Wilderness paradox reveals weaknesses

A paradox is a statement that seems logically incorrect or self-contradictory. This is also the situation in the case of the so-called Wilderness paradox. A good example is the statement that Wilderness is self-willed land. However, if you visit a specific Wilderness, you find out that it is not always the truth. You will often find domestic animals grazing in Wilderness or large carnivores populations that are missing.

Please read also: Coexisting with Large Carnivores

Wilderness Paradox in Europe

There are still areas in Europe with good Wilderness potential. Despite several centuries of urban development and human destruction, Wilderness survived in many corners of Europe. We find the areas with Wilderness quality scattered throughout the whole continent. However, European Wilderness is disappearing right in front of our eyes. Already protected Wilderness often lose the main quality attribute: non-extractive use.

This is happening all over Europe. Some managers, land owners, politicians and even some Wilderness stewards use the shocking argument, that an active management is necessary to prevent negative impacts of natural disturbances. For example, in Slovakia people use sanitary logging to clean mountain forests in several National Parks. These National Parks have a significant Wilderness potential. A similar situation occurs in Estonia with logging of pine forests, supposedly for peat bogs restoration. This also threatens Wilderness that is included in the European Wilderness Network.

Wilderness Paradox of the United States

We consider the network of Wilderness in the United States as the largest and best managed Wilderness network on our planet. The U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System is a complex and extensive Wilderness network. This network includes the federally managed Wilderness, designated for preservation in their natural condition. There are four federal land management agencies: the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Land Management. These agencies take care of Wilderness in this network. Yet, each agency has its own approach how to implement Wilderness legislation.

The Wilderness Act defines the term Wilderness as “an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain”. It is “an area of Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation. The management objective in these areas is to preserve its natural conditions”.

There are currently around 800 Wilderness areas, covering 44 163 205 ha, or about 4,5% of the area of the United States. The truth is that harmful industrial activities are also threatening the consistency of this extraordinary Wilderness network.

Wilderness Watch started in 1989 to minimise this threat and to make sure that designated Wilderness is protected and managed to maintain their wilderness quality and character. The organisation was necessary to control the development in designated Wilderness Areas. Especially since there is no such control by the four managing agencies.

Wilderness Paradox on a global scale

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Biosphere Reserve, and World Heritage networks are tools that supports global Wilderness. All three tools support Wilderness either via specific categories (IUCN category Ia Strict Nature Reserve and Ib Wilderness Area) or via zoning systems (core zones in Biosphere Reserves and in World Heritage networks). However, not all protected areas under IUCN Category Ia and Ib are fitting to the objectives and conditions for these categories. Furthermore, only a limited number of protected areas on the List of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and World Heritage sites have a core zone with the Wilderness Quality Standard.

The publication Protecting People Through Nature revealed that harmful industrial activities threaten nearly half of all natural World Heritage sites. These sites provide vital services to people and the environment, but are at risk due to oil and gas exploration, mining, and illegal logging. The report shows how World Heritage sites contribute to economic and social development through the protection of the environment. It also shows in detail the global failures to protect these areas of outstanding universal value. Furthermore, this study also revealed that almost 50% of natural and mixed World Heritage sites either have oil, gas or mining concessions.

It thus seems that the international global networks are not able to provide a reliable framework of Wilderness protection.

Tools to minimise Wilderness Paradox

A solution of this challenge is an independent control system to monitor and audit Wilderness. The United States developed a controlled mechanisms after several decades of experience with the implementation of the Wilderness Act. This mechanism is especially important, because the four federal agencies, responsible for the implementation of Wilderness Act, interpreted it differently. This consequently leads to differences when it comes to management measures within Wilderness, for example for trail maintenance, or allowed uses. Wilderness Watch calls attention to deviations of management measures that threaten the Wilderness quality.

In Europe, more than 200 experts developed a unified agreement on the Wilderness Definition reflecting various management traditions and legal rules. In response, the European Wilderness Society further developed the European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System. This system allows for habitat-independent audits, and a common quality standard across all European countries.

Vlado Vancura

Vlado Vancura is the Deputy Chairman and Director of wilderness of the European Wilderness Society and is based in Liptovsky Hradok, Slovakia.

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