From glaciers to city parks

The study «The potential of wilderness in Switzerland» from Mountain Wilderness Switzerland shows for the first time where to find areas that are still wild in Switzerland. However, the study also shows that the existence of such wild areas depends to a great extent on the willpower of the society. The presence of wild areas in places that are easy to reach can encourage the acceptation of wild areas by the society and could concomitantly reduce anthropic pressure on remote wild areas.

Wilderness, which can be defined as freely developing nature without anthropic infrastructure or human presence, is of particular value in our heavily anthropized modern world. Wilderness is fascinating, simply because it offers something very different from our daily routine environment. Wilderness also embodies the full potential of biodiversity: not only does it provide important and useful resources for humans, but it also something that we do not understand yet and could learn from. Nonetheless, human pressure on wild areas is substantial in Switzerland: a quick glance at ski resort extensions and river dams is enough to reveal how wilderness is pushed away towards higher altitudes and more remote areas. In addition, the awareness of the value of wild areas by our society and even by experts is still not widespread. The long-term protection of wild areas is therefore at risk.

Increasing the support for wilderness

Aiming at promoting the existence and development of additional wild areas without human disturbance, Mountain Wilderness Switzerland initiated in 2016 the «Wildnis Schweiz» campaign. Using different communication channels such as movie screenings, this campaign aims at convincing the society of the importance of wilderness. In addition, to maximize the reach of the campaign for wilderness, Mountain Wilderness Switzerland builds collaborations with other organisations to eventually build a larger network to promote wilderness altogether.

To be able to preserve wilderness, we need to know where to find it. To achieve this, Mountain Wilderness collaborates with the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL on the development of a new study called «The potential of wilderness in Switzerland». The study will be published in spring 2019 and will be made of two main parts: the first part uses a landscape ecology approach to identify wild areas of high value in Switzerland while the second part uses a social approach to determine the argumentation for and against wild areas of people that are affected by it. 

17% of Switzerland has high wilderness quality

The ecological approach of the study rated the « wilderness quality» of every single hectare of Switzerland according to four different criteria: «naturalness», «anthropogenic effect», «remoteness» and «ruggedness». In addition, a «future wilderness potential» was calculated based on the planned future use of the land for human activities. It turns out that around 17% of the landscape surface in Switzerland was rated as high quality or highest quality. These high quality areas are primarily to be found in alpine regions. Areas rated as high future potential for wilderness, which is mostly due to the progress of extensification in the last decades, are primarily found in pre-alpine and alpine regions, in particular in south-exposed valleys.

The social part of the study shows that the population of the Maderanertal (a small valley in central Switzerland) is very critical towards the idea of letting wild areas undisturbed by humans. Interestingly, experts working in Swiss cantons with the highest wilderness quality advocated the protection of wild areas, but rather in other cantons than their own! Main concerns seem to be the loss of cultivated land and general safety.

Wilderness should not be limited to high-altitude regions

The wilderness study was presented for the first time to the public at the meeting «Wildnis finden und fördern» on October 30th, 2018. Around 120 interested people attended the meeting in Langnau am Albis, close to the nature discovery park Sihlwald. The participants’ background was tightly linked to nature, ranging from mountain active to nature lovers and they were often also active in political entities ranging from local associations to confederation institutions. The success of this day is primarily due to the widespread and well-developed network; Mountain Wilderness Switzerland organized this day with Pro Natura, CIPRA Switzerland, the Foundation Landschaftsschutz Switzerland and the Foundation Wildnispark Zurich. Paradoxically, because the wilderness study shows that wild areas are mostly present in high altitude regions, discussions during the wilderness meeting concurred on the fact that wild areas should not be limited to high altitude regions. In fact, discussions highlighted the fact that the role played by wild areas implies their presence in a wider geographic range.

Awareness of the value of wilderness

During the wilderness meeting, ten different aspects around the value of wilderness in Switzerland were discussed during interactive workshops. The next step for Mountain Wilderness Switzerland is to summarize the results of the study together with the «Wilderness Strategy for Switzerland». The Wilderness Strategy should then be used as a compass for all activities promoting the protection and existence of wild areas in Switzerland. All participants of the wilderness meeting spoke with one voice towards the idea that the key to preserve already existing high quality wild areas and to promote the development of new ones, is to increase awareness of the value of wilderness. Awareness of the value of wilderness may grow faster in the society if small scale wild areas also existed in our daily environment such as wild gardens or nature discovery parks.

Written by Sebastian Moos