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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