Fracking, Floods and Flailing Funds: Europe's National Parks Under Pressure
by jack hedger
National parks represent some of the most outstanding nature that countries can offer. Specially designated for environmental and cultural reasons, they offer the opportunity for people to experience environments conserved in their beautiful natural states. Yet, despite conservation efforts, the ecosystems of many national parks in Europe today are under vast pressures, including those induced by our changing climate.
The world’s first national park was Yellowstone in the United States, established nearly 150 years ago. It was protected by law as a reaction to the destructive potential of humans, noted by early explorers and hunters. Yellowstone was followed by more well-known parks including Yosemite and Crater Lake.
The formation of US parks was mirrored in Europe throughout the 20th century, initiated by Sweden in 1909. Today there are over 300 parks in Europe, the diversity of which is some of the greatest in the world. They span from Norway’s Seiland park inside the Arctic circle, all the way to Cape Sounion national park on the shores of the Mediterranean in Greece.
I was fortunate enough to grow up on a small sheep farm in the southern hills of Dartmoor, one of Britain’s national parks. It would be fair to say that this has given me a relatively biased view on the value of national parks and the extent of their contribution to quality of life. The park I grew up in is not always considered beautiful in the conventional sense. Rather than the temptation for ramblers and adventure seekers that can be found within the park, it is the rugged wilderness which can offer a sense of freedom in way that cities cannot. The rolling hills, rocky outcrops, and steep river valleys are home to wild horses and friendly locals.
The park is around a thousand square kilometres and is home to some of the UK’s oldest prehistoric settlements, with human history stretching back over twelve thousand years. Ruins of small settlements and burial sites can be found throughout the moor, with ongoing research to unravel the mystery of the people who lived there. When this is coupled with the frequent heavy mists and ancient forests, it has proved a perfect environment to inspire numerous local myths and legends. As a child, I was fascinated with the folklore, which included tales of beasts and spirits roaming the moor at night.
Unfortunately, one such tale was based upon the long-dead master of Weaver’s Cottage, which was my neighbour’s house; a story which I instantly regretted reading. When I think of this now, the many stories embody how untamed nature can inspire communities with its mystery and occasional savageness. This serves as another reminder of how the value of wilderness and nature is not always immediately apparent, as it can instead contribute in many subtle ways.
Dartmoor encompasses many small villages and farms where life is conducted at a slower pace. Traditional methods of agriculture are still practiced, where flocs of locally-favoured whiteface Dartmoor sheep are shepherded by farmers and their dogs. Visitors are able to catch a glimpse of a unique period of farming which contrasts starkly with the intensively industrial modern approach to raising animals. Dartmoor’s population is united by a shared sense of stewardship for the park, allowing it to foster a community spirit that expresses itself through festivals, fetes, and the welcoming of visitors. This makes it a special place with a longstanding harmony of people, tradition, and nature.
Of course, Dartmoor’s virtues are representative of many well-managed national parks across Europe. As many of us explore our continent, visiting national parks is often on the agenda. Hiking in the Spanish Ordesa, the Italian Dolomites, and France’s Vanoise draw thousands of visitors each year. Each area has a rich and well-preserved culture, of food and traditions.
However, with so many parks in Europe, there are many less-discovered and equally stunning possibilities. For instance, many visitors to Croatia will stick to the beautiful Adriatic coast, leaving the mountainous Paklenica national park as a haven for those seeking a quieter experience. Crucially, all of these parks have the ability to unite people in a belief of their value, showcasing the fantastically varied natural and cultural landscape of Europe. At a time when Europe faces so many divisive challenges, perhaps national parks offer a rare opportunity for something we can all agree on and take pride in.
Despite their inherent value to citizens, national parks face numerous challenges. Their conservation requires significant public funding, exposing them to the turbulence of political whims and budgets. The parks in the US are undergoing significant pressure from lobbyists to be opened up for ‘multiple-uses’, with critics believing this will open the door for fracking. The threat is not unique to their side of the Atlantic, and the attention of fracking lobbyists in Europe could also move towards national parks. Not only does the political system hold such power over the parks, there is also a dependency on the legal system to maintain and enforce the regulations that limit the expansion of human development.
On top of these challenges, climate change is inflicting consistently greater pressures on ecosystems that are vulnerable to unfavourable shifts. Europe is not exempt from the global trend of steadily increasing temperatures, and the series of ‘hottest-years-on-record’ have left many of our most important environments struggling to keep up with the pace of climate change. Alpine glaciers have lost two thirds of their mass since 1850, at a rate which has accelerated since the mid-20th century. This will have repercussions for water supply and the functioning of ecosystems. Changing patterns of rainfall are disrupting the flows of rivers, and can expose areas to risks of floods, droughts, and landslides. Managing these newly emerging risks comes at a greater cost, often overlooked at times of austerity.
The heritage and nature that is safeguarded within the boundaries of Europe’s national parks is under threat. The parks need ambassadors and advocates to stand up for what is represented by them, and the best way to do that is to get people into the parks so they can experience these unique and precious realms. If you need inspiration for a trip within Europe, I would highly recommend having a look at what the national parks can offer. It is likely there will be one that can match whatever it is you look for in a getaway. National parks have been protected by previous generations for our enjoyment. It is now our responsibility to defend them, so future generations may do the same.
JACK HEDGER IS ENGLISH AND IS CURRENTLY STUDYING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT IN UTRECHT, THE NETHERLANDS.
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