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A comment on a different post of mine triggered my curiosity:

There is little enough wilderness left in the world as it is.

Are there statistics on what percentage of the world is still “true wilderness”? I would define wilderness as any location on land that is more than 10 miles from a road or an established hiking trail. As a bonus, what percentage of this wilderness is in areas where vegetation can survive (so excluding the Arctic, northern parts of Siberia, Sahara desert, etc)?

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    Did you try to investigate this question yourself first? For what it's worth, this came up in a search for the title of your question (I just copy-pasted it exactly as you wrote it). No idea how trustworthy this information is. restaurantnorman.com/is-there-any-true-wilderness-left Jul 8, 2021 at 0:41
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    There are many other pages that also attempt answer this question: duckduckgo.com/… Jul 8, 2021 at 0:46
  • @Greg I’ve seen those estimates but couldn’t figure out their methodology. What I’m asking for is actually quite easy to figure out using OpenStreetMaps, although it would be a bit inaccurate for developing nations. I’ll do it myself if no one comes up with a good answer. Jul 8, 2021 at 0:58
  • Do you mean percentage of land area? Would you call second-growth forest in an isolated location 'wilderness'? Jul 8, 2021 at 6:05
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    Your definition is highly flawed, because it uses distance from a road as a proxy for "is not developed". High-density tree planting by forestry companies can easily be 10 miles from a road - they make their own impromptu roads to get in and out - but clearly cannot qualify as wilderness.
    – Graham
    Jul 8, 2021 at 6:45

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An article titled "A global map of roadless areas and their conservation status" in Science looked into this very question. Abstract is below. Note that the 7% figure refers to the total number of wilderness patches, not their total area.

Roads have done much to help humanity spread across the planet and maintain global movement and trade. However, roads also damage wild areas and rapidly contribute to habitat degradation and species loss. Ibisch et al. cataloged the world's roads. Though most of the world is not covered by roads, it is fragmented by them, with only 7% of land patches created by roads being greater than 100 km2. Furthermore, environmental protection of roadless areas is insufficient, which could lead to further degradation of the world's remaining wildernesses.

They've looked into 1-km and 5-km buffer around roads to generate a map of global roadless areas. For those curious, their definition of "road" included all types of roads and hiking trails mapped on OpenStreetMap:

Examples of ‘major roads’ can be motorways and freeways (category one); ‘minor roads’ are categorized as small local roads, residential roads,etc.(category two). Category three is represented by‘highway links’ (slip roads/ramps) that connect roads with each other. Service roads or roads for agricultural use are considered as ‘very small roads’ under category four. Category five is called ‘path’ and mainly used for horse riding and cycling, but also for small or off-road vehicles. Category six roads are ‘unknown’ types of roads. As all road categories have ecological impacts (Table S2), we included all of them in the analyses.

Here's the 5-km buffer map, which looks more interesting for the purposes of defining what "true wilderness" is (taken from the article supplement):

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They also provide a convenient table of 5-km buffer zones per continent:

Table S3. Extent and amount of roadless areas (5-km-buffer) per continent using the OpenStreetMap data set(11/2003)(without Antarctica, Greenland, and freshwater bodies).

Asia Africa North America South America Europe Australia Oceania Global land
Total area (million km²) 44.32 29.70 21.51 17.64 9.75 7.64 0.43 130.00
Total roadless area cover (million km²) 28.62 19.36 9.88 11.09 1.30 5.09 0.11 75.45
Percentage of roadless coverage (%) 64.58 65.19 45.93 62.89 13.33 66.62 25.58 58.04

If you're in North America, going to Canada, Alaska or northern parts of Mexico is your best bet to find wilderness. In Europe its only left in northern Scandinavia. Was surprised to see that even Wyoming isn't particularly "wild" but zooming in on OpenStreetMap one can see numerous hiking trails even in areas of Wyoming that are far from civilization, so it makes sense.

