Wilderness is a necessity… also in Europe

With a great pleasure we share a personal experience of our long supporter and Wilderness Advocate Mr. Juraj Svajda who is currently on a 12 month study trip in the US, working on a research project in the Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado):

Last year I was supported by Slovak-American Foundation with the research project focused on impact of visitors in protected areas. My host organization is Rocky Mountain National Park (state of Colorado) which is actually sister park to Tatra NPs on Slovak and Polish side. The main idea behind is transfer of knowledge, methods and inspiring experiences from U.S. to Slovakia.

In terms of natural conditions both parks have identical glacial relief, nearly same number of lakes and similar types of flagship animals – marmot, bear, etc. They have also similar number of visitors, the length of hiking trails etc. These two parks have really a lot in common. However regarding the management – especially when you comparing Slovak side of the Tatra NP – it is different – in Rocky Mountain NP 95% of the park is managed as Wilderness!

It means land without roads, mechanised travel, commercial enterprises, structures or installations and resource extractions (timber, mining). Wilderness areas are not only in the national parks but also other three federal agencies have responsibility and jurisdiction to manage land according Wilderness Act. The U.S. National Wilderness Preservation System was launched in 1964. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness act he said: “If future generations are to remember us with gratitude rather than contempt, we must leave them more than the miracles of technology. We must leave them a glimpse of the world as it was in the beginning, not just after we got through with it.” Now in whole country they have designated 757 Wilderness areas with the total size ca 5 mil ha Wilderness.

Many people in Slovakia are saying that we have too many protected areas (however the level of real conservation is often matter of discussion) and it is not possible to protect nature and support local economy at same time. U.S. National Parks are perfect places that you can see such type of symbiosis. I had a chance to visit several National Parks including first NP in world – Yellowstone. People here love nature – all parks system has nearly 300 million visitors each year. When I mentioned Yellowstone, study shows that tourists, educators and outfitters specialised in wildlife observation (including wolf population which was here successfully recovered) bring each year 7-10 million dollars.

We need to find in Europe people who can understand this as well. I am positively surprised with great support of local people but as well rich people including politicians. In contrast with our perspective they have large amount of “enlightened” people. When I was in Grand Teton NP, they explained us how in the early of 20th century a key role to create a park played a rich and famous philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Junior. In the vicinity of the national park was a private land. He redeemed that land from private owners and donated to the national park. It is something which I can very hardly imagine in Slovakia. Interesting is to see here that not only federal government have a responsibility to maintain and manage Wilderness heritage of U.S. (government agencies have to do that because of legal framework) nevertheless legal framework is offering also endless opportunity for active individuals and also for organised groups e.g. NGOs, Foundation, Land Trusts etc. People understand that conservation will have in future higher and higher value and if we lose such places there is hardly way back.

Maybe we need some more time here in Europe to understand real value of nature.  But meanwhile we are losing important spots and values. When you are reading history of U.S. NPs, they had as well many problems in early 20th century. For example the South Rim of Grand Canyon NP was not protected against urbanisation, although President T. Roosevelt during his visit stated that “this great wonder of nature we should leave as it is, because we can not improve it”. Wildlife in Yellowstone NP was not completely protected (even with help of army) after park was created and there was a huge influence of businessmen and politicians. And finally great advocate for Wilderness John Muir lost his great fight against intention to build Hetch Hetchy dam in one of the Yosemite NP valleys. By the way it is worth to noting that his discussion with forester Gifford Pinchot (later on a great conservationist) who was thinking that first principle of conservation is development. It reminds me current discussion in our country with foresters

So why do we need in this century Wilderness in Europe? Wildness is a necessity. And it will be more and more important in this overdeveloped and over-commercialised world. I don´t know better confession as John Muir said: “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.“ And nice explanation gave as well George B. Grinnell when Glacier NP was created: “If we treat natural things solely as commercial assets and turn them into dollars and cents, we expend and destroy them. Their use is ended. They leave nothing behind them. If we preserve them, they reproduce themselves, retain their value for recreation and will yield to us and to our children and never ending income in health, strength and pleasure. Preserved they are everlasting, consumed and destroyed, their value is gone for all time.”

Finally, I would like to add some personal experiences from Rockies. During summer monitoring of trails I was surprised that they have no huge restrictions for visitors in comparison with our parks. People (including families with children what is very important for future generations) are allowed to walk outside of trails (which are not marked), enjoy and really touch and feel nature. There are several categories of trails – some are not maintained at all and are assigned for adventure and solitude seekers. That is real connection with nature. And you have many opportunities to see real wildlife here even from trail. In our country people are still more and more asking (and they are right) – how it is possible that logging, hunting and building of ski resorts are allowed in our parks but we are not allowed to hike out of trail. Do we have real NPs in Slovakia? Probably we do not. So it is about decision if we want really protecting nature. We can surely have still places which can be managed (or better say unmanaged – leave it without any intervention) for the benefit and enjoyment of people. And  finally I have learnt here as well nice stories that some mistakes from past can be repaired – e.g. they closed and recycled ski resort in Hidden Valley directly in Rocky Mountain NP or cables leading to highest peak in the park. Why? It is so simple answer. They are protecting Wilderness. Where is will, there is a road.

Juraj Svajda
Management of Protected Areas MSc

Juraj Svajda (38) finished MSc study programme “Management of Protected Areas” at University of Klagenfurt (Austria). He used to work in Tatra NP (Slovakia) and now he is working as an assistant at Matej Bel University in Banska Bystrica. (Slovakia). He is currently at 12 months study trip in US, working on research in Rocky Mountain NP.

One thought on “Wilderness is a necessity… also in Europe

  • Thanks for sharing this interesting article! Even if there are still various differences to acknowledge between the US and Central Europe, such as available space/land use pressure, history and tradition – there is actually no reason why we Europeans should not take up their wisdom in wilderness protection and valuing.

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