. They are unmodified or only slightly modified and most importantly; without intrusive or extractive human activity, settlements, infrastructure or visual disturbance.

Wilderness is a vital part of Europe’s natural heritage. This is underpinned by an ongoing trend towards the designation of Wilderness in Europe (e.g. the UNESCO World Heritage Site Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany (since 2011) or initiatives to promote Wilderness (e.g. Wild Europe Initiative, European Wilderness Society, PANParks etc., Martin et al. 2008).

The trend towards Wilderness conservation and promotion raises certain questions about what the term Wilderness actually means in a European context. In Central European countries, no legislation comparable to the US Wilderness Act exists, which clearly defines Wilderness as of a minimum area size, and designates places exclusively as such (Lupp et al. 2011). Neither clear implementation of the current definition for IUCN Category Ib (Wilderness Areas).

As a reaction to the lack of a common European definition of ‘Wilderness’, the Wilderness Working Group of the Wild Europe Initiative developed and generated the definition of European Wilderness and Wild Areas (Wild Europe Initiative 2013), which builds on the definition of the existing IUCN Category IB and is the Basis for the European Wilderness Quality Standard.

The definition of Wilderness by the Wild Europe Initiative is also used for the European Guidelines on Management of Wilderness; including Wild Areas in the Natura 2000 Network (European Commission, Kun European Wilderness Society 2013) and in the European Commission Wilderness Register.

What is Rewilding?

Rewilding expresses a new appreciation of wild nature. It represents a growing movement in Europe of people seeking a counterweight to our increasingly regulated lives, society and landscapes. It signifies a desire to rediscover the values of freedom, spontaneity, resilience and wonders embodied in Europe’s natural heritage and to revitalise conservation as a positive, future-oriented force.

Rewilding is a new mode of conservation with the potential to build upon and extend the achievements of the EU Nature Directives and conservation policy. It offers visions that generate synergies between established and emerging policy frames within and beyond biodiversity conservation.

It is a powerful new term in conservation. This may be because it combines a sense of passion and feeling for nature with advances in ecological science. The term resonates with diverse publics and seems to have particular appeal to a younger urban generation and among those who want a voice in shaping a new rural environment. Rewilding is exciting, engaging and challenging: it is promoting debate and deliberation on what is natural and the natures we collectively wish to conserve and shape.

Simply put, Rewilding describes human activities to try and restore nature in human modified landscapes which can lead to Wilderness; it is managed by humans and not clearly defined. Meanwhile Wilderness has no human intervention and is a self governed, open ended natural process.

More on Wilderness and on Rewilding can be read here:

European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System and Making Space for Rewilding Policy Brief

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Sign the Petition for resilient forests


90 signatures

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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