European wilderness as revealed by strict protection in nature conservation and forest legislation

Paper presentation at WILD10, 10th October 2013

Wilderness has no contemporary exposition in Europe, compared to other continents. Partly it is because the word is not found in many of its languages, but it is also because of the presumption of a widespread and enduring cultural land use. However, restrictions on forest use in alpine areas date back to the 14th century in Switzerland, and the 16th century in Austria, as a means to ensure their function in protection against avalanches, rockfalls and torrents. The principle of restriction of use was also the basis of the first areas to be recognised nationally as nature reserves and National Parks at the beginning of the 20th century in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Georgia, Latvia and Russia. Today, the legislation of many countries across Europe for nature conservation and for forests contains protected area types of reserve and National Park that embody restrictions and prohibitions on use that describe a strict protection that is characteristic of wilderness areas. This paper will review strictly protected area types in European national legislation, and how the protected areas designated through the legislation are classified under the IUCN categories of protected areas. Data from the CDDA suggests that these strictly protected areas constitute about 0.8% of Europe. While these protected areas may be considered Europe’s wilderness, it should not be overlooked that forested areas across Europe also have restrictions on their use where they contribute to landscape protection or water quality. Thus the contemporary Forestry Acts of Switzerland and Austria maintain the importance of the protective effect of alpine forests, and the forest legislation in the German states of Hesse, Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg give strict protection for forests where they have a function in regulating natural water cycles and cleaning air. A review of protective forests across Europe shows that more than 20 percent of Europe’s forests are reported to fulfil protective functions for soil, water and other ecosystem services, as well as to protect infrastructure. The extent of these protective forests must add considerably to the ecological potential of Europe, and its wilderness characteristic.

The greatest restrictions on use in the legislation occur for Category I protected areas, and the legislation uses phrases such as:
• excludes any human intervention in natural processes
• without human intervention
• minimal human intervention
• Habitats are called natural when their existence is not due to human intervention.
• self-regulation without direct human intervention
• complete and permanent cessation of direct human intervention in the health of ecosystems
• nature protection is the restriction of interventions that can endanger, damage or destroy conditions and forms of life
• the protection of the ecological integrity of ecosystems and prevention of interventions and activities that could endanger that;
• undisturbed, dynamic development be left and in which all human activities are undesirable