Just 20 countries are home to 94% of the world’s remaining wilderness, excluding the high seas and Antarctica, according to our new global wilderness map, published today in Nature.
A century ago, wilderness extended over most of the planet. Today, only 23% of land – excluding Antarctica – and 13% of the ocean remains free from the harmful impacts of human activities.
More than 70% of remaining wilderness is in just five countries: Australia, Russia, Canada, the United States (Alaska), and Brazil.
We argue that wilderness can still be saved. But success will depend on the steps these “mega-wilderness nations” take, or fail to take, to secure the future of Earth’s last remaining wild places.
Wilderness areas are vast tracts of untamed and unmodified land and sea. Regardless of where they are – from the lowland rainforests of Papua New Guinea, to the high taiga forests of Russia’s Arctic, to the vast deserts of inland Australia, to the great mixing zones of the Pacific, Antarctic and Indian Oceans – these areas are the last strongholds for endangered species, and perform vital functions such as storing carbon, and buffering us against the effects of climate change. In many wilderness areas, indigenous peoples, who are often the most politically and economically marginalised of all peoples, depend on them for their livelihoods and cultures.
Yet despite being important and highly threatened, wilderness areas and their values are completely overlooked in international environmental policy. In most countries, wilderness is not formally defined, mapped or protected. This means there is nothing to hold nations, industry, society and community to account for wilderness conservation.
Almost two-thirds of marine wilderness is in the high seas, beyond nations’ immediate control. This effectively makes it a marine wild west, where fishing fleets have a free-for-all. There are some laws to manage high-seas fishing, but there is no legally binding agreement governing high-seas conservation, although the United Nations is currently negotiating such a treaty. Ensuring marine wilderness is off-limits to exploitation will be crucial.
And we cannot forget Antarctica, arguably Earth’s greatest remaining wilderness and one of the last places on the planet where vast regions have never experienced a human footfall.
While Antarctica’s isolation and extreme climate have helped protect it from the degradation experienced elsewhere, climate change, human activity, pollution, and invasive species increasingly threaten the continent’s wildlife and wilderness.
Parties to the Antarctic Treaty must act on their commitments to help reduce human impacts, and we need to urgently curb global carbon emissions before it is too late to save Antarctica.
Our maps show how little wilderness is left, and how much has been lost in the past few decades. It is hard to believe, but between 1993 and 2009 a staggering 3.3 million square kilometres of terrestrial wilderness – an area larger than India – was lost to human settlement, farming, mining and other pressures. In the ocean, the only regions free of industrial fishing, pollution and shipping are confined to the poles or remote Pacific island nations.
Almost every nation has signed international environmental agreements that aim to end the biodiversity crisis, halt dangerous climate change, and achieve global
sustainable development goals. We believe Earth’s remaining wilderness can only be
secured if its importance is immediately recognised within these agreements.
At a summit in Egypt later this month, the 196 signatory nations to the Convention on Biological Diversity will work alongside scientists on developing a strategic plan for conservation beyond 2020. This is a unique opportunity for all nations to recognise that Earth’s wilderness are dwindling, and to mandate a global target for wilderness conservation.
A global target of retaining 100% of all remaining wilderness is achievable, although it would require stopping industrial activities like mining, logging, and fishing from expanding to new places. But committing explicitly to such a target would make it easier for governments and non-governmental organisations to leverage funding and mobilise action on the ground in nations that are still developing economically.
Similarly, the role of wilderness in guarding against climate change – such as by storing huge amounts of carbon – could also be formally documented in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which holds its annual conference in Poland next month. This would incentivise nations to make wilderness protection central to their climate strategies.
Mechanisms such as REDD+, which allows developing nations to claim compensation for conserving tropical forests they had planned to clear, could be extended to other carbon-rich wilderness areas such as intact seagrasses, and even to wildernesses in rich countries that do not receive climate aid, such as the Canadian tundra.
