Wilderness Audit and roadless areas

Experience from conducting European Wilderness Audits confirms that roads are one of the main barriers to designate high quality Wilderness. The good news is that people nature can restore the areas with old or recently built roads. Even to the stage that we can consider the areas to join the European Wilderness Network. We can actually find examples in several Wilderness in the European Wilderness Network.

Interesting to see and learn is that people and nature can even restore heavily used roads. Some were used by heavy machines (e.g. for forestry) or to provide easy motorised access (seasonal grazing, hunting, tourism facility development). The first step is usually identical, decide to create roadless zone. The next step is not so easy. It is necessary to reach an agreement with all stakeholders to stop using the roads. There are already several examples of areas that implemented this approach. The results look promising for example in Majella Wilderness, Rila Wilderness or Čepkeliai Wilderness.

Please also read: Roads Free Of Wilderness

Wilderness Quality Standard and roads

The European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System is based on ten principles. The sixth principle ‘Wilderness Disturbance’ lists this subject. This principle focuses on regulating and limiting road access to the Wilderness, in order to reduce the human impact in the Wilderness zones.

According this principles, the Wilderness zone should generally be free of infrastructure, such as roads. This is not always possible and therefore requires detail mapping of existing and abandoned (inherited) roads. Abandoned and closed roads are sometimes useful as a trail for visitors or are subject of passive restoration. Sometimes old roads cross the Wilderness, which are useful for monitoring, patrol and rescue. These kinds of roads use are subject of careful monitoring. An important aspect is that after Wilderness is declared, no new roads are constructed. Furthermore, Wilderness experts and area management need a detailed mapping of inherited roads and develop a clear long-term plan for restoration and simple maintenance of necessary roads.

Lesson learnt in Kalkalpen Wilderness

We find an interesting example on how to deal with the forest roads in Kalkalpen Wilderness. This area inherited an extensive network of old gravel roads built up in the previous decades. This was when the area was under mining and later on forestry pressure. Since Kalkalpen National Park was established and the objective to create extensive non-intervention zone approved, several important steps were done.

Kalkalpen Wilderness - © All rights reserved
Kalkalpen Wilderness – © All rights reserved

Roads inventory and classification

Firstly, the management agreed on a strategy how to deal with this issue. The inventory revealed that there are no paved roads in the Kalkalpen Wilderness zone. However, the park inherited more than 300 km old gravel roads in other parts, where more that 200 km are in proposed Wilderness.

Afterwards with classification, the management identified several roads categories such as:

  • preserved forest roads for legal reasons
  • permanent and temporary forest roads used for management
  • abandoned forest roads with active and passive restoration.

This classification lead to the knowledge that almost half of roads were already abandoned and not used at all. The park management and rangers predominantly use the many kilometres of roads in Kalkalpen Wilderness, others only in case of emergency. A specific situation is the use of roads, which provide access to the alpine meadows and private cottages. There are also several roads used to transport visitors. Yet, a significant part of the inherited roads in Kalkalpen Wilderness have either no or minimal maintenance, in order to reduce the negative impacts. Only if needed, rangers repair roads manually.

Inventory and classification

Despite the objective to have the least possible actively used roads (either for management or other legal reasons), there is still pressure. Therefore, the management implements the following measures carefully:

  • there is minimal road maintenance to reduce the negative impacts inside Wilderness zone
  • the repairs are typically manual
  • there is no technical infrastructure in place to prevent damage done by avalanches, landslides and rock-fall.

Lessons learnt and experience how to deal with inherited roads are valuable. Thus we must share them among the partners of the European Wilderness Network.

Kalkalpen Wilderness © All rights reserved
Intentionally restored forest road in Kalkalpen Wilderness

Roadless Wilderness

Europe is generally a very intensively developed continent. Roads penetrate the most remote corners. Technology that developed since the 50’s, allowed and encouraged foresters to build a dense network of the forest roads all over Europe. They considered motorized access as an important condition to properly manage a forest.

However, time is changing. More and more people recognise the value of roadless areas. Also, people invest more time and energy to prevent construction of the new roads and restoration of old roads. And after several years of keeping motorised vehicles away, miracles happen.

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Sign the Open Letter to the German Ministry

Join more than 70 forest experts demanding a radical change in the German forest management system.

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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