Image for REVIEW: ‘Refining the definition of wilderness’ by Hawes, Dixon & Bell

The first sentence in this booklet states that, “There is at present no consensus on how wilderness should be defined”. This is quite a bold claim given that the IUCN has had a definition of wilderness in its Protected Areas category since 1994. 

So this raises the question, what is the purpose of this booklet? Given the IUCN’s membership of 1300 organisations across 170 countries it would seem very much close to a consensus. So why does this publication set out to reinvent the wheel as-it-were?

Initially, the authors declare their intention to safeguard ‘experiential and ecological values or remote natural land’.  However, their focus is on the ‘experiential’ over ecocentric perspectives. What they mean by ‘experiential’ is essentially that which is experienced (principally through recreation), rather than ecological or ecocentric – in other words, utilitarianism dressed up in an artificial synthesis. This publication is not about advocating for the preservation of wilderness for its own sake, despite this being at the heart of many peoples’ concern to conserve wilderness.

This booklet is not about the ecocentric values of wilderness, but instead about anthropocentric values. It disavows, the former, and instead focuses on the interests of bushwalkers who want recreation within wilderness areas.  Any benefit for biodiversity and geodiversity would, at best, be a fortuitous by-product should the perspective it presents be adopted more widely.

Preserving wilderness is not about human-defined experiences; it is about the protection of biodiversity and geodiversity – see Dinnerstein et al, ‘An Ecoregion-Based Approach to Protecting Half the Terrestrial Realm’, Bioscience, June 2017.

As Haydn Washington says in ‘Why ecocentrism is the key pathway to sustainability’, The Ecological Citizen, Vol 1 No 1 2017, “Human experiential values are anthropocentric” – which is totally contrary to ecocentric values.  The main point being missed in the Hawes et al publication is that wilderness exists without any ‘experiential’ human activity whatsoever – in fact, the less the better.

Agreed remoteness is important, but it is not always the all-defining or essential element of wilderness and an area does not need to be large to qualify as wilderness, even if its buffer does, e.g., some south Atlantic islands etc. Hence, some (but not all) areas can be small but still be wilderness. A minimum size of ‘at least 7,800 hectares’, as suggested in this volume, would exclude such islands even though these islands and many others are certainly remote.  This is only one of several arbitrary requirements presented without clear justification; for example, there is reference to areas needing to be at least 5 km from the nearest major infrastructure to qualify as wilderness - but why 5 km instead of some other distance?

The use of the word ‘primitive’ is somewhat troubling as most of these areas are very complex ecologically and fragile, but hardly ‘primitive’. How can a higher plant be ‘primitive’?

Also, Tasmanian conceptions of wilderness have traditionally defined them as places where tracks and huts have no place, with earlier versions of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area management plan, for instance, not including areas with such infrastructure as being part of the wilderness zone.  Yet the Hawes et al booklet, with its predominantly utilitarian perspective, blithely abandons this fundamental prohibition, even allowing vehicular tracks, provided only that they are not “open”.  What manner of wilderness is it that contains a four-wheel drive track?  And that either exists or doesn’t exist depending on whether a lock is fitted to the access gate on any particular day?

Similarly, huts have also been disallowed in wilderness in the past, but this booklet, with its focus on utilitarian values at the expense of the wilderness as we have long understood it, proposes that huts for the comfort of those who venture there are permissible, imposing only a size restriction – presumably so that larger commercial huts could be excluded while still allowing bushwalkers to have huts.

Such deficiencies in this volume represent a step backwards in defining and protecting wilderness, not an advance.  They exemplify the very reason why the true meaning of the term wilderness needed disinterment from the distorting misuse of the term, which has increasingly occurred over recent decades at the hands of green-washing tourist operators and within the campaign tactics of some conservation activists. Kiernan drew attention to these matters in his recent book, Eroding the Edges of Nature, which included a section entitled, “If you think the end justifies the means, expect your actions to come back to haunt you”.

Another problem in the Hawes et al booklet is reference to ‘levels of naturalness’? How can ‘naturalness’ be measured and why should it be measured anyway? The same with ‘wild character’ and the suggestion that it should be calculated – what sort of bureaucratic wet-dream came up with such a notion! There is an old adage, ‘if you want to change something, first of all measure it’ – but in the case of the wilderness the objective is NOT to change it. Various measurement obscurities are suggested, including that of ‘wildness’, along a suggested continuum that has no parameters. Other suggested ‘measurements’ mentioned are for: ‘wilderness character’, ‘wilderness value’ and ‘wilderness quality’ – all without any criteria, assuming that they could be measured using unspecified methodologies. In fact, all these terms mean essentially the same thing (essentially a tautology) - just different words circulate around natural, remote and absence of modern technology.

It is disappointing that psychological (parametric), cultural and spiritual values are not discussed in this publication.

