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The world’s most pristine forests

The rugged canyons and peaks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, centered around the Sierra Nevada of eastern California, harbor a vast array of ecosystems.
The rugged canyons and peaks of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, centered around the Sierra Nevada of eastern California, harbor a vast array of ecosystems.Jeff Swearingen
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Forests face an age-old problem: they’re worth more dead than alive. For thousands of years humans have slashed and burned their way through millions of acres of wilderness, turning it into farmland, houses, cooking fuel, ships and paper. It’s a wonder a single sapling remains standing.

But pristine forests do exist — and you might be surprised to learn where they’re found.

In scientific circles, pristine — or “intact” — forests are regions not marked by straight lines like roads, power lines, or seismic surveys for an area of at least 50,000 acres. When visiting their innermost parts, “you get kind of a shiver,” says Alex Boursier, the regional manager for Canada at Rainforest Alliance. “You’ve traveled so deep into the wilderness and can only see a few feet ahead. It may well be that you’re the only human to see these trees for 100 years. Maybe ever.”

The key to preserving intact forests is to pinpoint what makes a region unique or essential, says David Seaborg, founder and president of the World Rainforest Fund. A particular spot might be crucial to a singular species like the Sumatran orangutan — or it might present the possibility of discovering a thousand new species. Preserving a wetland could encourage fish breeding or maintain a watershed to filter our drinking water. These qualities give a focus for conservation and tourism alike.

To visit such areas, you don’t have to venture to the ends of the earth (though it often helps). But you do need a spirit of adventure.

Eco-conscious operators like Abercrombie & Kent, Intrepid Travel, and Asia Transpacific, a tour company often used by the American Museum of Natural History and the World Wildlife Fund, are equipped to provide enriching itineraries.

Under the shade of 1,000-year-old trees you’ll find weird and wonderful creatures, like the pygmy elephants in the wilds of Indonesia. Or plants like the black bat flower (a foot-wide Gothic bloom with two-foot-long tendrils) and the titan arum (otherwise known as corpse flower for its disgusting stench).

Russia’s boreal reserves are so vast and remote that conservationists today still struggle to accurately survey them. But the presence of humans in other locales did nothing to exclude some of them from our list. The rubber tappers of Brazil (who live in extractive reserves) are considered guardians of the Amazon. Even heavily trafficked (and rigorously monitored) parks like Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California were hailed by our experts as examples of harmonious pristine ecosystems.

One controversial Amazonian forest we included is home not only to top predators (a primary indicator of forest health) but also to more than 25 million people.

If we treat the trees with respect, humans can pay Mother Nature’s most pristine forests a visit and leave them intact. Just don’t forget to buy the carbon offset credits when you go.