Nations have ample opportunities, through legislation and rewarding good behaviour, to prevent road and shipping lane expansion, and enforcing limits on large-scale developments and industrial fishing in their wilderness areas. They can also establish protected areas to slow the spread of industrial activity into wilderness.
The moral value of wilderness
A diverse set of approaches must be embraced, and the private sector must work with governments so that industry protects, rather than harms, wilderness areas. Key to this will be lenders’ investment and performance standards, particularly for organisations such as the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the regional development banks.
Our planet faces not just a species extinction crisis, but also a wilderness extinction crisis. Once lost, our wild places are gone forever. This may be our last opportunity to save the last of the wild, we cannot afford to miss it.
James Allan, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Jasmine Lee, PhD candidate, biodiversity conservation and climate change, The University of Queensland, and Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland
The Commonwealth government’s decision to wave through a controversial tourism development in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was made in defiance of strident opposition from the expert statutory advisory body for the region’s management, it was revealed today.
In August, federal environment minister Melissa Price’s office decided the proposed luxury development on Halls Island did not need to be assessed under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
But according to documents tabled in Tasmania’s parliament by the Greens this morning, the state’s National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council had advised the opposite, as well as recommending that the proposal should not be approved at all in its current form. The council also argued “contentious projects” like this one should not be considered for the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area without “an agreed framework to guide assessment”.
This situation is not unique, and reveals a deeper problem with our national environmental laws. They may look strong on paper, but their strength can be eroded by bureaucratic discretion.
Tasmania’s wilderness has long been ground zero for the struggle between conservation and commercialisation of our natural estate. In the 1980s, the Commonwealth government nominated the area for World Heritage listing to stop the state government building a hydroelectric dam on one of Australia’s last truly wild rivers.
The “locking up” of large parts of wilderness from industrial development has prompted deep social divisions. Nevertheless, the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA) has since become part of Tasmania’s cultural and natural fabric. Yet this wilderness is now under renewed threat, as commercial interests seek to capitalise on its tourism potential.
Explainer: wilderness, and why it matters
World Heritage Areas must have an up-to-date management plan to ensure compliance with Australia’s obligations under the World Heritage Convention. In 2016 the Commonwealth and Tasmanian governments revised the TWWHA management plan to reflect its “socio-economic” value, allowing a range of tourism uses that were banned under the previous 1999 plan.
The World Heritage Committee warned in 2015 that without “strict criteria for new tourism development”, there would be significant risks to the area’s “wilderness character and cultural attributes”. Australia accepted the recommendation but has still not meaningfully implemented strict criteria to assess and protect wilderness values, even as it accepts proposals for tourism developments.
Since both levels of government agreed to open up the TWHHA, a range of commercial interests have proposed tourism developments there. Expressions of interest for commercial developments are done behind closed doors, but it is clear that at least 30 commercial development proposals have been made for sites in the TWWHA, including projects involving permanent huts, lodges and camps, and some that would necessitate helicopter access.
The first of these proposals to be released for public comment and assessed under the 2016 management plan is a plan to build a “luxury standing camp and guided ecotourism experience” at Halls Island in Walls of Jerusalem National Park – a remote highland region of the TWWHA.
The plan includes reclassifying the lake surrounding Halls Island from “wilderness” to “self-reliant recreation”. On March 22, 2018, the proponent (Wild Drake Pty Ltd) referred the proposal to the Commonwealth Environment Minister to determine whether it should be formally assessed under the EPBC Act.
Upon referral the proposal met with widespread opposition from scientists, conservation specialists, civil society, and recreational users of the park, especially the fishing community. What became clear today is that it was also strongly opposed by the expert advisory council for the TWWHA.
The National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Council (NPWAC) is a statutory body of independent experts, with responsibility to advise on the management of the TWHHA in line with Australia’s national and international World Heritage commitments. The documents released today show that on July 13 2018, the NPWAC argued strongly against the proposal being allowed to proceed, stating that it “does not support this project progressing at this time”.
