Monday, 1 February 2010

Conservation blues

Why are some conservationists, particularly in the UK, so obsessed with building roads and picnic spots? Seriously, there appears to be a real institutional bias towards spending the budgets on nature trails, path clearance and interpretive centres, all of which are on my list of things most likely to destroy an area of natural beauty and biodiversity.

Okay, I know that the odd path is useful both for conservation staff and also to prevent visitors from having to cut a new path each time they enter an area. They are also useful for finding your way around. The aim though, in protected areas, should surely be to keep these to a minimum, particularly those which are semi-paved and signposted, or which can take cars.

Much worse though than too many paths are car parks, educational centres and café gift shops.

Now I know that national parks and protected areas in UK and Europe are different to those in North America. There is no true wilderness left in Britain, and I understand that many landscapes that appear to be wild are effectively man-made. There are however areas which are more wild than others, and others which have become ‘wilder’ or ‘minimally managed’ thanks to changes in use or population. In my view the ultimate aim of conservation is to preserve (and promote) as much wildness as possible in a landscape and to protect, encourage and study the wildlife. It should not be the primary job of conservation or national parks to focus on opening up these areas to increased traffic.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that we need to ensure right of access, and (particularly in England and Wales) there is much more which could be done on this, but that is not the same as saying that access needs to be spoon-fed. Driving in protected areas should be minimised and discouraged (i.e. new roads really should only be built in extreme circumstances). Wherever possible the role of conservation and park management should be to examine what pieces of human construction can be removed. Obviously this is very difficult in areas where people are living, but in many cases there are redundant forestry ditches and tracks which can be blocked. Similarly if there is no use for a decaying building, far better to let it collapse and fade than for it to be turned into a pointless interpretive centre, complete with access roads, power supply and café.

It is not just areas of ‘wilderness’ or nature reserves where this is a problem. The cliffs of Moher in Ireland are a classic example of how individual natural features can be destroyed in this way, These are a set of breathtaking sea cliffs on the west coast, dizzyingly high and dropping into the pounding Atlantic. Sadly they are hard to appreciate, as the most spectacular stretch has been ‘enhanced’ with a paved foot path along the top, a protective wall, installed telescopes and a large café, gift shop, ‘museum’ and interpretive centre. Interpret what for goodness sake? If you don’t get a kick out of staring 400 feet into the ocean, you are in the wrong place. As a result of all this the cliffs have been reduced to a sort of ‘cliffs museum’ were the viewer is separated from the natural spectacle and directed to a host of ugly and inane attempts to get your cash.

Please please please. I understand that conservation is difficult, I do it, but I am begging conservationists, civil servants, politicians and the public to understand that in order for conservation to be a success an area does not need to become better tended, easier to enter and more appealing to commercial interests. The benefits that biodiversity, wildlife and increasing wildness of land can bring are far more valuable than that.

1 comment:

  1. nicely said. i agree.if i go to see a place i go to see the place, not wander through the giftshop and follow the well troden trail. there is so much to be said for leaving a place go wild. and after having worked all winter in a landscape that was highly maintained i can't agree more. the places that were most vital, if you're being romantic, were those places that were never preened and made "human friendly". nice work . also, you have a very precise way with language.