The International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) defines protected areas as
“A clearly defined geographical space, recognized, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.”
The categorization of protected areas varies by country and protection levels. The IUCN’s categorization of protected areas is widely accepted on the international level and is recognized by organizations such as the United Nations and many national governments. It sets up a global standard for defining and classifying protected areas based on management objectives. However, not all protected areas fall neatly into these categories, which is also true for the approximately 1,000 Alpine protected areas. Thus, only a general overview of protected area categories is provided below with reference to the IUCN classification1, UNESCO labels and Natura 2000 sites.
All protected areas have a common goal of biodiversity conservation. Many other objectives are considered in management strategies such as delivering benefits to local communities, providing educational and recreational opportunities, conserving specific landscape features, conducting scientific research and improving the overall quality of the area over time.
Wilderness area (IUCN category Ia and Ib): Large, unmodified or slightly modified areas whose natural character and functions are left intact. Wilderness areas have the highest level of protection and are largely left undisturbed by human activity in order to preserve their integrity for future generations. Low-impact, minimally invasive educational and research activities are allowed.
National park (IUCN category II): Large natural sites that are dedicated towards protecting ecological and biological systems and species. Visitor use is managed in these areas for inspirational, educational, cultural and recreational purposes so that no significant environmental degradation is done. They also contribute to the local economy through tourism.
Nature reserve (IUCN category IV): The main goal of these areas is to protect or restore certain species or habitats that are important on an international, national or regional level. Regular interventions may be required to assure protection. Other goals include fostering public education and appreciation for species protection and to provide regular interactions with nature for urban residents.
(Regional) Nature park (IUCN category V): Management and protection levels of these areas vary by country. Park activities usually focus on the integration of sustainable, regional development and nature conservation. Traditional management practices may be used to protect and maintain cultural landscapes and values created through human-nature interactions.
Natura 2000 sites: A network established at the EU level to prevent biodiversity loss by serving as breeding and resting sites for at-risk species. This is done in accordance to the Convention on Biological Diversity as well as the European Habitat and Birds Directives and the respective lists of threatened species. Some human activities are permitted on different levels, and management policies encourage working with nature.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to protect and valorize natural and culture sites that are considered as being ‘common goods’ for all humanity due to their significant value. They encourage the identification, protection and preservation of these sites. Some protected areas earn special statuses from UNESCO, as detailed below.
UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site: They earn a place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List for their outstanding universal value for humanity. UNESCO requires that these values are preserved for future generations by establishing and implementing a management plan. This universal application of this classification means that these areas are the common heritage of humanity.
UNESCO Biosphere Reserve: This internationally recognized label is given by UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme (MAB). It encourages the sustainable use of biodiversity. Sites that earned this status are areas where innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to sustainable development, resource management and interactions between nature and society can be tested.
UNESCO Global Geopark: These are single, unified areas containing an international geological significance that follow a holistic, bottom-up managerial style, integrating the concepts of sustainable development, education and nature protection. They are areas for gaining awareness of key issues that society is facing such as climate change and natural disasters.
Many other types of classifications and their corresponding management styles exist throughout the Alpine countries. These include but are not limited to: quiet zones, biotopes, protected landscape areas, natural forest reserves, special conservation areas and fragile natural areas (espaces naturels sensibles).
1 The IUCN categories indicated in brackets are approximative, as designations vary by country