Europe's wilderness

Posted on 25 May 2009

Relatively little wilderness remains in densely settled Europe. Efforts are now underway to save the continent’s last remaining wilderness areas.
In Europe, with its long history of human settlement, the southern Carpathians present an anomaly. The area stretching from Djerdap National Park in northern Serbia across the Danube gorge at the Iron Gates, up to the Retezat, Romania’s flagship national park and across the Fagaras mountains almost to the bend that the Carpathian Mountains make at Brasov is surprisingly well preserved, almost untouched in comparison with most other parts of the “old” continent.

The southern Carpathians represent one of Europe’s very few remaining great wilderness areas. The area totals over 1 million ha and includes the last intact forest landscape in continental Europe. It is home to abundant wildlife, including brown bears, lynx and wolves as well as chamoix.

European wilderness

Europe is one of the most intensely settled areas of the world, with land use patterns that have shaped and transformed virtually all parts of the continent. Little wonder then that very few areas have been left relatively untouched, and that the largest of them are found in those parts of the continent that have seen least development.

‘Wilderness’ refers to relatively untouched natural areas that have not been significantly modified by human activity – core areas for nature on land or at sea where nature and wildlife thrive.

Just as wilderness is becoming increasingly rare, its importance is growing in recognition and appreciation. Wilderness provides a wealth of benefits and services for nature and humans, from biodiversity to carbon sequestration. Recent research has underlined the importance of wilderness areas in regulating global climate by serving as significant “sinks” for carbon. Such areas also hold a key to holding onto much of our planet’s biological diversity, e.g. brown bears, wolves and other wide-ranging species.

At the same time, wilderness is increasingly appreciated for both recreation and, increasingly importantly, tourism, providing an important source of well being and also income.

In Europe, according to IUCN, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, wilderness protected areas cover between 1.7% and 4% of the continent, but this figure is almost certainly too high.

Smaller wild areas are scattered across the continent, from the Swiss National Park to Fulufjallet National Park in Sweden. But large and truly wild or wilderness areas have become very rare in Europe, limited to the Svalbard area of northern Scandinavia, mountain areas of Southern Europe and forest areas in Central and Eastern Europe, including the southern Carpathians area.


Many of these areas are facing significant threats particularly from infrastructure development, including roads, residential and tourist facilities as in the southern Carpathians.

A highway is planned to be rammed through the heart of the southern Carpathians, skirting Retezat National Park and driving through core areas of Domogled National Park. WWF and Greenpeace have so far managed to stall the project, against strong support from the Romanian President. In other parts of the area, old growth forest is being felled to provide wood for pulp and paper.

Development of ski areas poses a threat to a number of areas throughout the region, with well over 100 ski resorts planned or under development. Most of the areas are being built at below 1,500 meters above sea level, which in the Alps is considered as the minimum altitude needed to secure snow conditions in the face of global warming.

The threat of ski developments is not limited to the newest EU member states. In Austria, the planned "Piz Val Gronda" ski area threatens one of the last wilderness areas in the Alps.

Similar challenges are of course facing other natural areas across the continent, and addressing them has been the focus of much of the conservation legislation at international, EU and national levels in past years, from the international Convention on Biological Diversity to the EU’s Habitats and Birds Directives and various kinds of national level protection.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity – an international treaty of 191 states to protect the diversity of nature which all EU countries have ratified – governments committed in 2004 to protect any large, intact natural areas by 2006. To date, few governments in Europe have met this obligation, but significant progress has been made in stretching a safety net for nature across the continent. The EU’s Natura 2000 network of specially protected sites now covers some 17% of EU territory, including many of the continent’s remaining wilderness areas. Many of the areas also enjoy national and in some cases even international protection status.

Insufficient protection

But when it comes to wilderness, the EU’s safety net for nature can be threadbare in places. By focusing on the preservation of species and habitats of European importance, the EU protected habitats and species do not always fully cover the large-scale natural processes that distinguish wilderness areas. Impact assessments undertaken for Natura 2000 areas may conclude for example that a new road will not affect the specific species or habitat that are the object of conservation interest, while at the same time these activities may negatively impact the wilderness quality of the area.

