Wetland wilderness values in Estonia


On 18-20 April 2011, the Estonian Fund for Nature (ELF) organised an international conference on “Mires and Wilderness” in the historical university town of Tartu. The meeting brought together more than 100 mire experts and students from Estonia and beyond. It presented the first results of the national mire inventory compiling information about 13,901 mires of high conservation value, covering together roughly 233,000 hectares or 5.5% of the country’s area. Peatlands are indeed an important feature in this Baltic country as they cover more than 22% of the country’s land area, including living mires (i.e. areas where peat is formed and accumulated), paludified grasslands (fens), peat forests and degraded peatlands. With about 70% of the original mires drained, or affected by drainage (for agriculture, forestry or peat mining), ELF and the Estonian Environmental Board consider it important to preserve the remaining untouched mires.

Among different speakers at the conference, Hans Joosten of Greifswald University (Germany) outlined the values of mires as green infrastructures and their ecological services for water retention and purification, biodiversity, local economies and carbon sequestration. “Wilderness” is increasingly being recognised as a valuable asset of natural areas, essentially in the context of biodiversity conservation and the development of sustainable nature tourism. Olli Ojala of the European Commission reported on the European Parliament resolution on “Wilderness in Europe” and the outcomes of the May 2009 conference in Prague, emphasizing the importance of wilderness areas and calling on action to protect such areas. As a follow-up, the European Commission is now developing specific guidance on the protection and management of wilderness areas in the context of the EU nature legislation.

Despite the high population density and land use pressures in Europe, some areas remain relatively little influenced by man and natural processes are ongoing relatively undisturbed. Despite their relatively small overall area, they form an important part of Europe's natural heritage. They host natural processes that are vitally important to a number of species, and hence are of significant importance to achieve the EU objective of halting the loss of biodiversity. The wilderness areas are healthy and resilient ecosystems which also offer important ecosystem services for climate change mitigation and adaptation, carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, erosion control, water purification and pollution alleviation. From Ramsar’s perspective the undersigned suggested that maintaining and restoring wetland wilderness areas wherever possible should be considered as a particularly attractive form of “wise use”. Allowing natural wetland dynamics to operate in wilderness areas provides unique experiences for visitors, as well as living space and freedom for iconic species (such as the capercaillie, bear or lynx) that attract substantial tourist and recreation interest and support related socio-economic activities.

On the next day the participants experienced this at real scale during a visit to the Soomaa Ramsar Site. During the annual spring floods, the so-called “fifth season”, they visited the flooded river plains and forests in canoes and tested for themselves the tourist facilities (visitor centre, bog discovery path, local guesthouse) of the Soomaa National Park (www.soomaa.ee), the first Ramsar Site to be labelled as a “PAN Park” (www.panparks.org). PAN Parks are distinguished protected areas that offer Europe’s best wilderness with outstanding nature and high-quality tourism facilities, well balanced with wilderness protection and sustainable local development.

The Estonian Fund for Nature (www.elfond.ee) was established rapidly at the independence of the country in 1991, and maintains close links and cooperation with WWF
International. Thus, the ELF conference also provided the opportunity to celebrate ELF’s 20th anniversary, as well as Ramsar’s 40th anniversary, during an evening reception in the 13th century Tartu Cathedral. The cathedral was destroyed by fire in 1624 and remains partly in ruins. The reconstructed part hosts nowadays the history museum and a reception hall, used for nearly two centuries and until recently for the university library.

Report by Tobias Salathé.

Photo captions:

Conference participants exploring Soomaa National Park and Ramsar Site by canoe during the “fifth season” of the spring floods. Afterwards they discover the Riisa bog on the 5km wooden trail, before enjoying local food and music at the Vanaõue guesthouse, a private business working closely with the National Park managers and certified by the “PAN Park” wilderness tourism quality label.

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