Wilderness and biodiversity

European policy review: Wilderness and biodiversity

Journal for Nature Conservation, Volume 18, Issue 4, December 2010, pages 338-339 Lawrence Jones-Walters and Kristijan Čivić.


  • Wilderness;
  • Protected areas;
  • Large herbivores;
  • Biodiversity policy;
  • Climate change adaptation.


The arrival of wilderness as a policy issue, following the passing of a European Parliament resolution in 2009, has increased the profile of the issue and provided a challenge for policy-makers and practitioners. There is a need for a policy relevant definition that can guide decision-making in relation to the protection and management of wilderness areas, including their exploitation for economic benefit, and for information and data about the extent of existing wilderness and wild areas and the opportunities for its recreation. The scale of the challenge requires a high level of aspiration and any efforts will require the coordination of policy and implementation well beyond the borders of Europe itself.

With the passing of a resolution calling for increased protection of wilderness areas in February 2009, the European Parliament gave the issue a significantly higher level of visibility on the European biodiversity policy agenda. In doing so they were responding to the growing interest in wilderness and wild areas among nature conservationists; the latter is evident from the relatively recent establishment of a number of European-based organisations and initiatives dedicated to increasing the profile and promotion of the wilderness concept and philosophy. The most long-established among these is PAN Parks but more recently the Wild Europe Initiative, which is supported among others by the Europarc Federation and the Wilderness Foundation, and the Large Herbivore Foundation (which has recently integrated its operations with ECNC-European Centre for Nature Conservation) have become active in the field.

There is no clear-cut definition of wilderness and the varied interpretations of what constitutes wilderness (including philosophical) are one of the features that characterise the subject. Thus it is possible to define ‘perceived wilderness’ which consists of wild and remote landscapes and ‘ecological wilderness’ which includes pristine and natural habitat areas (Carver et al., 2002, also referred to in Coleman and Aykroyd, 2009).

Perceived wilderness is clearly of some interest to the nature conservation practitioner because within the concept are implied aspects of human behaviours and preferences in relation to attitudes, use and enjoyment of natural areas. These have consequences for the management of nature and its exploitation, for instance, by eco-tourism and other business and biodiversity related activities. However, perceived wilderness defines a state of mind and does not provide a definition of ecological status.

In practice, it is clear that it is difficult to separate human perception and judgement from the application of scientific principles in defining wilderness. Indeed, it is frequently stated that conservation biology (as a whole) is a discipline which, being an applied science and oriented by a mission, has as much to do with values as it does with the scientific rigour. For example, wilderness is associated with the concept of naturalness; the quality of being natural expresses the level at which something occurs without artificial influence.  However conservation has used the concept of natural in two different but related ways: 1) as a conservation value, and 2) as a parameter or state descriptor of ecosystems (Machado, 2004).

Thus, the concept of wilderness can range from large areas of land with no human intervention, to wild but fragmented landscapes that are being modified to some extent by humans, through forestry and agricultural practice (Coleman and Aykroyd, 2009). Some clarification and international recognition of wilderness was provided by its classification within the framework of protected areas developed by the World Commission on Protected Areas/IUCN (1992). Category 1(b) ‘Wilderness Area’ is therefore defined as follows: “A large area of unmodified or slightly modified land, and/or sea, retaining its natural character and influence, without permanent or significant habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition”. This definition (pragmatically) allows for a level of “habitation”, which departs from (for example) the United States Wilderness Act which states that wilderness is an area: ‘… untrammelled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’ (US Congress, 1964).

Linked to their European wilderness certification scheme, the PAN Parks foundation introduces an element of quantification by defining wilderness as follows: “An area of at least 10,000 hectares of land or sea, which together with its native plant and animal communities and their associated ecosystems, is in an essentially natural state”; going on to say that these wilderness areas are “those lands that have been least modified by man, they represent the most intact and undisturbed expanses of Europe’s remaining natural landscapes”. At national level a number of European countries have introduced or are developing laws to protect wilderness areas and, in doing so, have provided (various) definitions of wilderness (Martin, et al, 2008).  In some cases these areas are also designated as Natura 2000 sites under the EC Birds and Habitats Directives and, within Europe, these directives provide the primary means of protecting wilderness; although neither directive is explicitly intended to fulfill this purpose.

