Explainer: Wilderness, and Why it Matters

Brendan Mackey, Griffith University and Nicole Rogers

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.

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.