Germany's different types of protected areas are defined in the Federal Nature Conservation Act (BNatSchG). The main types are nature conservation areas, national parks, biosphere reserves, landscape protection areas, nature parks and Natura 2000 sites, covering about one third of the total country surface. Two or more protected areas of different types can overlap or even cover the same area of land. National parks, biosphere reserves and nature parks are also known collectively as large-scale conservation areas because of their size.
National parks are large-scale landscapes of national importance that are in – or are capable of evolving or being brought into – a state such that they show little or no human impact over most of their area. Nature should be allowed to take its course in them free of human exploitation or intervention. Where their protection requirements allow, national parks also serve purposes of scientific research or environmental education. Germany currently has 14 national parks covering a total of 1.029.496 ha.
Biosphere reserves aare set up to protect large-scale natural and cultural landscapes. Their main aims are to preserve, develop or restore landscapes shaped by traditional diverse uses, along with their historically evolved diversity of species and habitats. They also serve as models for developing and testing sustainable operating methods in all sectors of the economy. In Germany there are currently 16 biosphere reserves (total surface: 1.846.904 ha), 15 of which have been recognised by UNESCO under the Man and the Biosphere (MAB) programme.
Nature parks are large-scale cultural landscapes in which protecting and maintaining habitat and species diversity are closely tied to their recreational function. They support sustainable tourism and sustainable use of the land. Germany currently has 104 nature parks: with a total area of over 9.5 million ha, they cover about 27 percent of Germany's land surface.
In November 2005, EUROPARC Germany launched Nationale Naturlandschaften ('National Natural Landscapes'), an umbrella brand for large-scale conservation areas, with the aim of promoting their cooperation and enhance their importance.
Nature conservation areas are set up to preserve, develop or restore habitats and their wild flora and fauna. Any activity causing destruction, alteration or damage in a nature conservation area is prohibited. Any land use must be compatible with the protection purpose. With data as of 12/2009 Germany has 8,481 nature conservation areas. Landscape protection areas are created to maintain, develop or restore the functioning of the ecosystem and its services. They are generally larger than nature conservation areas and have fewer restrictions on land use, and they are also important in human recreation. Germany currently has 7,409 landscape protection areas covering a total of 10.2 million ha, or some 28,5 percent of the country's land surface (information as of 31 December 2009).
Other designations under the Federal Nature Conservation Act include 'natural monuments' and 'protected landscape features'. These are isolated or very small areas protecting individual creations of nature or landscape features with special importance for the ecosystem or for giving the landscape variety and structure.
The categories of protected areas set out in the Act also form the main basis for legally protecting areas making up the European Natura 2000 network.