What is wilderness good for?
By definition, wilderness areas exclude modern industrial land uses and intrusive infrastructure.
Commercial logging and mining are typically not compatible because they have negative environmental impacts on wilderness quality, reducing an area’s remoteness and ecological intactness.
Nature and culture-based tourism and education can be broadly compatible with wilderness. This, however, depends on what type of supporting infrastructure they need which can range from simple walking trails through to the Skyrail Rainforest Cableway in the Wet Tropics of Queensland’s World Heritage Area.
Encouraging more people to visit a wilderness area – even for the best of reasons – can ultimately detract from its wilderness quality as this can lead to, among other things, increased demand for roads, accommodation and other facilities.
Consequently there is some tension between the competing management objectives of presentation and protection and conservation of World Heritage areas, as required under Article 5 of the Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, when such areas have high wilderness quality.
Why do we need wilderness?
Wilderness areas support important biological, cultural, scientific and recreational values.
Biologically, wilderness areas provide refuge for species and ecosystems from many threatening processes including habitat degradation and the spread of disease and weeds. Large, intact landscapes provide the best chance for species and ecosystems to persist in the face of rapid climate change.
Ideally, protected areas should be large enough to absorb the impacts of large scale disturbances, including fire and the changes to fire regimes resulting from global warming.
Large, intact areas have greater resilience to external stressors, provide more options for species in space and time, sustain critical ecological processes such as long-distance biological movement, and maximise the adaptive capacity of species.
Wilderness areas are also important for climate change mitigation as, for example, protecting the dense carbon stored in primary forest ecosystems avoids significant carbon dioxide emissions.
The human population, now at 6 billion, is projected to rise this century to over 9 billion, and with it ongoing industrialisation to meet growing demand for food, water, fibre, energy and habitation. Given this reality, we can be sure that large, intact landscapes and seascapes of high wilderness quality will become an increasingly scarce asset.
Whether we conceive of wilderness protection in terms of its intrinsic value or, within the framework of inter-generational equity, in terms of its value for future generations, there is a strong imperative for today’s generation to protect wilderness areas from incompatible activities.