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Protecting large intact landscapes crucial for addressing climate change, says IUCN report

New guidance launched today by IUCN urges the World Heritage Convention to better conserve wilderness areas and large landscapes.

June 26, 2017

New guidance launched today by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) urges the World Heritage Convention to better conserve wilderness areas, large landscapes and seascapes against threats such as climate change.

The report explains how protection can be achieved through existing mechanisms, identifies broad gaps where new wilderness World Heritage sites might be found, and suggests innovation to help the Convention better respond to threats to wilderness. Among the co-authors of a chapter within the report are Jodi Hilty, president and chief scientist at the Canmore-based Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and Harvey Locke, strategic adviser for the organization.

Wilderness areas are largely intact land- and seascapes which have a low human population density and are mostly free of industrial infrastructure. These areas help respond to climate change by stocking huge amounts of carbon and serve as refuge for species forced to migrate due to a changing climate. They also ensure clean freshwater supplies, safeguard biodiversity, provide livelihoods to local communities and hold cultural significance, hosting sacred natural sites and indigenous territories.

However, intact areas are under severe threat from climate change. They are also continuously being cleared, degraded and fragmented, largely due to industrial activities such as oil and gas extraction, mining, logging, agriculture and construction of roads and dams. The wilderness left on land now covers less than a quarter of Earth’s total land surface.

“We have an ethical obligation to respect life on Earth and protect the last intact, wild areas left on the planet as a crucial part of our common heritage,” says Cyril Kormos, vice-chair for World Heritage at IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas. “Wilderness areas provide solutions to global challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss, and protecting these areas can also help recognise communities’ rights. The World Heritage Convention can go further to support these invaluable places.”

The report, World Heritage, Wilderness, and Large Landscapes and Seascapes, argues that protecting large intact land- and seascapes is a crucial strategy to address climate change and biodiversity loss, as these irreplaceable areas provide greater benefits and host more plant and animal species than smaller, more disturbed areas. The World Heritage Convention makes a significant contribution to conserving such areas effectively.

Natural World Heritage sites often include very large areas: the 238 sites currently listed for their natural values account for 8 per cent of the total surface covered by more than 200,000 protected areas worldwide. Large natural World Heritage sites with wilderness values in the Yellowstone to Yukon region include Canada's Rocky Mountain Parks, Nahanni National Park, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park.

"Conservation at the landscape and seascape scale is critical for both people and nature." says Jodi Hilty. "The Yellowstone to Yukon landscape exemplifies this. We know that for people and nature to thrive across this region in the long-term we have to planning at the Y2Y scale."

However, the report explains how the World Heritage Convention can do more to protect wilderness by identifying broad gaps in wilderness coverage by the World Heritage List.

On land, natural World Heritage sites cover 1.8 per cent of the world’s remaining wilderness area, while at sea 0.9 per cent of marine wilderness has World Heritage status.

The guidance strongly highlights the rights of indigenous peoples and their role in conserving large wilderness World Heritage sites, as many of these areas have remained ecologically intact thanks to indigenous stewardship and ownership — sometimes over millennia. Many indigenous peoples and local communities directly depend on large and intact natural areas for their survival. Therefore, conserving these sites is critically important for sustaining their livelihoods and cultures.

The report was prepared over several years by a team of experts from IUCN and its World Commission on Protected Areas, with support from The Christensen Fund and The Pew Charitable Trusts. IUCN is the official advisory body on nature under the World Heritage Convention.

Next week, IUCN will present its recommendations on 55 listed natural sites and 13 proposals for new inscriptions to the World Heritage Committee, which meets in Kraków, Poland from 2 to 12 July.

Read the full report, World Heritage, Wilderness, and Large Landscapes and Seascapes, here.

For further comment please contact:

Jodi Hilty, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative president and chief scientist 403.678.1137 or 406.599.6623,