‘Model’ wilderness area in Alps based on Wild Europe definition

Gateway to the Sulzbachtäler/Hohe Tauern Wilderness © Josef Schrank

Author: Bernhard Kohler, WWF Austria

A wilderness area covering 6,700 hectares has been unveiled in the North West of Hohe Tauern National Park in Austria, following formal designation in 2019.

This is based on criteria from the Wild Europe definition and comes under the aegis of the Salzburg municipality.

The wilderness area has great promise as a model for the restoration strategy to implement targets in the 2030 Biodiversity Strategy – echoing Wild Europe’s own objectives of strict protection for at least 10% of EU and non-EU terrestrial areas.

Background to the Hohe Tauern wilderness model

Covering a total of 186,000 hectares, Hohe Tauern NP in south western Austria is the largest national park in the Alps.

It is located in the highest mountain range of Austria, where glacier-covered peaks tower above 3,500 metres. Three adjacent federal provinces (Carinthia, Tyrol and Salzburg) have a share in the park.

For Austrian national parks, compliance with IUCN Category II criteria on protected area management is mandatory, based on a government decision taken 30 years ago. Hohe Tauern is no exception: all three parts of the park

have extensive core zones (covering a total of 114,500 hectares), which are kept free from extractive land use.

However, until Hohe Tauern national park was established in the 1980/90s, these zones were subject to traditional forms of land-use. Millennia of grazing, hunting, forestry and even mining have left traces on the land, albeit to a much lesser extent than elsewhere in the Austrian Alps.

A commitment to the wilderness concept

In response to Wild Europe´s strategy document Message from Prague 2009, National Parks Austria, the umbrella organisation for Austrian parks, has been eager to foster a strong commitment to the wilderness idea among park administrations.

In 2010, the first Austrian National Park Strategy called for identification of potential wilderness areas within the confines of all parks. The current National Park Strategy 2020 reinforces this, explicitly encouraging parks to designate wilderness zones (IUCN category Ib) in their Category II cores.

To promote a deeper awareness of wilderness values and to guide the process of wilderness designation, National Parks Austria published a document on Wilderness and Natural Process Protection in Austrian National Parks in 2017.

This document is based on both IUCN-criteria for category Ib areas (as outlined in Dudley 2008 and Casson et al. 2016 and on Wild Europe´s 2013 Definition of Wilderness and Wild Areas in Europe)

The Wild Europe definition has been of particular significance for National Parks Austria´s wilderness guidance, as IUCN guidelines are designed to apply world-wide and therefore necessarily must remain general, while the Wild Europe criteria provide detailed stipulations for the protection and restoration of wilderness, specifically under European circumstances.

Wilderness planning and designation in Hohe Tauern

Hohe Tauern was the first Austrian National Park to heed National Parks Austria’s call for wilderness designation. Planning and implementation for this was undertaken by NP administration under director Wolfgang Urban, in tandem with WWF Austria and (the then) PAN Parks Foundation, with many of the latter’s functions since continued by the European Wilderness Society.

Restoring wilderness and wilderness qualities has presented constant challenges over several years, involving long and careful negotiation with local landholders on land use compensation, and liaison with hunters, grazers and other interest groups in adjacent areas.

There has been an EU-funded purchase of over 2,500 hectares from a private conservation group, as well as a long-term contract arrangement with the main land-owner, the Austrian Federal Forests.

In addition, another long-term contract secures fishing rights including downstream from the wilderness, to prevent artificial stocking and an eventual invasion of alien fish species.

A wilderness core, adopting Wild Europe criteria

In a ceremony held in 2019, IUCN formally recognized the area as a Category Ib wilderness area.

It has become the Austrian laboratory for the application of Wild Europe criteria to the process of setting up new wilderness areas:

Size: Starting in 2012, Park director Wolfgang Urban has designed and designated a wilderness area of 6,730 hectares, called Sulzbachtäler, in the valley heads of Untersulzbachtal and Obersulzbachtal. In terms of zonation, because this core area is surrounded by strongly protected areas there is no need for a buffer or transition zone.

Wilderness qualities: The new wilderness area stretches over the wildest and least developed portions of the park. It protects large expanses of glaciers, rocky terrain, wild rivers and torrents, alpine grassland and alder scrub, reaching from the highest peaks down to the treeline, where stone pine and larch forests are slowly recovering from former use.

As receding glaciers expose land that has been covered in ice for thousands of years, the wilderness core now even has places that have never been trodden upon by humans, or been subject to any human land-use.

Special care is taken to preserve other wilderness qualities: including opportunity for solitude, silence, remoteness and freedom from artificial sounds and sights.

