One of my research interests is the management of protected landscapes, particularly national parks – and I have been lucky to visit and study national parks and other protected areas around the world. I was also a government appointed Member of the Peak District National Park Authority for ten years between 1995 and 2006.
The EUROPARC Federation is the network for Europe’s natural and cultural heritage managers – all those authorities set up to protect and manage these special landscapes. The Federation works to improve the management of protected areas through international cooperation, exchange of ideas and experience, and by influencing policy. As a Member of the Peak District National Park Authority, I have attended many of their annual conferences previously, and it was therefore with great delight that I attended their 2016 conference, although now just as an independent academic.
The conference was held in the regional nature park, Parc Jura Vaudois, just north of Lausanne in Switzerland. The theme of the conference was “We Are Parks!” This meant a focus on how we engage with different communities in protected areas, and how we can explain the value of such areas to these various stakeholders.
We had a range of fascinating presentations from some high level speakers, including the EU’s Commissioner for the Environment, Karmenu Vella; the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Director-General, Inger Andersen; and Carlos de Oliveira Romao, Project Manager from the European Environment Agency (EEA). All spoke passionately about the need to protect the environment and the increasing challenges facing us. Carlos Romao provided some sobering facts and figures from the EEA on biodiversity decline (particularly linked to intensively farmed land) and their recent State of Nature in the EU 2015 report . Inger Andersen suggested that protected areas have to be the “beacons of hope to spread the message of sustainability“. She concluded that society needed to stop seeing environment and development as polar opposites, and focus on the need to integrate social, economic and environmental improvements in all areas. All these presentations can be viewed in full on the Europarc web site.
Our charming Swiss hosts provided considerable background and context around their own protected areas. All countries have their own approach to creating, governing and managing these areas. Switzerland has a political system founded on a very local level of democracy, with referendums required for many decisions. They also have a complicated set of relationships between the Federal Government, the Cantons, and local communes, which can add to the complexity of governance arrangements.
The first (and still only) national park in Switzerland was founded in 1914 in the Alpine region of Engadin (shown in red below) under its own specific legislation. But the Federal Parliament only approved the legal basis for creating new parks in Switzerland in 2007 when the Nature and Cultural Heritage Protection Act came into force. Unlike our own national parks, the Swiss National Park is a `wilderness area` and a state institution; governed and owned by the Federal National Park Commission (FNPC). Regulations are strict – camping is not allowed and there is very limited overnight accommodation in the national park. Dogs – even on leads – are also forbidden (imagine this in the UK!).
The 2007 NCHP Act allowed for the creation of new types of parks. The Parc Jura Vaudois is one of Switzerland’s 14 regional Nature Parks (and is in the far west of the map above – to the north of Lake Geneva). In many ways, these `lived-in landscapes` are more like the UK national parks, as every park has a significant population living in dispersed settlements, and these cultural landscapes have been created by centuries of human influence. Local heritage is considered as important as nature and landscape. Our base, in the Vallee du Joux, was described as the cradle of Swiss watch making. Outdoor recreation and tourism are essential components in the local economy and for the management of these areas.
Swiss Nature Parks can only be designated following a local referendum. Whilst this clearly establishes a sense of ownership within local communities, there also seemed to be challenges around the local expectations of economic growth through tourism, which the park authorities sometimes found difficult to balance with conservation objectives. So – very many similar issues to those faced in UK national parks, and it was fascinating to learn from the different experiences and practice elsewhere in Europe.
As well as formal presentations, we also attended various workshops. I particularly enjoyed a workshop led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on their proposals for a new global standard for protected area management – the Green List . In a local school room, we heard about the proposed criteria that could benchmark good governance, sound design and planning, and successful conservation outcomes, and we were given the opportunity to discuss the aims and process involved.
The standard has already been piloted in France and China, and most participants felt it could be a valuable tool in encouraging protected area authorities to measure and improve their management and performance.
My second workshop focused on the role of protected areas in enhancing people’s health and well-being. We shared ideas and good practice from around Europe, with particularly informative presentations from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Finnish parks and wildlife agency (part of their state forestry service – Metsähallitus). An inspirational project from Denmark, was described by Susanne Rosenild, a forest ranger employed by a local health service, to encourage various groups to explore and connect with nature. This project really emphasised the importance of health professionals and countryside professionals working closely together. We plan to set up a Europarc working group focusing on health, and a summary report has already been produced. I plan to follow up several personal invitations to visit case studies in Denmark, Finland and Norway to discuss the monitoring and evaluation of similar projects and share results from the UK.
As well as the workshops, we had the opportunity to explore the natural and cultural heritage of the area ourselves. We were taken on some interesting birding trips along the main Lac de Joux. This visit also explored some of the challenges experienced by conservationists in a country where farmers are so concerned about neatness and tidiness, as a sign of good stewardship. We were also accompanied on a very impressive visit to a local watch factory where the technical brilliance, craftsmanship and local pride in Swiss watch making was at its highest.
At the end of the conference, there is always a gala dinner, with lot of thanks and announcements about the next Europarc conference in the Montanhas Mágicas, Portugal. Awards and medals for various projects and officers are presented, and I was particularly proud to see Bryony Thompson from the Peak District’s Eastern Moors Partnership win an Alfred Toepfer travel scholarship to visit various parks around Europe to investigate how they provide an improved visitor experience and the links this might have to pro-environmental behaviour. Bryony confidently summarised her research for the whole conference and I’m looking forward to hearing about her results.
Overall, this event was informative and inspiring and it demonstrated how much we can learn from each other. Much of the organisation of the conference had been done by officers from the Parc Jura Vaudois on top of their usual work – and they did a brilliant job – friendly and efficient. Local people also welcomed us enthusiastically – from the street procession and night market (with fire juggling!), to the local bus drivers who ferried us about every day, and the ordinary passers-by who put up with us asking (in very bad French) directions to all the conference venues.
The very few UK participants attending felt we had to constantly apologise to our European friends over `Brexit`. Many of those friends shared some of our reservations about EU policy, particularly around the Common Agricultural Policy and the EU’s internal bureaucracy, but they were mystified about our decision to leave. However – as the exuberant Norwegians sharing my hotel kept reminding me – we are not leaving Europe (that’s geographically impossible) – just the EU. It’s possibly even more important that we maintain our links through organisations like Europarc during the uncertain times ahead.