Wilderness: A Place of Untouched Ecological Processes

Image Credit: European Wilderness Society, CC BY 4.0, Image Cropped

What comes to your mind when you think of Wilderness? Maybe it is a dense rainforest filled with a cacophony of bird calls, or plain filled with lagre grazing animals and free-roaming carnivores? They certainly qualify, but by definition, Wilderness is any area that hasn’t (or has only slightly) been modified by human activity in the past. This means that Wilderness areas can be incredibly diverse, from the aforementioned tropical forest to a murky swamp. These areas represent nature in its purest form, with the absence of human interventions allowing for dynamic, open-ended natural processes. These processes not only create marvelous landscapes and offer refuge for species, but also provide many benefits for humans.

Protection of Wilderness

Today, only about a quarter of land-based (terrestrial) and even less marine surfaces are classified as Wilderness. Although the protection of Wilderness areas has increased in the last decades, their degradation continues to increase – almost entirely due to human activity. The proactive protection of Wilderness was initiated in the United States in 1964 by passing the Wilderness Act. With this Act, a substantial amount of Wilderness areas were created and more designations followed over the years. The legal protection of Wilderness has been slower in the rest of the world, but has been gaining momentum in recent decades.

One central issue of creating and protecting Wilderness has to do with the term itself: there is no direct translation of the word Wilderness to most languages. Think about it, how would you translate it to German, Spanish or Mandarin, just to name a few examples? It’s not an easy task. The question arises – how can you protect something that most people don’t even know exist? Around the globe various organizations, like the WILD foundation, IUCN, or the European Wilderness Society, work for the increase of Wilderness conservation efforts. Hand in hand with these efforts goes the increase of awareness in society, one country and one language at a time.

Benefits of Wilderness

Besides its intrinsic value – its sheer existence – Wilderness also provides many benefits for humans. It provides many economic, cultural, and environmental ecosystem services like water purification, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, and the opportunity for recreational activities. Just imagine walking through an old-growth forest, with all your senses activated by the sounds of birds, the smell of resin, the feeling of sunshine reaching through the canopy cover on your skin, and the different shades of green of the moss that covers the forest floor. It feels like a journey to the past when Wilderness was the prevalent type of nature on our planet. A planet that is now characterized by vast deforestation, urbanization, and pollution.

Wilderness also plays a crucial role in mitigating the biodiversity and climate crisis. For example, it acts as a buffer against species loss. The extinction risk for species within Wilderness is, on average, less than half that of species in non-Wilderness areas. Also, Wilderness areas act as carbon sinks, whereas especially big trees, characteristic for old-growth forests, are able to store a substantial amount of carbon.

Finally, Wilderness areas are a treasure trove for scientists. It allows them to obtain professional knowledge on topics such as non-intervention regimes, climate change mitigation, bark beetles management, water conservation, protection of the watershed areas, or the functioning of protected areas across different habitats.

More to Come

In the coming months, I’ll look into Wilderness in more depth, as I’ve recently started work in protecting it through my new position at the European Wilderness Society. I will look into the different aspects mentioned in this article in more detail by taking you on a journey to the history and future of Wilderness, the ecology of natural dynamic processes, Wilderness management, Wilderness areas around the globe, and much more.

Julia Ramsauer is a landscape ecologist currently working for the European Wilderness Society. You can see here recent work on Ecology for the Masses on her profile at this link, or to listen to the latest episode of her podcast, Environmental Science Careers, you can follow her on Twitter here.

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