Wilderness experience in Jasper National Park, Canada

Jasper National Park is the largest among Canada’s Rocky Mountain Parks and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Around 95% of the national park area is classified as Wilderness. It spans 1.122.800 ha of broad valleys, rugged mountains, glaciers, forests, Alpine meadows and wild rivers along the Eastern slopes of the Rockies in Western Alberta, with more than 1200 kilometres of hiking trails (both overnight and day trips), and a number of spectacular mountain drives.

Wilderness in Jasper has a very high quality standard. In principle it is an area without any extractive use, which means no hunting, no grazing, no logging, etc, and the Wilderness zone is completely road-less. However the park is accessible with wide asphalt roads, cutting it to three pieces from East to West and North to South. Deep dedication towards maintaining high Wilderness quality standard, size and remoteness of the Wilderness put a great challenge to the shoulders of the park managers. The enormous size of the area and the ongoing process of redefining the current management model aiming to be more efficient, means an additional challenge.

Beside several obvious issues, which have been studied such as the need of a long-term strategy for Wilderness conservation, the challenge of daily management  of declared Wilderness areas and comprehensive strategy for the ecological monitoring and data collection in remote Wilderness areas several other issues also appeared for a European context.

One of them is the ‘Understanding of visitor “Wilderness” experience’. Most of the visitors who are lucky enough to visit this magnificent place, consider their top Wilderness experience as simply driving spectacular mountain highways. Many of them are not even willing to get out of the car or the asphalted parking. They consider the magnificent scenery of the Rockies and the abundant wildlife roaming along the roads as the top Wilderness experience. Visitors can see herds of mountain goats, bighorn sheep, elks, deer and if they are lucky, a black or grizzly bear along the highway. This is what they consider asa top Wilderness experience….  And they are not too far from the reality. Wilderness zones usually begin a couple hundred meters away from the highway.

The true Wilderness experience however begins when you leave the car! When a hiking trip takes you to the realm of boreal forests. On your surprise just a few minutes after you left your car, you become the subject of local food chain: thousands of mosquitoes are hungry to your blood. Even a bigger surprise is that after several hours of heavy walking, you have very limited chance to see any wildlife – usually a main reason for people coming here.

Abundance of wildlife is usually the main aspect people associate with Wilderness. This is obviously not true here! Even after several days hiking it is still a pretty low chance to enjoy viewing local wildlife. Simply Wilderness in this kind of ecosystem doesn’t mean “zoo” – which can actually disappoint some hikers. However footprints and pictures from the camera traps proof that wildlife is right here, but shy and not easy to observe. More important, that species living here are not used to people and their irresistible habit to feed them…

On the other side, many backpacking hikers are happy to avoid any kind of wildlife, particularly grizzlies. Experiencing Wilderness and hiking for several days in remote country is life-long experience. Their biggest challenge is simply to survive few days in Wilderness. There are so many challenges besides dealing with wildlife – changing weather, cold, mosquitoes, river crossing – so backpackers are usually happy to agree to avoid additional challenge and meeting grizzlies right on the hiking trail.

‘Understanding of visitor “Wilderness” experience’ is a concept what European Wilderness movement still neglects. The catchy phrases (but difficult to understand) in our continent usually linked to Wilderness are biodiversity, carbon sequestration, ecosystem services, etc.

Lesson learnt from this experience is that we should not forget is that it will be visitors and Wilderness lovers who will support and fight for the benefit of European Wilderness.

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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.

Motto: SYSTEMIC FOREST ECOSYSTEM MANAGEMENT INSTEAD OF WOOD FACTORY

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