four-hundred-square-mile range. The ultimate goal, said Murphy, is to revitalize the Nephin’s once extensive upland blanket
bogs — the region’s most distinctive and biologically important
ecosystem. In order to rescue the bogs, dense stands of Sitka
spruce and lodgepole pines introduced from North America
must be thinned, creating new bog as trees fall and decompose.
In a matter of decades, ecologists say, the mosaic of patchy
coniferous forest and wetland that once covered the region will
begin to reemerge. One prominent advocate of wilderness restoration, Toby Aykroyd, has called Wild Nephin “the single most
promising project in western Europe for prospective restoration.”
I was inclined to be skeptical of the idea of Irish wilderness.
My wife was born in Belfast and her parents today live in Derry.
It’s been the base from which I’ve explored this roughly Maine-sized island for more than twenty years. I have been enchanted
on many occasions by the island’s rain-soaked beauty—the
towering cli=s of Horn Head, or the unpeopled white-sand
beaches of the Dingle Peninsula, or the undulating ridgelines of
the Mourne Mountains “sweeping down to the sea,” as the folk
song goes. The Irish landscape possesses an undeniable beauty
and power. But true wilderness — the sort of profound remoteness and aloneness that one can experience in, say, Colorado’s
Weminuche or Wyoming’s Popo Agie — I had yet to find.
But perhaps I needed to revise my definition of wilderness.
Though some estimates say that as little as 1 percent of Europe
remains in a pristine, wild state, there are thousands of square
miles of land that are “near-wilderness” quality. And unlike in
the United States where decrying public lands as part of a long-
running federal land grab has become a conservative cause
célèbre, in Europe there is growing political will to bolster its
own inventory of wilderness. In 2009, the EU issued a resolu-
tion calling for the “strengthening of wilderness-related policies
and measures.” The key piece of that resolution is to “develop”
wilderness areas across the eurozone. This legislative e=ort has
given rise to a new ecosystem of environmental NGOs push-
ing ambitious restoration goals. One group, Wild Europe, for
example, is working in various countries to protect old-growth
forests and endangered species and is sponsoring restoration
projects in eastern Europe. Another organization, Rewilding
Europe, is calling for the designation of one million hectares,
or 3,800 square miles, of wilderness by 2020. The group is also
advocating for the reintroduction of iconic megafauna, such as
the European bison, lynx, timber wolf, and red deer.
Unlike the doctrinaire foundational principles of the US Wil-
derness Act — “an area where the earth and its community of life
are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who
does not remain”—Europe is working with a more general defi-
nition. According to the European Commission, “A wilderness is
an area governed by natural processes. It is composed of native
habitats and species, and large enough for the e=ective ecological
functioning of natural processes. It is unmodified or only slightly
modified and without intrusive or extractive human activity, settle-
ments, infrastructure or visual disturbance.” Where the American
definition tra;cs in philosophical absolutes about what wilder-
ness should be, the European definition presents a more general
set of ecological guidelines about what a wilderness could be.
Do such qualifications and nuances equate to a watered-down
definition of wilderness? Or is the European view a necessary
evolution of the wilderness ethic, one that takes into consider-
ation the vast and growing footprint of mankind on the planet?
Recently, the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson proposed that half
of the earth’s surface needs to be set aside for nature; only then,
he wrote, “can we hope to save the immensity of life-forms that
compose it.” Are such goals remotely attainable under the US
model, which seeks pristine, “primeval” landscapes, as if these
places were contestants in some naturalistic beauty pageant?
Could we in the US benefit from an expanded view of wilder-
ness of the sort being embraced across Europe?
A backpacking trip into the heart of the nascent Nephin Wilderness, I hoped, would help me to answer some of these questions.
I SAID GOODBYE to John and Clare Chambers at Brannens Bar
and drove twenty minutes north of Newport to the Wild Nephin
trailhead, at the edge of Ballycroy National Park. When I arrived
at the trailhead it was about five o’clock. My plan for the following day was to make a ten-mile loop up the Bangor Trail— an
ancient path believed to be thousands of years old — then bushwhack through a steep corrie and into a hanging valley between
the summits of Slieve Carr and Nephin Beg, the region’s 2,057-
foot namesake. In the valley, I would drop my pack and ascend
Where the AmericAn definition of Wilderness trAffics
in Absolutes, the europeAn definition is About WhAt A
Wilderness could be.