It cited a range of objections, including the fact that the development would effectively grant “exclusive private commercial use” of an area in the TWWHA, and that the opening up of airspace to helicopters would set an unwelcome precedent. It also described the development’s planned “standing camp” as a “pretence” because it would involve the construction of permanent buildings for year-round use. And it pointed to the proposal’s failure to address adequately the risk to threatened species and the fire-sensitive nature of the property.
Like the World Heritage Committee, NPWAC argued that the range of projects currently proposed for the TWWHA “should not be considered until there is an agreed framework to guide assessment”. Yet despite this, the minister’s delegate allowed the proposal to proceed without further assessment under the EPBC Act.
On August 31, 2018, the delegate of the minister decided that the referred action “is not a controlled action”, which means that it will not be subject to any further assessment, or even attention, by the Commonwealth government. No other reasons were given to reject the NPWAC’s recommendations, or the submissions from 78 individuals (including expert scientists) and 808 campaign submissions opposing the development.
Government ministers are not bound to act on expert advice. But they do have a duty to take it into account in a meaningful way. That is especially the case when expert advice is so clear, and supported by a range of relevant, independent and compelling public submissions from scientists and specialist groups.
In the case of Halls Island, these factors should have tipped the balance towards undertaking a proper, legal assessment of the proposal and its likely impacts.
In a response to The Conversation, Price said her department had considered a range of advice and concluded that the proposed development is “not likely to have significant impacts on any nationally protected environmental matters, including the value of the World Heritage Area”.
Examined against the government’s increasingly cavalier attitude to our national estate, world heritage, and role in global environmental governance it is tempting to conclude that Tasmania’s wilderness has become yet another place where economic values trump conservation ones.
The Commonwealth is supposed to provide a check and balance on states’ self-interest in exploiting areas of outstanding universal value. But with another 29 development proposals on the list, our fear is that Tasmania’s World Heritage “wilderness” will become a lot less wild in the future.
Kendall Jones, The University of Queensland; Alan Friedlander, University of Hawaii; Benjamin Halpern, University of California, Santa Barbara; Caitlin Kuempel, The University of Queensland; Carissa Klein, The University of Queensland; Hedley Grantham, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland; Nicole Shumway, and Oscar Venter, University of Northern British Columbia
Just 13% of the world’s oceans are now free from intense human activities such as fishing, according to a new map of ocean wilderness areas.
Our research, published in the journal Current Biology, shows that only 55 million square km of the global ocean can still be classified as “wilderness”, out of a total of 500 million square km.
There is almost no wilderness left in coastal seas, where human activities are most intense. Much of the remaining marine wilderness is clustered around the poles or near remote Pacific island nations with low populations.
Humans rely on the ocean for food, livelihoods, and almost three-quarters of atmospheric oxygen. We use the ocean for the vast majority of global trade, and more than 2.8 billion people rely on seafood as an important protein source. It’s little wonder that more than eight in ten Australians live within 50km of the coast.
Earth’s ocean wilderness areas are home to unparalleled levels of marine life and are some of the only places where large predators are still found in historical numbers. Top predators such as sharks and tuna depend on these areas, as their slow reproduction rates make them particularly susceptible to decline even at mild levels of fishing.
Even the strictest, best-managed marine reserves cannot sustain the same levels of wildlife diversity as wilderness areas. This is either because reserves are too small, or because human activities in neighbouring areas impact wildlife as soon as they swim outside of reserve boundaries. According to our research, only 4.9% of marine wilderness is currently within marine protected areas.
There is evidence that wilderness areas are more resilient to rising sea temperatures and coral bleaching – stressors that cannot be halted without globally coordinated efforts to reduce emissions. These areas also give scientists a true baseline for system health, providing important information for restoring degraded marine ecosystems.
