International Perspectives

December 2016 | Volume 22, Number 3


In a time when environmental degradation and climate change threaten biodiversity and ecological processes around the world, it is vital to protect our remaining wild spaces and foster a healthy relationship between culture and nature. Technical guidance and resources for further learning can provide a significant boost to conservation efforts on the ground. While several resource manuals exist for different aspects of wilderness conservation (e.g., wilderness area management in the United States, international wilderness law and policy, and journals such as the International Journal of Wilderness) – many of which were developed by or in partnership with The WILD Foundation – until now there has not been a summary publication providing a comprehensive overview of global best practices for wilderness protected area management. The Management Guidelines for IUCN Category 1b Protected Areas were developed to fill this important gap.

These new guidelines were developed under the auspices of the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA), one of several expert commissions within the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN, based in Gland, Switzerland), which is the largest international conservation network. WCPA consists of protected area experts from around the world serving in their individual capacities, who, inter alia, develop and maintain best practices for protected area conservation, including a protected area classification system used by many nations. In that system, Category 1b corresponds to “wilderness” protected areas. It is the goal of the Management Guidelines for IUCN Category 1b Protected Areas to provide guidance to wilderness planners, managers, and other decision makers around the world. These guidelines are the first to be developed for Category 1b. They were compiled as the result of a 14-month process by the Wilderness Specialist Group of the WCPA, which is facilitated by The WILD Foundation. The team producing and peer reviewing these guidelines was composed of diverse experts, including academics, policy makers, representatives from nongovernmental organizations and governments, Indigenous Peoples, and field managers.

The guidelines address numerous important topics, including:

  • background on the definition of wilderness protected areas in an international context,
  • the history of this protected area classification.
  • critiques of the wilderness concept,
  • key principles for wilderness protected area management,
  • governance systems applicable to wilderness protected areas,
  • the importance of harmonizing governance type with on-the-ground realities to ensure effective conservation,
  • current issues most faced by wilderness managers and the tools available to address such issues, and
  • ways wilderness areas should be evaluated for their social and ecological effectiveness

Figure 1 – Wilderness Protected Areas- Management Guidelines for IUCN Category 1b

Throughout the guidelines, recommendations for further readings and case study examples are provided. These guidelines address wilderness protected areas on land and sea as having the same underlying values and management approaches and also address areas that may not be actually categorized as 1b but are eligible – or can be restored to meet the criteria – should the relevant governing authority choose to use the information provided by the guidelines

Defining Wilderness Protected Areas

In the IUCN Protected Areas classification system, the primary management objective of wilderness protected areas (Category 1b) is to protect the ecological processes and biodiversity of large-scale, intact areas with minimal human disturbance (Dudley 2013, p. 14). The guidelines recognize four other compatible objectives:

  1. Recreation and access
  2. Traditional ways of life
  3. Cultural and spiritual uses
  4. Education and science

These compatible objectives provide flexibility to include a range of human uses in wilderness protected areas that do not impact the primary objective of biological intactness. It is important to emphasize that humans are therefore not excluded from wilderness protected areas, and the guidelines provide extensive information on developing management partnerships with Indigenous Peoples and stakeholder relationships with nonindigenous local communities. Designation as a Category 1b site does, however, exclude specific human uses, including industrial uses, that are incompatible with a core set of wilderness values and attributes, which include “biological intactness, sacred areas, traditional use, absence of significant permanent infrastructure or commercial resource extraction, and opportunities for experiencing solitude, uncertainty and challenge” (Casson et al. 2016, p. 7). It is these values and attributes against which all variances to wilderness protected area management objectives are judged. The guidelines provide instructions for wilderness decision makers evaluating and managing variances.

