What is wilderness?
Wilderness is land free from farmland, urban and industrial development and other types of high-impact land use, like roads. It is where nature remains the least disturbed and most resilient.
As Alex Colley (O.A.M.) wrote in 1996: "Wilderness comprises the last substantial remnants of the ecologically complete environment that once covered the earth."
Wilderness Australia supports the definition coined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in their Protected Area Management Categories Guidelines (2008). Wherein Wilderness (Category 1b) is a category of conservation reserve that is:
[U]sually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, which are protected and managed so as to preserve their natural condition.
Wilderness protection is a basic environmental requirement. But without active Government support the work toward wilderness protection grinds to a halt. It follows that the failure to recognise, protect and manage valuable wilderness is a sure indicator of a Government’s poor overall environmental performance.
Photo credit: Henry Gold
Our cultural heritage is wild
Wilderness areas are remnants of the Australia that existed before European colonisation.
All wilderness areas are the land that was inhabited by Australia’s Indigenous people. Unaffected by development of various kinds, these significant places help preserve priceless artefacts of Aboriginal cultural heritage including occupation and ritual sites, ancient tools, cave art, and song lines.
Our living wilderness areas also preserve much of the spirit of the Australian bush and the outback; the sweeping plains, rugged mountain ranges and far horizons of Dorothea Mackellar’s poem, ‘Our Country’.
Wilderness is a great teacher. The experience of wilderness and participation in the struggle to save it has inspired much interest in the natural sciences, archaeology, history, geography, and literature of modern-day Australia.
It also renews us through recreation by providing a playground for those who love to go rafting, bushwalking and orienteering.
Many of Australia’s premiere tourist destinations are wilderness areas; consider the wild and rugged landscapes of Kakadu, the Blue Mountains, and the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.
Photo credit: David Noble
Nature relies on wilderness
The most important function of wilderness is to provide ‘life-support’ for nature. Without it, natural ecosystems have a far lower chance of remaining functional over the long-term.
Five thousand years ago all the Earth’s surface was wilderness. Today, three-quarters of the planet’s wilderness has been destroyed, while the remainder is under pressure and shrinking fast, devoured by roads, farmlands, dams, and bustling urban areas.
Catastrophic consequences have followed. In Australia and around the planet, as scientists have warned, nature is ailing and facing collapse:
- In Australia, 102 species are listed as extinct and another 1,765 are listed as threatened with extinction.
- 40% of the world's insect species are facing extinction in the next few decades.
- One-half of Earth's higher lifeforms will be extinct by 2100 if we continue down our current path.
- Around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken to reduce the intensity of drivers of biodiversity loss.
Large-scale wilderness areas are needed to preserve biodiversity, sustain healthy ecosystems and nurture functional ecological processes – like genetic dispersal, food chains, predator-prey balances, and water cycles.
Some of these ecological processes span entire continents. For example, many species migrate using vegetation corridors or ‘islands’ between wilderness areas; waterways may link terrestrial forests to marine reefs; and inland flooding can transport water and nutrients across large parts of the continent.
These processes are resilient up to a point, but when environmentally destructive activity pushes nature beyond a ‘tipping point,’ many of its life-support functions and processes stop working.
We need wilderness to keep nature safe, healthy and resilient. Yet as many ecological processes maintaining the natural world operate at a continental scale, we must start thinking big - really big - if nature is to survive whole and intact across Australia.
Toward WildCountry: a continent wide rescue plan
WildCountry is a visionary approach to conservation. It seeks to prevent the next Mass Extinction by ensuring ecosystems are resilient and large-scale, ecological processes are preserved.
At its heart is this conviction: nature needs to be strong enough to thrive without ongoing human intervention (e.g breeding programs), withstand climate change and endure the myriad of environmental harms wrought by man.
As ecologist, Prof. Recher, proposes in What Makes this Old Scientist Grumpy (2013), averting nature’s collapse requires that we start thinking big:
“A whole-of-landscape approach, such as WildCountry and Wild Lands, is needed; the conservation paradigm should be inverted with the entire continent seen as a nature reserve and human activities managed with nature conservation as a priority.”
For Dr Recher and other like-minded scientists, a resilient natural world cannot be achieved if conservationists continue focusing solely on the issues of climate change or the protection of iconic species like the Koala or Platypus.
Nor can it be assured by seeking protection for isolated, fragmented conservation reserves, which are ‘too-often poorly managed’ and ‘temporary pending decisions on the best economic use of the land’.
Rather, this specific approach to conservation relies on the protection of large wilderness areas; the restoration of wilderness in some areas where it’s been damaged - a process that’s been called ‘rewilding’; and the connection of wilderness areas to one another to form a natural network that spans the Australian continent.
In practice, this means nature reserves must be identified, established and managed for their natural values. At the same time, ‘buffer areas’ surrounding – and connecting – these reserves need to be managed to ensure they are operating effectively as ‘corridors’ for nature. Voluntary conservation management on private lands would form part of these corridors for nature.
Such thinking is mirrored in projects overseas including The Wildlands Network in North America and Rewilding Britain. In Australia, The concept of WildCountry also contributed to Australian projects including GondwanaLink and the Great Eastern Ranges.
Today, WildCountry operates as a guiding principle for Wilderness Australia.