John Muir Conference, May 2014

I’ve just returned from a brilliant conference in Perth organised by the John Muir Trust. 2014 marks the centenary of John Muir’s death and the conference focused on `National Parks and Protected Areas for the 21st Century`. The weather was glorious, Perth looked wonderful, the company was great and the speakers were thought-provoking and challenging. I hope to write a little more on some of the issues we discussed at a later point (I’ve to follow up some references first!), but here is a summary of the things which really impressed me over the two days. I frantically scribbled throughout the event – but my apologies to any speakers whose thoughts I have misinterpreted. I’ve decided not to use quotation marks for that very reason – but if I’ve captured your ideas precisely and should have used quotes – then my apologies for that also. The perceptive insights are theirs, – the misinterpretations are all mine. I’ll provide the full reference for the conference report once it is available.

William Tweed, former Chief Naturalist in the US National Park Service, was our first main speaker. He remarked that he had been asked to provide an assessment of John Muir’s impact in the United States, his legacy today, and the challenges facing the National Parks system – all in 40 minutes! But he met his brief brilliantly. He saw Muir’s main legacy as one of inspiration for us all. Every speaker regularly quoted from Muir’s writing, and William was no exception. He also described how someone else had once said that national parks were “America’s best idea” – and that the National Parks Service in the US still adhered to this view. But he felt the American model had only been partially successful. He explained how John Muir and his fellow campaigners in the 19th century had really been of their time. And it was a time when people thought that you could put a boundary around an area and preserve it in aspic, as unchanging `wilderness`. It was a time when people thought nature was stable and unchanging, that wild areas were somehow pristine and entirely unaffected by people. However, we now know that none of this is true – yet these are still the principles upon which the US National Parks are based. He suggested this view of the natural world was `naïve and wrong`. Making places as `wild` as possible is a powerful dream – but not always a practical one.

He suggested that the UK national parks were more `humanised landscapes` – and that this enabled the UK to address some of the broader issues of sustainability and evolving landscapes, even climate change, in a way which the US National Parks found more difficult. But he also said you have to define what you are trying to achieve – your values (would we say `special qualities`?) – and deliver on that vision. I asked him about his phrase `humanised landscapes` over coffee. It sounded very like the concept of `cultural landscapes` – a concept I feel very comfortable with. Adrian Phillips once suggested that landscapes could be “a meeting ground – between nature and people; between the past and the present; and between tangible and intangible value” (in The Protected Landscape Approach, ed.s Brown, Mitchell and Beresford, 2005, IUCN). This becomes a powerful way of achieving real sustainability. William Tweed replied that he was aware of the cultural landscapes work – but in the US the phrase was used in a very specific way, and he’d wanted to avoid that definition and those connections. As ever, language can create barriers to understanding all too easily. I now intend to read his 2011 book “Uncertain Path – A Search for the Future for National Parks” as soon as possible.

Nigel Dudley, speaking on behalf of the IUCN, provided us with a thoughtful, international perspective of protected areas and their purposes. He surprised us by suggesting that protected area designation has recently been the fastest, conscious land-use change in history (a paper is in the offing). He suggested that originally the main drivers had been the protection of iconic species and special landscapes – but this had evolved, and now biodiversity, access and the long term delivery of ecosystem services, cultural and social values were increasingly at the forefront of designation and management. He also introduced the term `authenticity` to describe more natural, resilient and biodiverse ecosystems appropriate in particular locations. Nigel’s excellent 2011 text book “Authenticity in Nature” is well worth reading to explore this concept further. He felt we could regain more `naturalness` in the UK – but that it is essential that we understand it.

We had a very powerful and entertaining presentation from Jason Leitch (Clinical Director, the Quality Unit) who focused on the public health issues facing Scotland now and in the future – particular the social inequities. He asked us “What is your role in addressing those challenges”? He emphasised the importance of physical activity in creating wellness, but also the need to provide people with the resilience to cope with some of the stresses of modern day life. And another very apposite quote from John Muir – “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life“. But he might as well have chosen the following also – “Places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike“. I feel Jason is pushing at an open door here – I think we know our role in the health and well-being arena. I would have liked to ask him how we can better work with the public health sector to achieve those shared aims.

Louise MacDonald, from the Scottish national youth information and citizenship organisation Young Scot, spoke about the need for everyone working in the protected landscapes movement to consider how their work impacted upon, involved, and inspired young people. I was particularly struck by her comment that we should very carefully consider how we frame nature for young people. She suggested that all too often this is as a place of adventure, danger, and over-coming adversity – a place of `other` for many young people. Is this misplaced, and does it reinforce a sense of disconnect between young people and nature? Quoting Muir “People need beauty as well as bread“; she felt we could do far more to reinforce the positive, nurturing power of nature – the wonder and the awe.

Our final presentation came from George Monbiot, environmental campaigner and writer. As ever, he threw down the gauntlet to conservationists working in all protected landscapes, particularly in the UK, and asked what happened to a vision of vibrant, exciting and process driven landscapes? He suggested our main aim appeared to be to preserve what we had – even if what we had was an over grazed, treeless, ecological desert. He suggested that the current dominant land uses in our national parks `bleed` public money – and asked what the public got back in return. George and I have differed in the past over his interpretation of the phrase `cultural landscape` – which he equates in the UK with `cultural hegemony`, and my interpretation of rewilding – which has previously sounded to me like a forlorn attempt to recreate some sort of romantic, primeval utopia. As with many arguments, I think our differences are semantic. George quite clearly does not want to remove people or their heritage from all our landscapes (and in an international context, I am certain he views `cultural landscapes` rather differently). And he is passionate about the involvement of local communities in any decisions about their landscapes. Equally, his use of the term rewilding is not to suggest a restoration or return to some halcyon point in the past (obviously selected entirely through a personal value based process), but to try to recover essential natural elements and processes where possible. He listed some of these elements as viable seed sources (particularly for trees); reintroduction of keystone species; and functioning trophic cascades.

It will be a matter of scale of course. Like him, I would love to think wolves might come back to Scotland one day – and I really hope to see beavers roaming at will, and even lynx in the Highlands in my lifetime. In my beloved Peak District, I think we could explore the potential for beavers, and pine marten in the gritstone areas of the national park sound utterly sensible (particularly if they have the impact on grey squirrels which George suggested) – but wolves? Just not enough space I fear (even if the local populations accepted it). So of course some sort of management will always inevitably be required – just to control deer if nothing else. But more trees and a richer, more varied vegetation diversity and structure, particularly in our moorland areas – I couldn’t agree more.

Will his use of the `re-wilding` word help or hinder those aims? Well someone has to be out there at one extreme of the argument, even if it’s just to counter the other extremes. And the challenge to current conservation approaches is very well made.

Overall, our speakers were thoughtful and challenging, and I anticipate real change evolving from the conference. And it reminded me how delightful it is to spend even just two days in the company of such passionate and committed people.


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