Update shows wide use in 2022 of the wilderness definition

Valley Head of Krimmler Achental, Hohe Tauern NP

A recent review of Wild Europe’s definition of wilderness, originally produced in 2014, shows its use is widespread and expanding. The intention was to create a set of criteria that produce uniformly high standards for protection and restoration, regardless of biogeographical or cultural circumstance.

Below are some of the applications:

  • The definition has been adopted as a basis for work by CEL (Coordination Evolution Libre), the newly constituted NGO network in France. It was also input by IUCN France to the French government review of criteria for President Macron’s target announced in 2019for 10% of his country to be protected in a condition of “plein naturalité” (full naturalness), subsequently adapted to “protection forte” (strong protection).
  • Fundatia Conservation Carpathia (FCC) Romania, aiming to create the largest privately funded wilderness reserve in Europe, is using the definition as its basis for planning. https://www.carpathia.org
  • The European Wilderness Society has formulated the EWQA (European Wilderness Quality Assessment), a programme of certification based on the Wild Europe definition as developed with our Wilderness Working Group. This is being rolled out in a number of EU and non-EU countries across Europe. https://wilderness-society.org/european-wilderness-definition/
  • The definition has a key role to play in long-term wilderness planning for Sumava National Park (Czech Republic), alongside a model programme of ‘wilderness support’ which Wild Europe has run since 2012 in conjunction with local NGOs, involving international representation, economic feasibility assessment and enterprise implementation.
  • Most recently, the definition has been used in formulation of an exercise to map wilderness in Iceland, covering some 40% of the country, and involving the Wilderness Research Institute of Leeds University with local cartographers. Its results were presented in March 2022 at an event launched by Gudlaugur Thór Thórdarson, Minister for Environment. Reference: https://www.wildeurope.org/large-wilderness-mapping-exercise-in-iceland/#more-3756

December 2019, this post was updated in May 2021 and in April 2022

How the Wild Europe definition of wilderness builds on the IUCN Category 1b definition


The Wild Europe definition of wilderness was developed over four years by over 50 experts with the input and support of IUCN personnel. It has been adopted by the European Commission and is now used in many areas across Europe.

The definition was established to cater specifically for the needs of a European context, and to offer a relatively rigorous and standardized underpin for both protection and restoration initiatives across a wide variety of geographic and cultural circumstances.

It seeks to build on and strengthen rather than replace the existing IUCN Category 1b definition – which is excellent but global and thus relatively generalised.

Far from being a dilution of the IUCN definition, the Wild Europe definition thus is widely regarded as considerably strengthening the credibility and practical implementation of wilderness in Europe.

IUCN Category 1b definition of wilderness

“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.”

The Wild Europe definition

“A wilderness is an area governed by natural processes. It is composed of native habitats and species, and large enough for the effective ecological functioning of natural processes. It is unmodified or only slightly modified and without intrusive or extractive human activity, settlements, infrastructure or visual disturbance.”

Building on the IUCN definition

There are key elements in the Wild Europe definition of wilderness which in practice help it to build effectively on its Category 1b origin, focusing for a European context:

  1. Minimum size is stipulated by the Wild Europe definition. This aspect alone is critical. Under the IUCN 1b Category definition there are for example many areas of only around 50 hectares; this is fine for the USA and other countries that also have large tracts of ‘real’ wilderness by any definition. However a more rigorous approach is felt necessary for the wilderness concept to be credible in crowded and highly developed Europe.
  2. Clear specification on the impact and location of human activities and artifacts is offered by the Wild Europe definition, with zonation principles and a set of criteria. It is difficult in practice to protect and restore wilderness areas in Europe, where human presence is almost ubiquitous, without these specific elements.
  3. A strong stance, in practice, on prohibition of extractive uses in core zones and their regulation in buffer and transition zones. Again, the extra rigour provided by the Wild Europe definition lends credibility to the concept, a clear standpoint for other land uses which could otherwise encroach.
  4. Specific stipulations on natural processes – particularly important in identifying the component elements of a wilderness in order to protect or reconstruct it in a European context where such process have often been substantially altered
  5. Other – there are less significant differentiations as well, for example of the presence of large mammals, and stipulations on volume of visitors

The Wild Europe definition of wilderness is intended to provide a practical holistic approach: whether in an ecological, economic (non extractive), psychological, aesthetic or spiritual sense.