Wilderness in US and Europe

The Wilderness Academy Days 2019 were held between 27-29 May in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Lungau. This event is the only Conference focusing on Europe’s last Wilderness, bringing together experts from all over the world to share their knowledge and experiences in various Wilderness topics.

Wilderness approach in the US and Europe

The USA has a long history of preserving Wilderness. The adoption of the Wilderness Resolution by the European Parliament celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. At the same time, the US Wilderness Act was passed in 1964, 55 years ago, during which 54 areas (9.1 million acres / 3.7 million ha) in 13 states were designated as Wilderness. It was therefore an important element of the Wilderness Academy Days to examine the differences and commonalities in the approach to Wilderness between Europe and US.

Evolution of Wilderness in the US

Garry Oye, Former Chief of Wilderness in the US National Parks Service has spent decades of his life working in the field of protected area management in the USA, for example in the US National Park Service and US Forest Service. In his talk, he emphasised that american perceptions of Wilderness can be interpreted through a series of factors that have continuously changed over time. In the book on the history of the Wilderness idea, the famous historian Roderick Nash introduces the concept that Wilderness emerged alongside the establishment of agriculture and settlement. It represented civilization, whereas Wilderness represented the opposite of civilization. Prior to this, Wilderness had no meaning; land was merely a habitat in which people existed. This construct disregarded the long-standing human presence of Native-Americans on the American landscape. Only with European presence did the designation of selected lands as Wilderness come into the picture.

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, the highlight was on the economic use of Wilderness. After the conservation movement emerged, many stakeholders including mining and logging companies and Wilderness sympathisants advocated the protection of Wilderness for varying reasons. Forest preserves were created under US Forest Service management and represented Wilderness’ value from a utilitarian standpoint. To this came the recreational use of Wilderness, which expanded greatly due to National Park planning, development, and publicity. The Wilderness movement coincided with the emerging popularity of Wilderness and eventually led to the creation of the Wilderness Act in 1964. Since then, more than 760 Wilderness areas are designated in the US, covering 43,5 million hectares, accounting for almost 5% of the country’s total land area.

European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright
European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright

Evolution of Wilderness in Europe

Vlado Vancura has been working as a Wilderness Advocate in Europe for several decades, being involved in building up the European Wilderness Network and the European Wilderness Society. He is a key player in the development of the European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System that formulates a common understanding for what Wilderness means in the European context.

In his talk he introduced the background of how the Wilderness concept emerged in Europe. Wilderness in Europe used to have very diverse interpretation. From strictly protected undeveloped land to the areas with remnants of traditional use and resource management. Since the 1990s however, Wilderness in Europe has received more attention and thus an agreement of common understanding and interpretation for what Wilderness means in the European context has been created under the IUCN framework of the definition of Wilderness in 2012. As a follow-up step, the European Wilderness Society, together with many experts on board developed the European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System (EWQA). Since then, 41 Wilderness areas have joined the expanding network covering more than 300 000 ha. Vlado also presented the newly launched EWQA 2.0, that introduces the categories WILDCoast, WILDForest, WILDIsland, and WILDRiver, and includes the new principle “Wilderness and Visitors” (European Outdoor Ethics). He also explained the stages of an audit process targeting a potential Wilderness area.

European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright
European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright

What can the US and Europe learn from each other?

There are specific similarities and differences between the Wilderness approach in Europe and the United States. John Hausdoerffer, founding Dean on the School of Envorinment & Sustainablity and successful author of the books “Catlin’s Lament” and “Wildness”, enabled the participants to get some insights into the American mindset when it comes to Wilderness and Wilderness protection. The Wilderness concept has changed and evolved over time in the US, resulting in the fact that Wilderness areas are considered as part of not only natural, but cultural heritage as well. Many American nature conservationists, Wilderness enthusiasts and authors have tried to capture the true essence of Wilderness and man’s relation and role in it. The literature on this topic is extensive and multilayered, speaking to a large audience. The spiritual aspect of Wilderness is something the European approach has not yet made it’s own.

Another significant difference concerning regulations is that the Wilderness areas in US are always designated on public land, which means they belong to everybody. This creates joint responsibility, however, it strongly reflects in the rules for access to and use of a Wilderness area. Consequently, the Wilderness Act doesn’t set as strict regulations as the EWQA does. Trail maintanance, invasive species and ecomical uses, such as mining and logging are allowed under certain circumstances. In comparison, the European Wilderness Quality Standard clearly sets non-intervention and no extraction in the Wilderness Zone.

European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright
European Wilderness Academy Days 2019 © Copyright

No matter what picture we paint of Wilderness, we have to be aware it requires the involvement of individuals. We must not forget the importance and power of constantly communicating the need for preserving Wilderness. The US and Europe has a lot to learn from each other on how to further strenghten the Wilderness concept and evoke true, long-lasting appreciation in people towards Wilderness.

Find the abstracts of all Wilderness Academy Days presentations below!

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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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