Currently wilderness areas occupy between 1 and 2% of Europe’s area; however, it has been proposed that for the calculation of total wilderness areas, to category 1b protected areas should be added category 1a: ‘Strict nature reserve managed mainly the scientific research’, containing the intact and functioning natural habitats and processes that characterise wilderness but not labelled as such nor opened to public access; further hitherto unrecorded areas of wilderness are also likely to lie within the boundaries of category 2 designations (Coleman and Aykroyd, 2009).

Following the resolution by the European Parliament in February 2009 a major conference on wilderness took place in Prague in May of the same year under the auspices of the Czech European Union Presidency. The conference developed a “Message from Prague” which argues the importance of European wilderness and wild areas, stresses the need for a co-ordinated Pan-European approach towards protecting wilderness areas and sets out what needs to be done. The call for action included recommendations under policy development, awareness building, further work and information needs and supporting capacity.

Among key policy issues raised were the need for: a clearer definition of wilderness and wild land; guidance and action on increasing legal protection for ‘wilderness qualities’; protection of ecological processes and natural changes to sites and the maintenance of specific succession states and non-intervention; increasing the ecological connectivity between sites; the compilation of a register of wilderness and wild areas, including threats and opportunities and their economic value; all this linked to a mapping exercise.

Significantly, there is a call to identify and promote opportunities within the 2012 review of Common Agricultural Policy that can benefit protection and restoration of wilderness and wildlands, especially in relation to abandoned agricultural land and ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change. Land abandonment is currently one of the main sources of loss to agricultural land in Europe (EEA, 2010); furthermore the greatest proportion of loss to abandonment is to traditionally-managed semi-natural habitats such as grassland, many of which have high nature conservation value. It is therefore extremely important that any measures proposed should seek synergy between the potentially conflicting objectives; emphasising the need for an increased level of data and mapped information.

A further challenge is the level of vision and aspiration required. This is illustrated by the current crisis facing Europe’s large herbivores. Many of the species in greatest danger of extinction require very large areas of habitat; in the past they may even have played a specific and key role in the maintenance of certain temperate ecosystems which, if they are to be recreated as part of a wider policy for wilderness, will require management and their potential reintroduction. Such efforts will require the coordination of policy and implementation well beyond the borders of Europe itself.

There is plenty of evidence that the European Commission is supportive of the approach with high-level endorsement of the aims of the Prague conference, and the recent release of an invitation to tender for the production of: “Guidelines for the management of wilderness and wild areas in Natura 2000”. Clearly the arrival of wilderness as a policy issue has raised a number of questions but it also brings with it opportunities for delivery of increased ecosystem services, climate change adaptation and economic opportunities. It is therefore to be hoped that the new 2020 vision for biodiversity will find a place for wilderness within its related targets.



  • Carver, S., Evans, A. and Fritz, S. (2002) Wilderness Attribute Mapping in the United Kingdom. International Journal of Wilderness 8 (1) 24-29   Coleman, A. and Aykroyd, T. Eds. (2009) Conference proceedings: Wild Europe and large natural habitat areas, Prague 2009.  Wild Europe, European Commission and EU2009.CZ
  • EEA (2010) 10 messages for 2010 – Agricultural ecosystems. Available from: www.eea.europa.eu/ publications/ 10-messages-for-2010
  • Machado, A. (2004) An index of naturalness. Journal for Nature Conservation 12 (2004) 95-110
  • US Congress (1964) Wilderness Act. Public Law 88-577 (16 U.S. C. 1131-1136) 88th Congress, Second Session September 3, 1964
  • Martin, V.G., Kormos, C.F., Zunino, F., Meyer, T., Doerner, U. and Aykroyd, T. (2008) Wilderness momentum in Europe. International Journal of Wilderness 14(2) 34-43