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My European Wilderness Trip

My European wilderness fascination dates back to the early 1990’s when, for various reasons that lack any sense of logic, I ended up walking my way through various sections of southern Europe on my way to Hong Kong.

I never made it to Hong Kong. I got as far as the Jordanian-Israeli border, stumbled my way back to Egypt and flew home broke.

But, being the American wilderness activist I am, along the way I began thinking about how a continent like Europe, so crowded with humanity, so deeply impacted by thousands of years of intense human activity and so heavily urbanized could possibly recreate….or create a system of wilderness and wildlife cooridors such as we have in North America.  What would this look like?  How could it work?

This is something that got deep inside my mind and ultimately became the main focus for my treks in Switzerland, my hikes in the Pyrenees and Spain, my recent trip to the Kvarken archipelago and ultimately my 5 month walk across Finland in 2003.

european wilderness
Hiking in the French Pyrenees

About two years ago then, when I saw that a European Wilderness Society had formed and was going to push for a generational plan to restore European Wilderness, I wanted to be involved.

(see: A Bright Spot in Ukraine – European Wilderness)

Why this focus on Europe?  Well, it really is accidental.  Through the 90’s I kept ending up there for various reaons. All combined, I’ve lived 7 years of my life in Europe. Ultimately I married (and later divorced) a European.  My daughter was born there, my kids are both EU and American Citizens and I have so many friends there now.  I’ve found that by this time I’m constantly torn between the US and Europe. (see my video for a National Geographic grant I applied for here).


After several discussions with the core group of European wilderness activists it came clear to me that my role to play would be to document – as a writer and photographer – the rise of this movement, the change in the European relationship to nature that this movement will depend on and to bring their work to the attention of people in North America.  But I also wanted to offer up some of my experiences as a wilderenss activist in New Mexico and Colorado.  I wanted and want to see where I might be able to help to sharing what worked for me and what didn’t work.

I’ve been working to find a way to make this all happen for quite awhile.  The main obstacle – as always – is money. However, slowly it is coming together.  This morning I will fly out to Vienna, Austria to first, lead a workshop at the at the first European Wilderness Academy Days and second to travel to a number of the potential core Europeans wilderness areas in Slovakia.  I’ll be on the road for three weeks.

My workshop is about how to bring local communities into  push for wilderness designation:

While the concept of “wilderness” is perhaps an easy one for biologists, natural resource planners, environmentalists and philosophers, how do wilderness activists engage the general public to build constituency for wild lands? How do you begin to build the political will to achieve wilderness protection? The rewilding of Europe will depend as much on the work of biologists as it will on a societal change in the value of landscape protection among the population in general. The creation of activists and a block of voters willing to push a wilderness ideal is vital. American wilderness advocate Jim O’Donnell will discuss his experience building broad-based coalitions for wilderness protection in New Mexico and Colorado. O’Donnell co-authored and helped pass two vital land protection bills through the American Congress and laid the foundation for the creation of the 100,000 hectare El Rio Grande del Norte National Monument.

European Wilderness
The wild coast of Norway

 European Wilderness Academy Days

European Wilderness Days will take place October 1-4, 2014 in Hohe Tauern National Park in western Austria.

Says Zoltan Kun, Chairman of the European Wilderness Society:

Europe’s Wilderness protection has a relatively short history. The focus on our continent’s wilderness started to increase when the European Parliament adopted a special resolution on 3 February 2009. This resolution resulted in the approval of the Agenda for Wilderness and Wildland, which included 24 recommended actions. The Wilderness Academy Days is a unique European event, which will act as a direct follow up of the 10th World Wilderness Congress and will also prepare a message for the 2014 World Parks Congress in Sydney.

There is clearly still a huge lack of knowledge in relation to wilderness protection in Europe. Where are the wilderness areas? What are the main threats and major opportunities to enhance its protection? Can wilderness be restored? What are the management principles for wilderness? Is there enough practical experience to share? These are just some of the questions, which we will address at the first European Wilderness Academy Days.

I strongly urge Americans who care about wilderness, wildlife and biodoversity to both keep an eye on the European Wilderness Society, support their work and follow me along both on this trip and my ongoing efforts to document this amazing enterprise.

I will continue to apply for grants to do this work over the coming months.  If anyone has suggestions of how I can fund this work long term, please let me know!

In the meantime, I’ll be posting as often as I can while on the road the next few weeks.  Please do come back and follow along.


Kvarken World Heritage Site, Finland
Kvarken World Heritage Site, Finland


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