A wilderness area is a region where the land is in a natural state; where impacts from human activities are minimal—that is, as a wilderness. It might also be called a wild or natural area. Especially in wealthier, industrialized nations, it has a specific legal meaning as well: as land where development is prohibited by law. Many nations have designated Wilderness Areas, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States.
The WILD Foundation states that wilderness areas have two dimensions: they must be biologically intact and legally protected. The World Conservation Union (IUCN) classifies wilderness at two levels, Ia (Strict Nature Preserves) and Ib (Wilderness areas).
Most scientists and conservationists agree that no place on earth is completely untouched by humanity, either due to past occupation by indigenous people, or through global processes such as climate change. Activities on the margins of specific wilderness areas, such as fire suppression and the interruption of animal migration, also affect the interior of wildernesses.
Wilderness areas by country
There are twelve wilderness areas in the Sami native region in northern Finnish Lapland. They are intended both to preserve the wilderness character of the areas and further the traditional livelihood of the Sami people. This means e.g. that reindeer husbandry, hunting and taking wood for use in the household is permitted. As population is very sparse, this is generally no big threat to the nature. Large scale reindeer husbandry has influence on the ecosystem, but no change is introduced by the act on wilderness areas. The World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) classifies the areas as "VI Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources".
Since 1861, The French Waters and Forests Military Agency (Administration des Eaux et Forêts) put a strong protection on what was called the « artistic reserve » in Fontainebleau State Forest. With a total of 1 097 hectares, it is known to be the first World nature reserve.
Then in the 1950s, Integral Biological Reserves (Réserves Biologiques Intégrales, RBI) are dedicated to interference-free ecosystem evolution, on the contrary of Managed Biological reserves (Réserves Biologiques Dirigées, RBD) where a specific management is applied to conserve vulnerable species or threatened habitats.
Integral Biological Reserves occurs in French State Forests or City Forests and are therefore managed nowadays by the National Forests Office. In such reserves, all harvests coupe are forbidden excepted exotic species elimination or track safety works to avoid fallen tree risk to visitors (already existing tracks in or on the edge of the reserve).
There are seven wilderness areas in New Zealand as defined by the National Parks Act 1980 and the Conservation Act 1987 that fall well within the IUCN definition. Wilderness areas cannot have any human intervention and can only have indigenous species re-introduced into the area if it is compatible with conservation management strategies.
In the United States, a Wilderness Area is an area of federal land set aside by an act of Congress. Human activities in wilderness areas are restricted to scientific study and non-mechanized recreation; horses are permitted but motorized vehicles and equipment are not.
In Western Australia, a Wilderness Area is an area that has a wilderness quality rating of 12 or greater and meets a minimum size threshold of 8,000 hectares in temperate areas or 20,000 hectares in arid and tropical areas. A wilderness area is gazetted under section 62(1)(a) of the Conservation and Land Management Act 1984 by the Minister on any land that is vested in the Conservation Commission of Western Australia.
For a comprehensive review of wilderness areas by country, reference A Handbook on International Wilderness Law and Policy (Cyril F. Kormos, ed).
For the global standard of wilderness protection, governance and management, read Wilderness Protected Areas: Management Guidelines for IUCN Category 1b Protected Areas
- 1995 & 1998 National Forests Office internal instructions in application of the last paragraph of article L. 212-2 of the French Forest Act
- "Department of Conservation: New Zealand Wilderness areas" (PDF). www.doc.govt.nz.
- Department of Conservation and Land Management Policy Statement No 62, Identification and management of Wilderness and surrounding areas.