History of Category 1b

There is a long tradition around the world of setting aside areas of minimal human impact and defining limited uses for these areas (Dudley et al. 2012). The category of wilderness within the IUCN protected areas system, however, is relatively new and was only established in 1994. Including wilderness in IUCN’s protected areas classification system was a longstanding objective of the World Wilderness Congresses, beginning with the first World Wilderness Congress held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1977. To formalize the longstanding relationship between IUCN and the World Wilderness Congresses, the IUCN Wilderness Task Force was created within WCPA in 2002. In recognition of the fact that wilderness protected areas would likely always require representation within WCPA, WCPA upgraded the Wilderness Task Force to a permanent Wilderness Specialist Group, responsible for overseeing and coordinating all wilderness issues within WCPA. The Wilderness Specialist Group, which is chaired by Vance Martin (president of The WILD Foundation), is facilitated by The WILD Foundation and was responsible for overseeing the production of the guidelines.

Figure 2 – Monitoring a wilderness area, such as in the Skeleton Coast National Park in Namibia, allows managers to know if site objectives are accomplished. Long-term stewardship of wilderness areas often includes monitoring recreational experiences. Photo by Vance Martin.

Critiques of Wilderness Concept

A number of criticisms have been directed at international wilderness protected areas, and, more broadly, at wilderness as a concept. The first is that wilderness excludes humans and infringes on the rights of Indigenous Peoples. These guidelines emphasize throughout that wilderness protected areas only exclude certain human uses, that most traditional community and indigenous uses are compatible with wilderness conservation and that, as with all protected area classifications, wilderness protected areas must respect and fully implement rights-based approaches at all times. The guidelines also emphasize that Indigenous Peoples are partners – not merely stakeholders – in wilderness protected area decision making. They also provide concrete steps for how to implement this guidance.

A second critique is that there are no “pristine” areas left on Earth, and therefore that wilder-ness protected area management has by definition been a failed experiment. This critique sets up a supposed binary between pristine and nonpristine that simply ignores that “pristine” has never been a criterion for wilderness protected areas: IUCN’s Category 1b, and many wilderness protected area designations at national and provincial levels recognize that areas that are somewhat modified but are nonetheless capable of restoration can qualify as wilderness protected areas. In addition to being based on a false premise, this critique ignores a large body of literature showing that protected areas successfully conserve biodiversity when management is conducted in accordance with rights-based approaches, is adequately funded, and is supported with adequate technical and management capacity.

A third, and related, postmodern critique argues that humans in the Anthropocene have essentially destroyed wild nature, making it a lost cause to pursue extensive new protected area designations. This critique also suggests that the loss of wild nature is in fact not a bad thing because existing and new technologies will allow us to control the last remnants of the natural world for the benefit of humans. This argument fails to recognize two key points, however. The first is that, to date, the ecological integrity of our planet has steadily declined as technology has advanced. The second is that current knowledge of ecosystem functioning across the planet is limited and in many cases rudimentary. While technological advances will certainly help provide solutions to conservation challenges in coming decades, future technological advances cannot substitute for wilderness protected areas.

Figure 3 – Mountaineers enjoying wilderness recreation in Patagonia, Chile. Photo by Fiona Casson.

Management Principles of Wilderness Protected Areas

Section 2 of the guidelines examines 11 management principles to provide an ontological framing that can be used to solve the many management challenges presented within the on-the-ground protection of areas designated as Category 1b. These principles emphasize the conservation and management of large-scale, mainly intact wilderness with the minimal tool practice, directed and monitored by long-term objectives informed by Western science and, where applicable, indigenous science. Respect – for humans and nonhumans – underpins all of these principles.

The holistic maintenance of these areas should focus on upholding both intrinsic wilderness values and human values consistent with the Category 1b objectives. All activities must feature nonmotorized equipment (except in cases where variances are appropriate). Areas of nonmotorized human recreation should be prioritized as much as possible within the management plans of a site. All decision makers should work to uphold true partnership relations among stakeholders and nontribal government entities and indigenous, tribal, and local communities in all management, governance, and designation processes.

Scale and connectivity between protected areas is an important focus within the conservation movement today. This is true for all Category 1b sites. Comprehensive, intact, and connected wilderness areas are a priority at the institutional IUCN level as well as at the local, individual protected area level. Wilderness decision makers must work with others in the wilderness arena to create the best possible protection. Such protection may come from working with another wilderness protected area, from managing wilderness in relation to activities occurring on adjacent lands, or from focusing a site’s limited resources on preventing damaging activities within a site and protecting threatened sites. Indicator-based planning systems can greatly assist wilderness decision makers in determining limits of acceptable change and the standards by which a site is assessed.

