The last two days of the first International Wilderness Week took us from the popular to the scientific aspect of Wilderness. Based on a scientific conference, researchers, scientists and practitioners from every continent presented their work. Wilderness is a unique opportunity for science to study ecosystems in their most natural state. This reveals dynamics, interactions and adaptations of healthy ecosystems and can help to find solutions to the climate and biodiversity crisis. But Wilderness is not only important for biology and ecology. Its role in culture and art make it interesting for social sciences. Economists are also well advised to learn more about the foundation of our economy and existence of intact nature. But doing research in Wilderness brings a certain set of rules along. Just like any other visitor, researchers must respect the uniqueness of Wilderness and try to leave no trace. During the conference, we got a closer understanding of the biodiversity and dynamics of Wilderness, its role in research, challenges it faces and how science can help to tackle them.
Flora in Wilderness
The flora is the foundation of each ecosystem. While the animals of Wilderness areas often get more attention, it is the plants that do the heavy lifting. In combination with healthy soil, they provide ecosystem services like oxygen production, carbon sequestration, air filtering and water retention. Plants come in all shapes and sizes from tiny algae to giant trees. If we include microbes and fungi, we go from microscopically small to several kilometers large. The flora defines the structure, look and biodiversity of an area. But that also means that they cannot escape from human activity, so large Wilderness areas are especially important for them. This block discussed which role Wilderness plays for local flora, how the flora in Wilderness is different and what functions wild flora has in our global system.
Fauna in Wilderness
For many, wildlife is the most important aspect of Wilderness. Prominent species like the panda, tiger, wolf, bear or the large herds of herbivores in the savanna played an important role in creating the Wilderness movement. But overlooked animals like insects and amphibians can be just as fascinating and their role for a healthy environment cannot be underestimated. Many animal species rely on undisturbed areas for their survival. Hence, Wilderness areas act as refuges, breeding grounds and hotspots of diversity. The interest in wildlife is ever increasing with tourists travelling around the globe to see the unique wildlife biodiversity of wild places. On the other hand, human-wildlife conflicts with local communities close to Wilderness areas are common. And in many parts of the world animals are threatened by poachers even in Wilderness. This block shined a light on the diverse fauna of Wilderness, its coexistence with humans and the importance of Wilderness as a wildlife refuge.
Challenges for Wilderness
One does not need science to see that Wilderness is under threat. Around the globe, humans take up more and more space to live, produce food or satisfy ever-growing consumption. However, science is absolutely crucial to understand the urgency, causes and interactions of challenges and threats to Wilderness. Rapidly increasing human population, land conversion, deforestation and resource exploitation and the construction of infrastructure are more pressing intense issues than ever. And a new disaster is just showing the first signs of its magnitude – the climate crisis. It threatens life everywhere, even in places completely free of any other human impact. In this block, speakers educated about the different challenges to Wilderness in their part of the world and also some ideas how to overcome these challenges.
Benefits of Wilderness
Even though the challenges for Wilderness are numerous, so are its benefits. Utilizing them and bringing them to the public attention is crucial for the protection of Wilderness. Many view Wilderness protection as a charity project or an attempt to create playgrounds for adventurers. But Wilderness provides many ecosystem services that are crucial for our survival. It also benefits local economy, the wellbeing of people and quality of life. Many of these benefits are barely researched and quantification is in its early stages. Therefore, this block addressed the question: How can we quantify Wilderness benefits and use them to increase support and funding for Wilderness?