There is a very curious suggestion that ‘wilderness’ is becoming an unmentionable term ‘in some professional and land management circles’ (Sawyer quoted on page 8), but surely the term is being (mis) used everywhere else; so why is the misuse of the term is not discussed at all in this publication? This seems to suggest that the word ‘wilderness’ is meaningless – but, as Washington says, “The word is anything but meaningless but its meaning has been degraded by wrong usage”. Has discussion of the misuse of the term ‘wilderness’ been avoided because the supporters of this publication are the Tasmanian National Parks Association and the Bob Brown Foundation? Would sticking to the previous Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area definition have precluded efforts by some of their members to promote the Tarkine area by calling it a wilderness while simultaneously proposing to establish a track through it despite inevitable erasure of at least some of its wilderness values as a consequence?  Similarly, the wilderness measurement technique advanced in this booklet, presumably at least partly in a bid to inhibit commercial hut infestation along the South Coast Track, could not be employed unless wilderness was redefined so as to allow the track within it.  This approach seems a further example of the misguided distortion of the term wilderness in order to advance conservation objectives for which there are other values that could be more honestly invoked.

How much wilderness do we have left on the planet? On page 11 it is stated that wilderness is less than a quarter of the planet’s land area, then next paragraph says that it is approximately 15% (which is the IUCN figure) - which is it, 25% or 15%?

This publication seems essentially an attempt simply to counter ecocentrism perspectives on the preservation of wilderness. Rather than quote world recognised experts in the area of the ecocentric and intrinsic values of wilderness, such as Robyn Eckersley, Helen Kopnina and Haydn Washington the authors quote Chan et al, who use an ‘experiential values’ argument that differentiates between intrinsic and instrumental values, arguing that ‘relational values’ combines both, which it does not. Creating the new category of ‘relational’ merely extends instrumental to that of relations between people, i.e., community, so they fundamentally dismiss ecocentric values!

Meanwhile, across the world Nature is clearly gaining recognition in having intrinsic values as shown by recent rights for nature legislation in New Zealand, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia.

The key difference between so many definitions and that proposed by Hawes et al is the latter’s resistance to wilderness being determined principally on biosphere/ecocentric principles. The implication being that without actual or potential recreational attributes a wilderness area simply does not exist.

As the authors say on page 23, semantics matter - so a primary concern has to be the possible consequences of adopting their utilitarian approach to wilderness. Not only could it be used to substantiate further recreational/tourism incursions into wilderness (being as ‘experiential’ is so important) but it also defiles the ecocentric perspective of preserving wilderness for its own sake. As Kiernan points out in his book, Eroding the Edges of Wilderness, Mt Field National Park was essentially formed for the purposes of preserving nature, not using it for exploitative, utilitarian purposes such as tourism per se – after-all, if you cannot experience it then there is no experiential value. In fact, the authors state on page 23, “Areas identified as wilderness by definitions that emphasise ecological values will not necessarily have high experiential values, and reserves designed to protect the former will not necessarily protect the latter.” The authors appear not only to clearly prioritise utilitarian/experiential/recreational values but also to regard ecological values as insufficient reason to preserve wilderness. Where experiential and ecological values conflict the authors argue that ‘management interventions’ such as artificial structures, ‘controlled burning’ (oxymoron) should be applied (pages 23-24).

Finally, this booklet is visually very attractive attractive with some excellent photographs, notwithstanding a couple of practical problems. It is printed on unnecessarily thick paper which makes it difficult to keep the perfect-bound pages open without forcing it and breaking the spine, or holding it open with something heavy. Also, it would have been easier to read in a larger font, and at a retail price of $40 this publication is rather expensive for 40 pages of text.

By way of a disclaimer, the present reviewer should acknowledge having been one of those members of the former United Tasmania Group (UTG) who, concerned that the term “wilderness” had been devalued by its misuse by both antagonists and protagonists, helped re-form the UTG nearly three years ago, and then gathered together a group of wilderness devotees with the aim of redressing the situation.  Regrettably, those who held ecocentric perspectives and those with utilitarian values were unable to reconcile a common wording given differences in their fundamental principles.  The former published their interpretation of wilderness in the first issue of the new UTG Journal (January 2018). The breakaway group who preferred the utilitarian bushwalkers’ perspective prepared the Hawes et al booklet independently.  Your reviewer acknowledges that he remained in the majority ecocentric camp, consistent with UTG’s A New Ethic.  Others may think differently, but he fears that by discarding a more ecocentric perspective and, instead, presenting a definition that focuses on the exploitation of wilderness as a resource for recreation, the Hawes et al contribution may end up doing more harm than good.


*Dr Geoff Holloway, above was State Secretary of the United Tasmania Group (UTG) 1974-77 and again since revival of UTG two years ago. Geoff has a PhD (sociology),  specialising in social movements, health and research methods; poet (4 books published); climber; traveller - two years in Chilean & Argentinean Patagonia, but also Colombia, Ecuador and Brasil, twice recently to Cabo Verde and Lisbon, fluent in Spanish, understands written Portuguese; focus over past 20 years on children with disabilities, child protection and youth justice issues.