Monday, September 04, 2006

Finnish Wilderness

Article on Finnish Wilderness by one of our recent members, Alex Forss:

Ice hotels, huskies and Santa Claus are what many people associate with Lapland – a vast swathe of land stretching across Northern Scandinavia and Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Indeed thousands of British tourists make their way annually to the Arctic Circle in Finland alone to sample the unique “Lappish” experience. Notwithstanding the commercial tackiness of some of the prescribed experiences on offer, they remain little more than a pinprick in an area that contains the largest tracts of wilderness left in Europe. For the past several summers now, I have been trekking in various parts of the region, though more recently I have been increasingly drawn to Finnish Lapland in particular.

Up until fairly recently the Finns remained a largely rural population and even today the wilderness or eräma constitutes an essential part of the national character. Northern Finland is characterized by large protected areas with Urho Kekkonen and Lemmenjoki national parks comprising the largest areas of forested backwoods in Western Europe. During a 10 day trek through Lemmenjoki last summer it was interesting to note how the park had been divided into restricted, basic and wilderness zones. The basic zone had an established system of maintained paths, bridges, huts and campsites with off-trail hiking prohibited. The vast majority of the park, however, lies within the wilderness zone with no marked trails and only a handful of un-staffed huts. I found this to be a very sensible form of wilderness management: balancing tourist needs and delicate nature conservation with the idea and necessity of preserving a space largely untouched by human interference. Indeed, looking west towards the Norwegian border one day from the highest point of the park, all we could see was a vast blanket of pine and birch forest stretching uninterrupted for tens of kilometres punctuated only by large rivers and occasional bald low-lying hills or tunturi.

Aside from the establishment of the better-known national parks, the Finnish government has also been instrumental in the creation of wilderness reserves. In 1991 it created 12 designated wilderness areas covering a total area of nearly 15,000 sq. km – equivalent in size to three-quarters of Wales. This was a landmark piece of legislation that institutionalized the very importance of the concept of preserving the wilderness character of much of the area regardless of its touristic or natural value in terms of biodiversity and panoramic scenery.
As such, mining and the building of permanent roads are strictly prohibited as well as other usage of the land. Traditional uses such as reindeer herding, fishing and hunting are allowed, but remain tightly controlled. Many of these reserves are gems in their own right, but the virtual absence of tourist facilities and difficulty of access keep visitor numbers very low and it is quite possible to walk in isolation for days on end.

Though ‘wilderness in Finland’ is still a relative concept given the fact that even the remotest corners are never further than 50km away from the nearest roads, by European standards the forests and tunturi of the area are a unique natural resource. Furthermore, many parks and reserves border one another comprising a chain that further preserves and enhances their wilderness status by diminishing the threat of encroaching developments. Though issues such as deforestation and Sami land rights occasionally do threaten the tranquillity, by and large a good balance between social, cultural, ecological and economic dimensions has been maintained. This is an example that could perhaps be adopted by other countries in attempting to manage state lands, particularly where the preservation of wilderness is at stake.

Resource for further reading:
- Lisa Kajala, Finnish Forest & Park Service, World Wilderness Congress Presentation
- The Finnish Forest & Park Service Website
- Protected Areas 1.1.2005 (numbers and area)
- Principles of Protected Area Management in Finland. Guidelines on the Aims, Function and Management of State-owned Protected Areas. (pdf 1.2mb)
- The Finnish Nature Conservation Act

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