In practice, the overlap between the protection categories and wilderness areas is significant, particularly e.g. for bears, wolves and other large carnivores that require large and relatively untouched areas to survive. What is needed therefore is the effective implementation of the European system of protected areas, a better understanding of the importance of protecting these values as well as forceful measures to ensure that wilderness areas are recognised and protected.

In particular, wilderness zones must be recognised and given extra protection within the Natura 2000 network. Guidance must be given to EU Member States on the best ways to ensure the protection of present and potential wilderness and wildlands and their natural processes.

To this end, a conference is being organised by Wild Europe, an initiative supported by WWF, IUCN, BirdLife and other major conservation organisations, in cooperation with the European Commission and the Czech government under the aegis of its EU presidency.

Wilderness initiatives

The EU Wilderness conference, which is taking place May 27-28 in Prague, follows on a December 2008 communication by the European Parliament, which called on the European Commission to develop a wilderness strategy coherent with the EU Birds and Habitats Directives.

The growing interest in wilderness at EU level reflects growing concern and an increasing number of initiatives from across the continent that aim at securing and even expanding Europe’s last wilderness areas.

WWF is using the Prague Wilderness Conference to launch an initiative to promote the southern Carpathians as the continent’s largest remaining wilderness area. Much of the area is already under some form of protection. Thirteen national or nature parks together cover some 625,000 ha; this together with another five areas to be designated as specially protected sites under the EU’s Natura 2000 network brings the total protected area to over 1 million ha.

In Slovakia, the NGO Vlk (Wolf) has been working to protect 10% of the country’s forested areas through a mixture of advocacy and campaigning as well as land purchase and renting.

PAN Parks, a joint venture of WWF and Molecaten, a tourism company, has taken an innovative approach to support the creation of a network of well-managed wilderness protected areas across Europe, mixing strict management guidelines on the one hand with support for development of wilderness-focused tourism on the other. To date, 10 PAN Parks have been established throughout Europe from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean, from Retezat National Park in Romania to the Archipelago National Park in Finland.


In future, there may be new opportunities not only to preserve but actually expand wilderness areas in Europe, at least in some places.

In Scotland, which is perhaps best known for its windswept and treeless landscape, the Trees for Life initiative is gradually restoring the ancient Caledonian Forest which covered the area before the arrival of sheep and clearing.

At the Prague wilderness conference, WWF-Netherlands CEO Johan van de Gronden is announcing a new field programme for creating European wilderness. The initiative, which is being launched by WWF-Netherlands in cooperation with Free Nature, Ark and Eurosite, seeks to restore over the next decade at least 100,000 ha in 10 areas across the continent, taking as opportunity the gradual abandonment of many of the continent’s rural areas.

“The ongoing depopulation of entire regions creates a huge opportunity for large-scale natural areas,” van de Gronden said. “It offers unique opportunities for the current generation to start developing complete ecosystems on the foundation of new rural economies, where nature itself is the driving force.”

The Wild Europe Field Programme invites park managers, authorities, local NGOs and communities, private land owners and other stakeholders to nominate areas that might qualify to become part of the field programme.

Wilderness for humans

An inspiring lesson that many of these initiatives share is that nature has a remarkable ability to regenerate itself. “Re-wilding” comes spontaneously, requiring only time – and the restraint of human intervention. Just as importantly, they suggest that restraining human intervention is possible, even in such a densely settled continent like Europe.

Indeed, it is not so much a question of restraining, but rather channelling human activities – finding ways in which we can enjoy and profit from, without destroying nature.

Andreas Beckmann is Deputy Director of the WWF Danube-Carpathian Programme

WWF recognises that the term 'Wilderness' is a contentious one and we use it here to mean wild, natural spaces. We acknowledge that communities, often Indigenous Peoples, live in some 'Wilderness' areas and have done so for centuries. WWF recognises that indigenous peoples are key stewards and protectors of nature and commits to ensuring their rights are upheld.

Retezat National Park, Romania
© Andreas Beckmann, 2006
Construcţia ilegală a DN 66A în Retezat
© Păun/Greenpeace