Human impacts on marine ecosystems are becoming more intense and widespread
each year, threatening wilderness areas across the planet. Fishing is
now one of the most widespread activities by which humans harvest natural
resources. Industrial fishing covers 55% of the ocean, an area four times larger than is used for terrestrial agriculture. In many places, fishing has become so intense that large predators and charismatic species such as sea turtles have almost been wiped out.
Technological improvements have allowed humans to fish in the
farthest reaches of international waters. In the high Arctic, places that were once safe because of year-round ice cover are now open to fishing and shipping as warming seas melt the ice.
Even in nations with world-class fisheries management, such as Australia and the
United States, marine environments are being severely impacted by sediment and
nutrient runoff due to poor land management and deforestation. Sediment runoff onto the once pristine Great Barrier Reef is now five to ten times higher than historical levels, contributing to declining coral diversity and more frequent crown-of-thorns starfish outbreaks, and reducing the resilience of reefs against climate change.
Marine wilderness is overlooked in both global and national conservation strategies, as these areas are often assumed to be free from threatening processes and are therefore not a priority for conservation efforts. Our results show that this is a myth – wilderness areas in the ocean and on land are being rapidly lost, and protecting what remains is crucial. The Arctic, once thought of as untouched, is now likely to see new shipping channels, fisheries, and mining operations as sea ice disappears.
Protecting wilderness will require a combination of national and international efforts, but the fundamental goal must be to curb the impacts of current threats such as commercial fishing, shipping, resource extraction, and land-based runoff.
In nations like Australia and Canada, which still have substantial wilderness remaining within their national waters, using marine protected areas or fishery management regulations to protect wilderness will be crucial. Because even low levels of human activity can severely impact vulnerable species such as sharks and tuna, these areas should be strictly protected and cannot allow activities like commercial fishing.
However, current government plans to almost halve the area of strict protection in the Australian marine reserve system do not bode well for the future of wilderness protection.
While protecting wilderness within national waters is legally straightforward,
preserving wilderness on the high seas will likely prove much more challenging, as no country has jurisdiction over these areas. One option may be to harness existing international and regional agreements, such as Regional Fisheries Management Organisations – international agencies formed by countries to manage shared fishing interests in a certain area. These organisations are already accustomed to set fishing limits, and have been used to close large areas of the high seas to damaging bottom-trawl fishing. An extension of their powers to create high seas conservation areas is certainly feasible, but this is likely to require substantial lobbying from member nations.
The need for improved high-seas management is also now being recognised by the international community, with the UN currently negotiating a “Paris Agreement for the Ocean” – a legally binding high-seas conservation treaty to be established under the existing Law of the Sea Convention. Australia, as a wealthy nation and a signatory to fishing agreements in the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans, has the potential to be a world leader in marine wilderness conservation if it so chooses.
Just like wilderness on land, pristine oceans are difficult to restore once lost. Our research should be a clarion call for immediate action to protect the world’s remaining wild oceans so that future generations can see the sea as it once was.
Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland; Alan Friedlander, Researcher, University of Hawaii; Benjamin Halpern, Professor, University of California, Santa Barbara; Caitlin Kuempel, PhD Candidate in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland; Carissa Klein, Postdoctoral research fellow in conservation biology, The University of Queensland; Hedley Grantham, Research Associate, The University of Queensland; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; Nicole Shumway, PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland, and Oscar Venter, Associate Professor and FRBC/West Fraser research chair, Ecosystem Science and Management Progam, University of Northern British Columbia
Let us imagine that humanity has almost died out and only a few people remain. Out of resentment or despair, the survivors cater to their destructive urges by destroying as much of the natural world as they can. They poison rivers and lakes, drop napalm on forests, set off a few nuclear warheads. They are at ease with their conscience because no one will ever be in the position to use or appreciate the nature they are destroying.
They are harming no one. But surely what they are doing is wrong.
Explainer: wilderness, and why it matters
The Australian environmental philosopher Richard Sylvan used this story to try to persuade us that nature has a value that is independent of our needs and desires, even our existence.
