German Federal Agency for Nature Conservation (BfN)


Wilderness areas

Situation and objectives

The Tagliamento River in Italy is one of the few rivers in Central Europe to remain largely unmodified. (Source: U. Riecken)
The river Tagliamento in Italy (Source: U. Riecken)

A major problem area facing nature conservation in Central Europe today is the systematic elimination of dynamic natural processes from the landscape. This is an ongoing trend which began with the Industrial Revolution and gained its greatest momentum from the 1950s onwards. The effects are especially visible with rivers and streams, but many other landscape types are similarly constrained in their natural development, being subject instead to human planning and purposeful intervention. Many marine shorelines now have dikes or other coastal defence structures. Even the forest ecosystems many people think of as being generally intact are only left to develop naturally in exceptional cases. Ancient forests or at least large parts of them had a different character in terms of spatial structure, chronological development and ecological communities compared with today’s Central European forests shaped by commercial forestry.

Near-wild forest, Isle of Vilm (Source: U. Riecken)
Near-wild forest, Isle of Vilm (Source: U. Riecken)

Overall, Germany has scarcely any remaining wilderness areas that can be said to be natural or left to develop free of human guidance. Natural processes are critical to many species and habitats, however, and protecting them or allowing them to regenerate is a central aim of conservation. This is reflected in Germany’s Federal Nature Conservation Act (BNatSchG), and notably its Section 24 (National Parks), which expressly stipulates safeguarding natural processes as a central aim of national parks.

The Federal Government’s  National Strategy on Biological Diversity includes various wilderness-related targets. For example, nature is to be left to develop undisturbed according to its own laws in at least two percent of German territory by 2020. This target is primarily to be attained with the aid of large wilderness areas. These are also to be integrated in the international ecological network. Furthermore, forest is to be left to develop naturally by 2020 on five percent of forest land.

The importance of wilderness as a nature conservation concern is also reflected in the  Nature Conservation Campaign 2020 launched by the Federal Environment Minister in October 2015.

Towards a definition of wilderness and wilderness areas

Near-wild forest, Isle of Vilm (Source: U. Riecken)
Near-wild forest, Isle of Vilm (Source: U. Riecken)

International definitions of wilderness largely centre on original (primary) wilderness. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) thus defines category 1b protected areas (wilderness areas) as follows (IUCN 2016: Wilderness Protected Areas: Management guidelines for IUCN Category 1b protected areas):

“Usually large unmodified or slightly modified areas, retaining their natural character and influence, without permanent or significant human habitation, protected and managed to preserve their natural condition.”

The main focus at European level is likewise on primary wilderness. In connection with work on a European Union Wilderness Strategy, the Wild Europe Initiative formulated the following  working 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.”

There is no question, however, that scarcely any areas of unmodified wilderness survive across large parts of Central Europe, particularly in Germany. Only isolated remnants of unmodified wilderness remain in the strict sense of the word. In an expert congress held by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation, a workable definition of wilderness for Germany was formulated as follows:

“Wilderness areas for the purposes of the National Strategy on Biological Diversity are (largely) undissected, unused areas of sufficient size, intended to permanently ensure natural processes to unfold undisturbed by human influences.”

Implementation in Germany

Wilderness developing on the the former 'Königsbrücker Heide' military exercise area
Königsbrücker Heide.(Source: P. Finck)
Wilderness developing on the former 'Königsbrücker Heide' military exercise area (Source: P. Finck)

Today, wilderness areas within the meaning of the National Strategy on Biological Diversity are mainly found in the core areas of national parks (see Section 24 (2) BNatSChG), on National Natural Heritage sites and in some large nature conservation areas. On current estimates, they make up about 0.6% of German territory. It is therefore necessary to identify further areas where wilderness can be left to develop. Suitable areas include publicly owned forests, peatland, river floodplains, stretches of coast, and high mountain regions. Former military sites and post-mining landscapes are another possibility for future wilderness areas. 

Based on a proposal in a paper by EUROPARC Germany, criteria for the selection of 'large-scale wilderness areas for the purpose of attaining the two-percent target set in the National Strategy on Biological Diversity' have been drawn up by the Federal Agency for Nature Conservation in collaboration with the relevant directorate within the Federal Environment Ministry and coordinated with the Länder nature conservation agencies.

The Federal Government contributes significantly towards attainment of the wilderness targets under the National Strategy on Biological Diversity by transferring large natural heritage sites to the Länder and nature conservation organisations such as associations and foundations. Alongside the Federal Government, a substantial part of the responsibility for implementation lies with the Länder. These have already made good progress with the formulation and implementation of Länder strategies on biodiversity.

Desired outcome

Wolf packs are resetteling some regions in Germany (Source: U. Riecken)
Wolves (Source: U. Riecken)

The desired outcome of wilderness (development) areas is for landscapes to develop showing the fullest possible range of development stages. They should feature various succession stages including smaller, open areas. Within these areas, the many spatial and dynamic natural processes should be left to run their course undisturbed. It is consciously accepted that the course of development and the final results cannot be accurately foreseen.

In addition, ‘nature experience areas’ can be established close to human settlements, in which nature is likewise left to develop undisturbed and which therefore at least in part have the character of wilderness. Such areas can relieve some of the recreational pressure on high-quality protected areas by being made accessible for broader recreational use.

Further references

Schumacher, H., Finck, P., Riecken, U. & Klein, M. (2018): More wilderness for Germany: implementing an important objective of Germany's National Strategy on Biological Diversity.
Journal for Nature Conservation 42


Last Change: 21/01/2021