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Wild areas: Where nature can have free rein

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There really are places in Switzerland where nature has the say and humans hardly play a role. The wildest and most untouched areas can be found around the highest peaks and glaciers, for example in the Aletsch region or in southern Valais. If wilderness is defined less strictly, remote Alpine valleys – especially in the Grisons and Ticino – can also be considered wild regions. These areas are surprisingly large: they account for 10 to 15 percent of Switzerland’s total surface area. This is the conclusion of a study carried out by WSL researchers on behalf of the Alpine conservation organisation, Mountain Wilderness. It is the first systematic mapping of wilderness in Switzerland, initiated and financed by the Bristol-Stiftung.


‘Wilderness’ can be defined as natural areas without significant infrastructure, economic use or other human impact. Numerous animal and plant species depend on such areas because they cannot find suitable habitats in cultivated landscapes. The shy lynx needs large, untouched forest areas, while many beetle species breed exclusively in large dead trees, which are rare in commercial forests (see page 22). In order to identify such wild areas in Switzerland, the researchers used four criteria for mapping them: naturalness of land cover, extent of human influence, remoteness and ruggedness of topography, i.e. rock faces or mountain peaks.

The public are somewhat critical

When the map is created in this way, unused natural spaces appear in many places. But preserving or even enlarging them is not conceivable without the support of the public. In cantons with high wilderness potential, the researchers responsible for the social science part of the study surveyed locals and experts to find out what they thought about letting nature develop freely. The result is striking: in places where the potential for leaving nature untouched is greatest, the population is critical of the idea of letting nature have free rein. The people there stated that they had a strong attachment to their homeland and to nature. They fear ‘their’ landscape will change greatly, and that they may also face disadvantages because of restrictions on use, an increase in natural hazards or the loss of traditions such as wild haymaking.

The potential of wilderness in Switzerland

Precisely because it takes both the geographical and social dimensions into account, the study shows for the first time where the potential for wilderness in Switzerland is greatest – especially in high mountain regions. Most of the areas with the greatest wilderness potential overlap with large parts of today’s protected areas, but not all are in such areas. Conversely, protected areas are not always located in the wildest places. Zurich’s Wildnispark Sihlwald, for example, does not score particularly high on the criteria for wilderness used in the study – but it is nevertheless a small wilderness in the agglomeration of Zurich that the local population and the City of Zurich both want and appreciate. For Mountain Wilderness, the study shows that the local population need to be made more aware of the topic and the public involved more. “Only an increased acceptance of wilderness will open the doors to its protection,” the organisation concludes. (Beate Kittl, Diagonal 1/19)