The predicament he imagines is a fiction. But the ethical problem is very real. Experts tell us that human activity is causing the world’s wilderness areas to disappear at an alarming rate. In 100 years there may be no wilderness left.
Those who deplore this development usually focus on the negative implications for human well-being: increasing environmental dysfunction, loss of species diversity and of the unknown benefits that wilderness areas might contain.
But Sylvan’s thought experiment – involving the last people alive, and therefore removing the consideration of humans’ future well-being – shows us that much more is at stake. It is morally wrong to destroy ecosystems because they have value in their own right.
Some philosophers deny that something can have value if no one is around to value it. They think that ethical values exist only in our minds. Like most philosophical propositions, this position is debatable. Sylvan and many others believe that value is as much a part of the world as matter and energy.
But let us assume that those who deny the independent existence of values are right. How then can we condemn the destructive activities of the last people or deplore the loss of wilderness and species for any other reason than loss of something useful to humans?
The kind of experiences that something provides can be a reason for regarding it as valuable for what it is, and not merely for its utility. Those who appreciate wilderness areas are inclined to believe that they have this kind of value. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life posturing freely where we never wander.”
The Great Barrier Reef “is the closest most people will come to Eden”, said the poet Judith Wright, who helped to lead a protest movement in the 1960s and 1970s against the plans of the Bjelke-Petersen Queensland government to drill for oil on the reef.
Thoreau and Wright value wilderness not merely because it the source of enjoyment and recreational pleasure, but also because it can teach us something profound – either through its astonishing beauty or by putting our own human lives in perspective. In this way, wild nature is valuable for much the same reasons that many people value great works of art.
If the last people had set about destroying all the artworks in all the great museums of the world, we would call them vandals. Objects of great spiritual or aesthetic value deserve respect and should be treated accordingly. To destroy them is wrong, regardless of whether anyone will be here to appreciate them in the future.
Wright and her fellow protesters aimed to make Australians realise that they possessed something remarkable that existed nowhere else on the face of the planet. They wanted Australians to recognise the Great Barrier Reef as a national treasure. They were successful. It was given World Heritage status in 1981 and was listed as national heritage in 2007.
The Great Barrier Reef is also recognised as the heritage of more than 70 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups. Much of what Westerners think of as wilderness is in fact the ancestral territory of indigenous people – the land that they have cared for and treasured for many generations.
Recognising a wilderness area as heritage gives us another reason for thinking that its value transcends utility.
Heritage consists of objects, practices and sites that connect people with a past that is significant to them because of what their predecessors did, suffered or valued. Our heritage helps to define us as a community. To identify something as heritage is to accept a responsibility to protect it and to pass it on to further generations.
We have many reasons to recognise wilderness areas like the Great Barrier Reef as heritage. They are special and unique. They play a role in a history of how people learned to understand and appreciate their land. They provide a link between the culture of Aboriginal people – their attachment to their land – and the increasing willingness of non-Aboriginal Australians to value their beauty and irreplaceability.
The last people cannot pass on their heritage to future generations. But valuing something as heritage makes it an object of concern and respect. If people cherish and feel connected to wild environments and the creatures that live in them, they should want them to thrive long after we are gone.
We, who do not share the predicament of the last people, have a duty to pass on our heritage to future generations. This gives us an even stronger moral reason to ensure the survival of our remaining wilderness areas.
As transportation networks expand and urban areas grow, noise from sources such as vehicle engines is spreading into remote places. Human-caused noise has consequences for wildlife, entire ecosystems and people. It reduces the ability to hear natural sounds, which can mean the difference between life and death for many animals, and degrade the calming effect that we feel when we spend time in wild places.
Protected areas in the United States, such as national parks and wildlife refuges, provide places for respite and recreation, and are essential for natural resource conservation. To understand how noise may be affecting these places, we need to measure all sounds and determine what fraction come from human activities.