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    That Europe percentage is depressingly low, but interesting to see these numbers! Great answer.
    – Jeroen
    Jul 9, 2021 at 7:10
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What percentage of the world is “true wilderness”?

It looks like that just around 23% of the planet’s land surface (excluding Antarctica) and 13% of the ocean can now be classified as wilderness, representing nearly a 10% decline over the last 20 years!

There aren’t many corners of the world left untouched by humanity. Recent research has highlighted that just 23% of the planet’s land surface (excluding Antarctica) and 13% of the ocean can now be classified as wilderness, representing nearly a 10% decline over the last 20 years. And more than 70% of what wilderness remains is contained within just five countries.

Researchers from the US and Australia recently produced a global map to illustrate this decline, made by combining data on things such as population density, night-time lights and types of vegetation. The problem with such an approach is that the question of where wilderness begins and ends is not as simple as it may first seem.

The data used to map wilderness is often collected in different ways for different parts of the world. For example, some datasets map roads all the way down to farm and forest tracks, while others may only record primary road networks. The definition of how far land has to be from these roads to be classified as wilderness can also vary. Meanwhile, knitting all this data into a single map often leads to compromises that reduce its usefulness, such as not including any blocks of wilderness below a certain size.

So while global maps are useful for drawing attention to the attrition of wilderness areas, only the greater detail of national and local maps can really help us understand and respond to the threats that face our remaining wild areas.

The world’s remaining wilderness. Dark blue = terrestrial. Light blue = marine.

The world’s remaining wilderness. Dark blue = terrestrial. Light blue = marine.

Five maps that reveal the world’s remaining wilderness

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What is true wilderness? No electricity? No cell phone coverage? No roads? No trails? No people within X km?

I was looking at the Canadian Continental Trail. It starts in Waterton Park, and comes north through various provincial parks, Banff, Jasper, Willmore, and Kakwa wilderness areas...

... and stops.

There is no route north for the next several thousand kilometers. There are no ready trails -- I'll admit I've not downloaded the zillion NTS maps to cover this area. Roads that cross it are scarce enough that you would either have to carry over two weeks food at a go, or set up air drops. Road access at times would require detouring off the continental divide by 40-50 km. So there is a huge swath of pretty wild country up the chain of mountains to the arctic.

I have travelled the edges of the Canadian Shield, spending weeks without even seeing a jet contrail across the sky above me.

In the U.S. true wilderness is less common. There are some. I backpacked the Selway Bitterroot wilderness as a boy. But there are vast extents of sparse population. Idaho is some large fraction (80%?) National Forest and Bureau of Land Management range land. These are not strictly speaking wilderness, (Both are grazed, and forestry land is subject to logging. These areas can act as buffer land around existing designated wilderness and parklands.

One of the heads of the USFS, Pinchot, I think, after the huge fire seasons of 1910 and 1914 had the goal of getting a road within 6 miles of every point in the National Forest System (NFS) and a trail within 1 mile. Lot of conservation corp work. WWII came and showed how people could parachute into fires. The trail network was cut back. Still lots of trails in NFS but they no longer try to get it within a mile of everywhere.

Logging has an interesting impact. Many kinds of mature forests have very low diversity. Lewis & Clarke almost starved crossing Montana and Idaho -- forests have all the green stuff at the top, where deer and elk can't eat it. The fires of the early 1900s created a population explosion of game animals as brush came in. OTOH it has an adverse effect on top predators. The current practice of small patch clearcutting seems to work fairly well as a compromise. But it's not wilderness for all that it's unpopulated for years at a stretch.

Some game animals (caribou come to mind) are fussy about crossing strange things like logging roads. Some may adapt. Some may go extinct at least regionally.

The SW desert is an awful lot of not much.

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  • You’re correct - the two maps posted above show vast wilderness in Canada. Pretty much no such spots in the US. Jul 15, 2021 at 4:56

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