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Gone Wild in Salamanca

Photo by M. Martin Vicente
Photo by M. Martin Vicente

The 10th World Wilderness Congress themed “Making the World a Wilder Place” took place over the last week in Salamanca, Spain. This is a centuries-old Spanish city where walking the streets is a living history lesson.  2013 marks its 25th year as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was an amazing setting for this event – a visible preservation of a long human legacy from the Roman bridge to the university that has been present for nearly 800 years. Present too is the legacy of the political efforts to control our wild seas and lands: Salamanca is less than an hour from where the World’s two super powers, Portugal and Spain, signed the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas in which they divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe by literally drawing a line on the map of the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, it was also the perfect place to talk about a different kind of human legacy:  The legacy of preserving the wild world where we can.

Over a thousand Wild10 attendees from diverse walks of life and institutions gathered to discuss the importance of wilderness.  Panelists included scientists and government officials, NGO leaders and photographers.  Our common interest was in the world’s last wild places and how best to ensure their protection now and in the future, especially given the many human-derived pressures on their health.

While there is a long-standing terrestrial bias in this annual gathering’s 1st decade, the 2013 focus of a series of 14 panels was our global marine wilderness — how to protect it, how to enforce the protections, and how to promote additional protections over time.  There were over 50 panelists from 17 countries gathered to answer these and other ocean wilderness questions.  It is exciting to see this emerging attention to the unique circumstance of ocean wilderness, involving international spaces outside individual government jurisdictions, and to the erosion of its unintentional protection due to its former inaccessibility.

The Wild Seas and Waters track had several working meetings around marine issues including the Marine Wilderness collaborative workshop opened by Dr. Sylvia Earle.  The work of the North American Intergovernmental Wilderness Protected Areas was presented, which defines Marine Wilderness and lays out objectives for protection and management of these areas.  October 9 was crossover day with the Wild Speak track, which featured communications in conservation sponsored by the International League of Conservation Photographers.   Photographers working in the marine environment gave stunning visual presentations and panel discussions highlighted the use of media tools in international conservation.

We learned about efforts to protect fragile coral in the Cordelia Banks in Honduras that have met with success. After many years of effort by scientists and NGOs, the Government of Honduras protected this area just last week!  The Wild Speak closing keynote by Robert Glenn Ketchum on the Pebble Mine in Alaska was inspiring.  His many years of activism using his photography are paying off since most of the companies investing in this proposed destructive gold mine in a pristine wilderness area have now pulled out.  It looks hopeful that this project will finally be stopped!

Thinking about Wild11, it would be great to design the meeting in a way that was not as divided into tracks for the ocean and for terrestrial wilderness, and thus allowed more direct sharing.  If we can all learn from successes, share lessons and be inspired, the next conference can accomplish even more.  We remain hopeful that it is also a week that lays the foundation for new protections for our wild ocean legacy.

One takeaway lesson from Wild10 is the amazing dedication of those who are working to preserve our global wilderness legacy.  Another takeaway lesson is that climate change is affecting the plants, animals, and even the geography of even the most remote wilderness areas. Thus, it is impossible to discuss any of the wilderness protection issues without considering what is happening and what might still happen.  And finally, there is hope and opportunity to be found—and that is what gets us all up in the morning.

By: Mark J. Spalding (The Ocean Foundation) and Shari Sant Plummer (Code Blue Foundation)