Explainer: wilderness, and why it matters

The potential rezoning of Tasmania’s Wilderness World Heritage Area for tourism development begs the question: just what is wilderness, and what is it good for? The Wilderness Society/AAP

The Tasmanian government this month released a draft of the revised management plan for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, which proposes rezoning certain areas from “wilderness zones” to “remote recreation zones”.

The changes would enable greater private tourism investment in the World Heritage Area and allow for logging of speciality timbers.

At the centre of the debate is how we define wilderness – and what people can use it for.

For wildlife or people?

“Wilderness quality” is a measure of the extent to which a landscape (or seascape) is remote from, and undisturbed by, modern technological society. High wilderness quality means a landscape is relative remote from settlement and infrastructure and largely ecologically intact. Wilderness areas are those that meet particular thresholds for these criteria.

The word’s largest wilderness areas include Amazonia, the Congo forests, the Northern Australian tropical savannas, the Llanos wetlands of Venezuela, the Patagonian Steppe, Australian deserts and the Arctic Tundra.

The Amazon rainforest is one of the largest areas of wilderness in the world. CIFOR/AAP, CC BY-NC-ND

Globally, there are 24 large intact landscapes of at least 10,000 square kilometres (1,000,000 hectares). Wilderness as a scientific concept was developed for land areas, but is also increasingly being applied to the sea.

Legal definitions of wilderness usually include these remote and intact criteria – but the goals range from human-centred to protecting the intrinsic value of wilderness. Intrinsic value recognises that things have value regardless of their worth or utility to human beings, and is recognised in the Convention on Biological Diversity to which Australia is a signatory.

In the NSW Wilderness Act 1987, for instance, one of the three objects of the Act is cast in terms of benefits to the human community: “to promote the education of the public in the appreciation, protection and management of wilderness”. The Act also states that wilderness shall be managed so as “to permit opportunities for solitude and appropriate self-reliant recreation.” Examples of formally declared wilderness areas in New South Wales are the Lost World Wilderness Area and Wollemi National Park.

Intrinsic value is evident in the the South Australia Wilderness Protection Act 1992 which sets out to, among other things, preserve wildlife and ecosystems, and protect the land and its ecosystems from the effects of modern technology – and restoring land to its condition prior to European settlement.

South Australia wilderness areas include the Yellabinna Wilderness Protected Area.

Indigenous custodians

Our understanding of wilderness and its usefulness has changed over the last century as science has revealed its significance for biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services. We have also accepted the ecological and legal realities of Indigenous land stewardship.

The world’s rapidly shrinking areas of high wilderness quality, including formally declared wilderness areas, are largely the customary land of Indigenous peoples, whether or not this is legally recognised.

Significant bio-cultural values, such as Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of biodiversity (recognised in Australia’s federal Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act), are dependent on these traditional relationships between people and country.

In many cases around the world, wilderness areas only remain intact because they are under Indigenous stewardship. In Australia, these facts were regrettably ignored in the past and were the source of much loss and harm to Traditional Owners when protected areas were declared without their consent.

Australian deserts are among the world’s largest wilderness areas Brian Yap (葉)/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Lessons have been learnt, some progress is being made, and the essential role of local and Indigenous communities in the conservation of wilderness areas is now being recognised and reflected in Australian national and state conservation and heritage policy and law.

For example, in 2003 the Northern Territory government agreed to joint management with the Traditional Owners of the Territory’s national parks.

What is wilderness good for?

By definition, wilderness areas exclude modern industrial land uses and intrusive infrastructure.

Commercial logging and mining are typically not compatible because they have negative environmental impacts on wilderness quality, reducing an area’s remoteness and ecological intactness.

Nature and culture-based tourism and education can be broadly compatible with wilderness. This, however, depends on what type of supporting infrastructure they need which can range from simple walking trails through to the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in the Wet Tropics of Queensland’s World Heritage Area.

Encouraging more people to visit a wilderness area – even for the best of reasons – can ultimately detract from its wilderness quality as this can lead to, among other things, increased demand for roads, accommodation and other facilities.

Consequently there is some tension between the competing management objectives of presentation and protection and conservation of World Heritage areas, as required under Article 5 of the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, when such areas have high wilderness quality.

Queensland’s Wet Tropics Skyrail is one way to see wilderness areas but at a cost to wilderness quality Niklas Morberg/Flickr, CC BY-NC

Why do we need wilderness?

Wilderness areas support important biological, cultural, scientific and recreational values.

Biologically, wilderness areas provide refuge for species and ecosystems from many threatening processes including habitat degradation and the spread of disease and weeds. Large, intact landscapes provide the best chance for species and ecosystems to persist in the face of rapid climate change.

Ideally, protected areas should be large enough to absorb the impacts of large scale disturbances, including fire and the changes to fire regimes resulting from global warming.

Large, intact areas have greater resilience to external stressors, provide more options for species in space and time, sustain critical ecological processes such as long-distance biological movement, and maximise the adaptive capacity of species.

Wilderness areas are also important for climate change mitigation as, for example, protecting the dense carbon stored in primary forest ecosystems avoids significant carbon dioxide emissions.

The human population, now at 6 billion, is projected to rise this century to over 9 billion, and with it ongoing industrialisation to meet growing demand for food, water, fibre, energy and habitation. Given this reality, we can be sure that large, intact landscapes and seascapes of high wilderness quality will become an increasingly scarce asset.

Whether we conceive of wilderness protection in terms of its intrinsic value or, within the framework of inter-generational equity, in terms of its value for future generations, there is a strong imperative for today’s generation to protect wilderness areas from incompatible activities.