In a recent study, our team used millions of hours of acoustic recordings and sophisticated models to measure human-caused noise in protected areas. We found that noise pollution doubled sound energy in many U.S. protected areas, and that noise was encroaching into the furthest reaches of remote areas.
Our approach can help protected area managers enhance recreation opportunities for visitors to enjoy natural sounds and protect sensitive species. These acoustic resources are important for our physical and emotional well-being, and are beautiful. Like outstanding scenery, pristine soundscapes where people can escape the clamor of everyday life deserve protection.
“Noise” is an unwanted or inappropriate sound. We focused on human sources of noise in natural environments, such as sounds from aircraft, highways or industrial sources. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, noise pollution is noise that interferes with normal activities, such as sleeping and conversation, and disrupts or diminishes our quality of life.
Human-caused noise in protected areas interferes with visitors’ experience and alters ecological communities. For example, noise may scare away carnivores, resulting in inflated numbers of prey species such as deer. To understand noise sources in parks and inform management, the National Park Service has been monitoring sounds at hundreds of sites for the past two decades.
Noise is hard to quantify at large-landscape scales because it can’t be measured by satellite or other visual observations. Instead researchers have to collect acoustic recordings over a wide area. NPS scientists on our team used acoustic measurements taken from 492 sites around the continental United States to build a sound model that quantified the acoustic environment.
They used algorithms to determine the relationship between sound measurements and dozens of geospatial features that can affect measured average sound levels. Examples include climate data, such as precipitation and wind speed; natural features, such as topography and vegetation cover; and human features, such as air traffic and proximity to roads.
Using these relationships, we predicted how much human-caused noise is added to natural sound levels across the continental United States.
To get an idea of the potential spatial extent of noise pollution effects, we summarized the amount of protected land experiencing human-produced noise three or 10 decibels above natural. These increments represent a doubling and a 10-fold increase, respectively, in sound energy, and a 50 to 90 percent reduction in the distance at which natural sounds can be heard. Based on a literature review, we found that these thresholds are known to impact human experience in parks and have a range of repercussions for wildlife.
The good news is that in many cases, protected areas are quieter than surrounding lands. However, we found that human-caused noise doubled environmental sound in 63 percent of U.S. protected areas, and produced a tenfold or greater increase in 21 percent of protected areas.
Noise depends on how a protected area is managed, where a site is located and what kinds of activities take place nearby. For example, we found that protected areas managed by local government had the most noise pollution, mainly because they were in or near large urban centers. The main noise sources were roads, aircraft, land-use conversion and resource extraction activities such as oil and gas production, mining and logging.
We were encouraged to find that wilderness areas – places that are preserved in their natural state, without roads or other development – were the quietest protected areas, with near-natural sound levels. However, we also found that 12 percent of wilderness areas experienced noise that doubled sound energy. Wilderness areas are managed to minimize human influence, so most noise sources come from outside their borders.
Finally, we found that many endangered species, particularly plants and invertebrates, experience high levels of noise pollution in their critical habitat – geographic areas that are essential for their survival. Examples include the Palos Verdes Blue butterfly, which is found only in Los Angeles County, California, and the Franciscan manzanita, a shrub that once was thought extinct, and is found only in the San Francisco Bay area.
Of course plants can’t hear, but many species with which they interact are affected by noise. For example, noise changes the distribution of birds, which are important pollinators and seed dispersers. This means that noise can reduce the recruitment of seedlings.
Noise pollution is pervasive in many protected areas, but there are ways to reduce it. We have identified noisy areas that will quickly benefit from noise mitigation efforts, especially in habitats that support endangered species.
Strategies to reduce noise include establishing quiet zones where visitors are encouraged to quietly enjoy protected area surroundings, and confining noise corridors by aligning airplane flight patterns over roads. Our work provides insights for restoring natural acoustic environments, so that visitors can still enjoy the sounds of birdsong and wind through the trees.