Hohe Tauern National Park in Austria, the largest park preserve in the Alps, is close to designating a parcel around the Grossvenediger peaks as the country’s first wilderness area—part of an emerging European system of wild areas spearheaded by the PAN Park Foundation.
The Hungary-headquartered PAN Park Foundation, founded in 1999 by WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) and the Dutch travel company Molecaten, is the only Europe-wide organization lobbying for the protection and designation of wilderness areas. There are 11 designated PAN Parks in 13 European countries—with each park designated as a more than 10,000 hectare parcel where the processes of nature are undisturbed.
Support appears to be building for a Hohe Tauern wild area designation. PAN Parks says an early December National Park Austria conference in Hainburg will focus on wilderness and consolidate “hope that the top of Austrian Alps can soon contribute to The Million Project and to the European Wilderness Preservation System,” says the group.
The Million Project is the group’s mission to achieve at least one million hectares of wilderness (about 2.5 million acres) designation by 2015. Currently, approximately a quarter-million hectares (about 600,00 acres) is designated. (One hectare is about 2.5 acres.)
PAN-certified parks range across Europe from Portugal to Georgia, Sweden to Turkey, with Bulgaria and Finland each claiming two parks. Other participating nations include Russia, Italy, Estonia, Lithuania, and Romania.
Austria’s first and largest national park, Hohe Tauern is the biggest nature reserve in Central Europe. It stretches across the three Austrian provinces of Salzburg, Carinthia and Tyrol.
PAN Parks says, “After 2 years of preparation, one of these three provinces—the Hohe Tauern National Park, Salzburg—carried out an assessment of the potential PAN Parks wilderness area. From July 30, – Aug 2, 2012, over four days of intensive discussion and demanding site assessment with PAN Parks Conservation Manager and national wilderness experts, it was concluded that the proposed Grossvenediger peaks area meets the PAN Park Wilderness Quality Standards.”
PAN Parks says, “wilderness in the Hohe Tauern National Park brings many unique values to the network of PAN Parks wilderness protected areas.” Indeed, the park offers a “high level of Alpine biodiversity,” from the “Alpine ibex (Capra ibex)” to the “Alpine salamander (Salamandra atra), bats, birds, lichens” and beyond. The park has “free-running natural processes” as well as a millennia old history of high alpine agriculture and a rich cultural landscape. There’s great recreation, from award-winning nature trails to the great fun of hiking alpine huts that permit lightweight tours of the high country. The wilderness acreage offers an “origin landscape, a high Alpine glaciated region, and an area for research, monitoring and a sustainable wilderness experience.”
The Message is Wilderness
PAN Parks' executive director Zoltán Kun says the group is reaching out to expand its efforts. Kun says the group is gearing up to suggest “the idea that the European section of The International Ecotourism Society take the promotion of non-traditional ecotourism destinations as a main focus,” thus growing support for the wilderness concept. “The right place to launch” that inter-group effort, he says, “might be The European Ecotourism Conference scheduled for October 2013.”
PAN Parks sees popularizing the wilderness experience as an avenue to explain wilderness preservation on the Continent where the concept is less well-known than in the United States.
PAN Parks' website says, “Wilderness in Europe is a concept many do not recognise – yet, untamed, wild natural areas still exist throughout Europe. ... However, compact, un-fragmented and well-managed wilderness areas are very scarce. ... PAN Parks Foundation works to change this, aiming to safeguard European wilderness, the Continent’s most undisturbed areas of nature for future generations.”
The group wants to “initiate a European wilderness movement that will make wilderness a mainstream conservation issue.” PAN Parks aspires to make “fundamental changes in public attitude towards wilderness.”
An Underpinning of EcoTourism
The growing number of PAN Parks’ European wilderness areas easily qualify as “non-traditional destinations” ripe for ecotourism. No wonder then that the group encourages “sustainable travel” to wilderness areas as a way to expand wilderness acreage and enlist support for the concept among people and governments near wilderness areas.
The group is actually working with tour operators to popularize wilderness itineraries—where a certain part of the trip fee per person is donated to PAN Parks. PAN Parks has raised 23,000 Euros using that mechanism. With that approach, PAN Parks has a built-in tourism component that funds the cause of wilderness designation. It also expands tourism income to out-of-the-way areas in many European nations—a situation that governments can only applaud.
Baumeler Reisen Sets The Stage
Last September, during PAN Parks 11th Europe’s Wilderness Days event in Nauvo, Finland, the big Swiss outdoor travel agency Baumeler Reisen entered a tourism partnership with PAN Parks. Since then, executive director Zoltán Kun has worked to help Baumeler employees better understand wilderness protection in Europe. On World Responsible Tourism Day, November 7th, Kun made a presentation to promote the partnership and tout new wilderness trips.
Baumeler Reisen trips include Oulanka National Park in Finland and Majella National Park in Italy as first steps in the direction of “wilderness tourism.” Both parks hold wilderness designations from PAN Parks. The group is blatantly promoting the packages, saying, “If you are based in Switzerland and interested in visiting the last great wilderness places of Europe, don't hesitate to make your booking!”
Finding Wilderness in Finland
The trip to Oulanka National Park in Finland is a great example of the way PAN Parks wants to promote Wilderness. Check out the Baumeler trip to Finland.
Oulanka, one of the most popular national parks in Finland, was the first of the two Finnish national parks that gained PAN Parks designation in 2002. Oulanka is located in the northeast part of the country in Finnish Lapland. The park contains the well-known, 80-kilometer Finnish trekking route, Karhunkierros. Baumeler Reisen’s tour packages include a multi-day stay at the atmospheric Basecamp Oulanka.
The park is extremely popular with hikers who can stay in refurbished historic structures free of charge. Wikipedia says the park is known for its, “great variety of plants and trees. There is an overlap between northern and southern species, and numerous species in the east of Finland have their westernmost outposts here. Oulanka” is “ideal for ... rare and demanding flora.”
What the Future Holds
With more European national park systems embracing PAN Parks’ notion of wilderness—and seeing profitable tourism as a benefit of preservation— Zoltán Kun asks, “How much wilderness is needed in Europe?” He suggests that people asking that question, “expect a modest answer, which one might call a realistic target, but I don’t want to be realistic now.”
He says PAN Parks’ “ambition is to be a European leader on wilderness protection, and to be more visionary. ... The Federal Government of Germany made a pledge of protecting 2% of its territory wilderness by 2020, but we at PAN Parks actually want more. We argue and fight for 5% wilderness in order to compensate for our human footprint on the Continent.”
The group is aggressively pursuing its goal, using everything from conservation events to YouTube videos to drive home the point.