Wilderness perception level is high, with only much longer views engaging intensive land use and major infrastructure. Care is needed to avoid building visible installations in adjacent (effectively buffer) areas.

Natural process management: The area is extremely dynamic: natural processes such as avalanches, rockfalls, floods and a steadily upward-shifting treeline constantly modify and transform the landscape.

Non-extractive activities only: Hunting, fishing, grazing and all other forms of extractive land use are banned. Provision exists in the national park for culling of ungulates where significant degradation or damage to vegetation is occurring, but only by licensed NP staff using lead-free shot and outside the wilderness area.

Other management interventions: Fire is not currently an issue. Sarcoptic mange may affect wild ungulates, and control by culling is still an option even within the wilderness area, but only as a last resort in the case of an epidemic. Bark beetle are not a problem currently, with relatively small patches of established forest. Equally, invasive species are not currently an issue.

Tourism and no-impact recreation: the area is open to nature watching and wilderness-style recreational uses, meaning that simple, muscle-powered forms of travel (hiking, climbing, snowshoeing and skiing) are permitted. Motorized access and machine powered transport (including mountain bikes) are prohibited. Camping and bivouacking is not permitted within the area, but mountain huts in the vicinity of the area accommodate hikers.

Infrastructure: Minimised. The wilderness area is absolutely free of infrastructure, buildings and roads. There are a few narrow hiking trails with limited route markings and a couple of small bridges.

Native species: Biotic communities are almost complete, comprising such iconic high alpine species as ibex (Capra ibex) chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra), marmot (Marmota marmota), bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) and ptarmigan (Lagopus mutus). In the lowest reaches of the area, there are also red deer (Cervus elaphus) and some stray roe deer (Capreolus capreolus).

Most of the area is currently still above the treeline, but with rising temperatures, forests are spreading into the wilderness. With domestic livestock grazing now discontinued and the impact of climate change, strong regeneration of larch (Larix decidua) and stone pine (Pinus cembra) is observed in the lower parts of the wilderness area.

Return of the big carnivores: Due to its altitude, the wilderness area itself is still only marginally suitable for these species, but first sightings of wolves (Canis lupus) have occurred in the national park, and conflicts with sheep farmers have become significant. Some bears (Ursus arctos) now also cross the Southern border with Italy from a reintroduction project.

To ensure that these ecologically important species can unfold their role across the national park, the administration will be engaging in conflict mitigation initiatives with both livestock owners and hunters.

Education and research: The national park has set up special educational programmes for school classes and visitors, focussing on wilderness issues.

The park also uses the area as a research baseline for monitoring ongoing, often dramatic changes in mountain ecosystems that result from climate warming. Research is conducted with minimal impact principles.

Access: Under Category 1b terms this is generally permitted. Flying is limited to emergency operations (rescue flights and training events for rescue teams) as well as to some transport flights to and from huts in the vicinity of the area. Recreational use of drones and other aircraft is prohibited. Dogs are kept on leads.

Following careful negotiations, the above criteria have been agreed and implemented with the consensus of all land user parties.

The new Management Plan can be downloaded here.

What sets the area apart from the rest of the park?

One might ask what is the scope for a wilderness area, nested within an already strictly protected core zone of a Category II national park? Shouldn´t wilderness qualities be sufficiently protected within these strict core zones?

With regard to extractive land use, this is largely true – there is no land use in Category II core zones either (with the notable exception of low-intensity sheep grazing; this use is prohibited in wilderness areas, resulting in stunning differences with vegetation). Regulations for the wilderness area are generally much stricter, especially regarding infrastructure, recreational use and the preservation of wilderness character on a landscape level.

So, there is clearly much added value in having wilderness zones – as is immediately apparent to any visitor stepping across the wilderness border into almost pathless terrain.

The wilderness area has also become a catalyst for appreciation of process-driven protection and wilderness qualities across the entire park. Experiences gained with upholding such a strict protection regime have begun to influence park management at large. For example, the park has recently launched a wilderness character mapping exercise for its entire area, aiming at a better representation of wilderness values in its management decisions.

A model for implementing the 2020 EU Biodiversity Strategy

The long-term objective is to have wilderness on at least 10% of Austrian national territory.

This will involve establishment of wilderness in new areas and upgrade to wilderness standards in existing areas. Non-intervention zones would be established in all Austrian national parks aiming to eventually cover at least 75% of their area.

There is considerable scope for adoption of Hohe Tauern model outside Austria, with its appraisal, planning and management processes all offering useful experience for attainment of the EU Biodiversity targets.