Wilderness 1: What is wilderness?

wilderness_smallAny analysis of wilderness areas will be based on an understanding of environmental, philosophical, religious, human and political factors. In Norway this understanding has over the years led to a categorization of wilderness into different area classes based on distance to defined encroachments. Roads, railways, towers, and more represent encroachments in the context of wilderness.

Through a couple of blog posts I will look more broadly at terrestrial wilderness analysis using different GIS tools. The tools this time will be FME desktop, QGIS and Geonode. I will present methods for generating a wilderness layer and visualization. I will also present tools for analyzing changes in wilderness status based on new encroachments. The work will be done in collaboration with Tanzania Conservation Resource Centre which allowed me to use their FME license for this work.

Regreational road in Serengeti, June 2006.

Recreational road/track in Serengeti, June 2006. (photo: Ragnvald Larsen)

The term wilderness deserves more than a flat technical consideration. In my view our definition of wilderness also defines us as humans – for better and worse. In this posting, the first in this series, I will focus on the more philosophical side of the term wilderness. I did however choose to be a geographer and not a philosopher, so bear with me… Had I chosen to be a philosopher it would probably have been a lousy one – I hope I am a better geographer.

What is wilderness?

Road in the Trollheimen, Norway, August 2014

Mountain road in Trollheimen, Norway, August 2014 (photo: Ragnvald Larsen)

Over the years, not least during  my time as a member of the board of directors in the Norwegian Trekking Association I spent more than a decent amount of time pondering on what experiences, assumptions and landscapes that make the term wilderness meaningful. For me a feeling of remoteness and the notion that man should not influence all possible areas was central. The assumption that wilderness areas also provides several species with areas where direct human influence is kept at a low, and as a consequence larger ecological systems can sustain, was also part of this picture.

When I today look for data about protected areas I usually use the World Database of Protected areas (WDPA). I do this regularly in my day job taking part in the development cooperation between Norway and partner countries. The WDPA is a joint effort between IUCN and UNEP providing the biggest database of all types of protected areas. The IUCN categories classify protected areas according to their management objectives. I thought it would be a good start and soon found that Wilderness was one of the IUCN categories – to be precise it wass IUCN Category Ib thus defined:

“A large area of unmodified or slightly modified land, and/or sea, retaining its natural character and influence, without permanent or significant habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural condition.”

The definition course presumes that the area actually has a protected area status. This excludes a lot of wilderness areas. And since my assumption is that wilderness can exist outside formally managed areas this was not what I was looking for.

Norwegian wilderness

Norwegian wilderness

I therefore thought better of the structured approach and went back well over twenty years in time. At that time I studied geography at NTNU and also read some philosophy of nature. Re-reading some of this I found that I still consider the thoughts of the Norwegian philosopher Professor Arne Næss relevant – and in particular the eight points in his deep ecology platform to be a good starting points for discussions about humans and wilderness. I was quite a fan at the time. Næss stated that:

1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth, intrinsic value, inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

6. Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

—Arne Naess in Rothenberg (1992)

David Rothenberg wrote a good biography (Rothenberg 1992) on the philosophy of Arne Næss. From what I read online he has continued thinking about the relationship man and nature. I picked up a book on wilderness where he was the editor and read his preface. His writings were inspiring ,and I think the following stands out because he in a few sentences captures something very important about mans relationship with nature.

The love of wilderness and the desire to maintain it are part of humanity’s rise toward a less selfish state. It is a sign of our growing ability to look beyond ourselves, to expand our care to aspects of nature that are important not because they are useful to us but because we respect them beyond the limitations of use – the love of wilderness as something precious and worthy as part of the march of civilization. Our human culture is stronger for having seen the need to recognize it.

David Rothenberg

However well and interesting Næss and Rothenberg writes about our relationship to nature and wilderness they still leave us struggling with the question – What is (the) wilderness? Which areas are we really talking about? And so we end up in seemingly eternal discussions fueled by the following and other questions:

  • Is wilderness the areas we can not easily access?
  • Is it where we can go and most probably will not meet other human beings?
  • A place where mans domination of nature is not visible?
  • A place without any influence of human activities whatsoever?
  • Areas where economical interests are not directly influencing the ecosystems?
  • What about indigenous people, do they or do they not influence an areas status as wilderness?
  • And so on…

I guess we will have to accept that wilderness, when all is said and done, is what is not easily accessible by humans. We can not assume that management of nature alone allows us to control how nature is used. Many of us need not go further than to the closest mirror to see a person guilty of changes in nature. We buy products with dangerous ingredients and dispose of them where we should not. We drive cars where and when we should not. We do not sort our trash properly. We fail to respect regulations put in place to protect species or ecosystems. And probably much more.

This practical approach connects very well with what the american philosopher Haydn Washington says:

“There are at least five strands that make up the wilderness knot. These are philosophical, political, cultural, justice and exploitation.”

Marshman at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Chino open-pit copper mine located just out of Silver City, New Mexico

When I started writing this article I did not include exploitation in my list of factors contributing to our understanding of wilderness. It was not until I read Washington that I decided it was time to find a more mundane and practical approach to wilderness in this article. Where I had assumed that exploitation would be covered through politics he simply says that exploitation stands alone as one of the most important factors in what he describes as the “wilderness knot”.

The legal and illegal exploitation of nature is a fact – whether we like it or not. It could be anything from collecting firewood, finding shelter, through agriculture, forestry, illegal use of petroleum related resources, strip mining – just to have mentioned some.

How do we find these areas which do not represent any usefulness for us? What is the common denominator which points to  unused areas? For areas to be useful for humans we usually will need some access to the areas. In my view infrastructure therefore stands out as an important indicator for human economical interests – both legal and not.

This is why I find it interesting to do a wilderness analysis using information about infrastructure. In the following articles I will therefore look at how wilderness can be analysed and presented. The following will be covered:

The reader should expect the article to be updated after its publication.


IUCN. 2014. Protected areas categories. Website accessed 2014.12.18

Kvalbein Kråkenes, Susanne. 2011. Using GIS to map wilderness areas in Tanzania. Master degree thesis. NTNU (Norwegian University of Science and Technology).

Norwegian Environment Agency. 2014. INON webpages.

Rothenberg, David. 1992. Is it painful to think: Conversations with Arne Næss.

Rothenberg, David. 2001. The world and the wild.

Washington, Haydn. 2012. Untying the wilderness knot. Papers from the 6th National Wilderness Conference

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