Figure 4 – Women of Gothangaon village in Maharashtra, India on the land that they and other local landowners have dedicated to rewilding. Photo by Sanctuary Asia.

Governance of Wilderness Areas

The governance type of a wilderness protected area determines the institutional structures, political bodies, and processes that direct the management objectives of a site (Graham et al. 2003; Borrini-Feyerabend et al. 2013). A site’s governance is therefore separate from but closely related to its management. Governance dictates who has the political authority to make management decisions. Management dictates what actions are undertaken to fulfill those decisions.

In section 3 the guidelines summarize five major approaches to governing a Category 1b site: (1) by national and subnational governance; (2) by Indigenous Peoples and local communities; (3) by private institutional owners, individuals, or trusts; (4) by a range of actors that share the authority to govern; and (5) by multilateral treaties in which three or more sovereign bodies agree on the site’s authority structure. The fourth category – shared governance – can overlap with any of the other four. Section 3 also describes the governance variances consistent with wilderness values that are allowed within the IUCN Category 1b designation.

In all governance decisions, respectful and equitable relationships are a priority. By exploring the diversity of governance structures compatible with Category 1b sites, these guidelines provide options for wilderness decision makers to best implement governance models that align with the forms of authority, mandates, and politics relevant to their individual sites.

Wilderness Management Tools

Section 4 examines 11 management tools to help wilderness decision makers address common management challenges. The guidelines suggest that wilderness managers rely on indicator-based planning systems and management frame- works when making decisions. Such a process allows multiple forms of knowledge, values, and interests to be incorporated into planning decisions in a consistent manner that looks to the social and biological conditions and long-term objectives of a site. These planning systems and management frameworks emphasize and uphold transparency in decision-making processes of a Category 1b protected area. Transparency allows for consistent and defensible decision making, especially in instances of granted variance to the stated uses of a site given to uphold Indigenous Peoples’ rights, legislative mandates, or other reasons. The guidelines provide examples of variance granting processes and of permitted variances that continue to maintain wilderness values.

Western science and indigenous science must be incorporated into management decisions. Without proper knowledge-based decision-making frameworks, it is conceivable that decisions become based on ad hoc, short-term considerations rather than baseline processes that can be established and monitored for the long term.

Section 4 also addresses several key issues that most wilderness–decision makers face. For example, infrastructure and technology present a perennial issue for wilderness protected area managers: what emerging technologies and what kind of built environment is permissible? Permanent built infrastructure, except in specific given variances, is not permitted within wilderness protected areas. Technologies, such as mobile phones, drones, and recreational accessories, are much more difficult to monitor and definitively exclude from wilderness areas. As discussed in the guidelines, these technologies can be useful in certain rescue scenarios and in scientific research science, but they can also degrade the wilderness qualities of Category 1b sites.

Many current conflicts – and presumably future conflicts – will center on issues related to what uses are permitted within a wilderness area, particularly related to recreational use, and who dictates permitted uses. The guidelines suggest ways in which wilderness decision-makers can work through these recreation management issues while adhering to the key tenets of wilderness values. Similarly, the guidelines address the issue of demographics and the relevance of wilderness in society to emphasize how managers can best include a wide diversity of peoples in wilderness protected areas.

These guidelines emphasize that wilderness areas are under threat from climate change and yet are also an essential part of the solution to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Section 4 addresses how managers may need to intervene in the adaptation processes within their site to create resiliency to climate change and large-scale environmental degradation. It also provides examples and processes of rewilding, restoration, and passive management as ways to address the problems posed by climate change to wilderness areas. The guidelines emphasize the relevance of both subsistence users and custodians of sacred natural sties (who are often but not always Indigenous Peoples) to many wilderness protected areas. Section 4 outlines how they are important partners in the conservation of a wilderness protected area and how stewardship of a Category 1b site should explicitly include subsistence use and sacred values.

Figure 5 – Reindeer herding in Finland is an important element of Sámi culture and therefore allowed in wilderness areas. Photo by Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute.

Evaluating Effectiveness of Wilderness Protected Areas

Section 5 addresses ways in which wilderness decision makers can evaluate a Category 1b protected area’s ability to uphold the management plan’s objectives. It is critical for wilderness decision makers to know if the site will protect and maintain wilderness attributes and values, and the guidelines suggest a variety of ecological and social best practice tools and frameworks for evaluating management effectiveness.

Three key tools can be used to evaluate management for ecological and social objectives: frameworks, sufficient data collection, and assessment timelines. Frameworks such as the IUCN Protected Area Manage-ment Effectiveness framework, is a valuable decision-making tool that promotes monitoring and assessment of a site’s multifaceted conditions. Data collection ensures decisions are based on long-term, multi-variate, qualitative, and quantitative information. Evaluations should be informed by data collected from a plethora of academic disciplines as well as indigenous science. Assessment timelines for such data vary, and the guidelines suggest that the duration of assessments conform to the discipline’s best practices, which often require at least a 5- to 10-year commitment to monitoring.

Often the measurements and understandings of ecological and social criteria overlap, but each also have aspects that need to be specifically and individually addressed. Section 5 outlines these specifics, such as tool types, baseline measurements, and inclusion of Indigenous Peoples as true partners in evaluation processes. Evaluation of a site is critical to its protection as a wilderness area. Such evaluation allows wilderness decision makers to improve a site’s conservation endeavors, fix past mistakes, replicate successes, and designate new wilderness protected areas.


A study in 1989 recorded 44 wilderness areas registered with the IUCN system (Eidsvik 1989). At publication of these guidelines in 2016, 48 countries have established wilderness areas as Category 1b through legislative designation (IUCN and UNEP-WCMC 2016). Twenty-two other countries have wilderness areas established through administrative designation or wilderness zones within other protected areas. The 2016 guidelines provide instruction on how best to manage, govern, and protect these 2,992 marine and terrestrial wilderness areas (IUCN and UNEP-WCMC 2016). Many more areas are protected with the same wilderness objectives as Category 1b but not yet designated as such.

The guidelines are applicable to these areas and to areas wilder-ness decision makers are looking to restore and rewild to the status of wilderness. Dramatic and increasing efforts in the protection and official designation of wilderness areas have occurred around the globe in the last few decades. We hope this trend will continue and that these guidelines will assist managers in their challenging jobs of protecting our remaining wild spaces during a time of very rapid global change.


SARAH A. CASSON holds a masters in environmental science from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, is a Peter and Patricia Gruber Fellow in Global Justice at the Yale Law School, and is manager of the Wilderness Specialist Group; email:


VANCE G. MARTIN is chair of the Wilderness Specialist Group, president of The WILD Foundation, and trustee of Wilderness Foundation Global (Cape Town); email:


CYRIL F. KORMOS is vice president of policy at The WILD Foundation and vice chair of UNESCO World Heritage, World Commission on Protected Areas, IUCN; email:



Borrini-Feyerabend, G., N. Dudley, T. Jaeger, B. Lassen, N. P. Broome, A. Phillips, and T. Sandwith. 2013. Governance of Protected Areas: From Understanding to Action. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Casson, S. A., V. G. Martin, A. Watson, A. Stringer, and C. Kormos, eds. 2016. Wilderness Protected Areas: Management Guidelines for IUCN Category 1b. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Dudley, N., ed. 2013. Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

Dudley, N., C. Kormos, H. Locke, and V. Martin. 2012. Defining wilderness in the IUCN. International Journal of Wilderness 18(1): 9–14.

Eidsvik, H. K. 1989. The status of wilderness: An international overview. Natural Resources Journal 29: 57–82.

Graham, J. B., B. Amos, and T. Plumptre. 2003. Governance Principles for Protected Areas in the 21st Century, a Discussion Paper. Ottawa: Institute on Governance in collaboration with Parks Canada and Canadian International Development Agency.

IUCN and UNEP-WCMC. 2016. The World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA). Available from