What Is A National Park?

Everyone who has spent time in some of Scotland’s wild spaces is familiar with at least one of its two spectacular national parks. Loch Lomond and the Trossachs to the West of the country and the Cairngorms to the East. Each park offers up its own unique and distinct landscape and ecosystem which draws outdoor types from around the world.

Both of Scotland’s national parks offer plenty of open space, unlimited spectacular views, countless trails to wander and many mountains to hike. Each park hosts an untold amount of wildlife and vegetation that is becoming harder and harder to find in our tightly packed city spaces.

National parks the world over are treasures which can’t be overstated. Scotland’s own are no exception.

It’s easy to take our parks for granted, forget how they were hard-won, and allow them to blend in with the rest of Scotland’s stunning scenery. It’s so easy to do that it’s worth taking a minute to consider what the designation as a National Park means to an area. What makes a national park different from a nearby wild space and how does its designation affect the landscape, communities, and businesses which populate the area.

A bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms

National Parks Creation

The idea of a national park, a protected space which belongs to everyone, can be traced as far back as the early 1800s. A number of influential writers, artists, and visionaries wrote about spectacular landscapes that should belong to and fall under the protection of its nation. In the following years, advocates such as John Muir worked to make these ideas into a modern reality.

The groundwork to create Scottish national parks can be traced to the early 1900s. Proposals for a park within the Cairngorms were published as early as 1931. Several locations and proposals were discussed over the years with plenty of great options to choose from. A committee report in 1945 suggested national parks could be established in five key locations: the Cairngorms, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs, Glen Coe and Ben Nevis-Black Mount, Wester Ross, and Glens Strathfarrar, Affric, and Cannich.

By the end of 1949, the UK government of the time passed an act that would create ten new national parks in Great Britain. Each of these sites were hosted throughout England and Wales. It would be another half-century before Scotland had national parks of its own.

Scotland’s Wild Places

There is a seemingly unlimited amount of spectacular wild spaces and incredible trails throughout the country. A good number of these sites can be seldom visited, rarely explored and don’t climb to national park status.

A number of sites have a particular interest for environmental, heritage, or tourism reasons. Many of these are designated ‘national scenic areas’, which enjoy some, though just a fraction, of the protection that comes with national park status.

In the current landscape, nowhere throughout the highlands and islands, great glens, or Scottish borders enjoy the protections set out for Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms.

Some have found this to be a strange quirk in our setup. In many cases, you could be hard-pressed to convince either visitors or residents that these sites are less scenic, less treasured, or less deserving of national treasure status.

Glen Etive is one of the countries most popular locations as a result of both natural beauty and its starring role in several Hollywood blockbusters. The world-famous glen merely merits status as a nature reserve along with its closest neighbour Glen Coe.

Etive’s lack of protection has been brought into focus as recent proposals have set out to permanently alter the glen with man-made hydropower dams. Despite having staggering tourism numbers, unique ecology, and incredible scenery; development over the top of the some of the countries most important gems has far fewer barriers outside of its national parks.

The National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000

Among the very first bills to be passed through the Scottish Parliament on its formation, the national parks act allowed for the creation of National Parks in Scotland for the first time in history. The act was designed to allow for the eventual creation of parks within Scotland some fifty years after sites were initially proposed.

The act sets out the purpose and goals of Scotland’s national parks, in line with other wild places around the world.

The wording of the act states the aims of Natural Parks are to:

  • Conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area

  • Promote sustainable use of the natural resources of the area

  • Promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area by the public

  • Promote sustainable economic and social development of the areas’ communities

Where two or more of these points appear in conflict, the first of the four is to be given priority.

These aims set out a goal to preserve the natural beauty of the land for visitors to sustainably enjoy year after year.

The first of the two parks, Loch Lomond and the Trossachs, was created in 2002 with the Cairngorms being established shortly after in 2003. Loch Lomond additionally formed a national park authority to oversee the administration and planning of the area.

Using Scotland’s Great National Parks

The creation of two great national parks has resulted in local destinations filled with wildlife, wild space, and a ton of great adventures. Open to everyone and readily accessible, the parks host a macro view of the Scottish landscape.

Both parks include Munro’s, Corbetts, and hills to be scaled according to ability and desired challenge of the day. Both are open for climbers, hikers, and cyclists at any time of the year. Both feature seemingly endless trails and space in nature that feels a million miles from another sole.

Wild camping, whether travelling by foot, mountain bike, or kayak, can often be done year-round. The sole exception, a controversial ban on camping along the eastern shores of Loch Lomond in peak season.

The restrictive ordinance was brought about following a disappointing number of visitors failing to treat the area with deserved care. Discarded tents, food packets, and drinks containers were often seen to litter the shores and woods around the most readily accessible areas of the loch.

Such sad sights can still be occasionally found, but this need for restrictive ordinance has been by far the exception rather than the rule. Despite seeing some several thousand visitors every year, both parks remain well cared for, respected, and largely free of litter, destruction, and debris.

Parks Development

Over the past year, plans for the development of a leisure park within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs have been pushed ahead by developers. In May 2018, Flamingo Land Ltd unveiled highly controversial plans to create a new leisure park along the shores of the Loch.

Already home to visitor attractions, a shopping centre, and a range of hotels; plans would see development and construction pushed further up the loch, consuming more and more of the shores.

The resort, the firm says, will create up to 200 jobs including seasonal work and create a “quality destination that respects and compliments the surrounding area”. The attraction will, without a doubt, bring more visitors to the location and see increased revenue within the park.

Including additional jobs, an increase in revenue, facilities, and tourism, the developer’s claims are that the proposed works will bring a net positive addition to the park. These gains, it is claimed, will offset the environmental and ecological damage done in the process. The developer’s argument was clearly enough to convince planners and politicians of the development’s value.

The location of the proposed development, however, should change the value placed on the plans. Development within a national park should not be as simple as building a successful economic case.

The reason a national park is established in the first place is to create protections for the area which may otherwise be eroded over time. Proposed plans are expected to be tested against the aims of the parks act to warrant development over the invaluable space.

Assessing the plans laid out for Loch Lomond, available online below, these proposals seem to do nothing to address the first three aims of the parks act above.

A new, extensive leisure park facility does nothing to conserve or enhance the areas’ natural or cultural heritage (1). It would be tough to argue the development is likely to promote sustainable use of the areas’ natural resources (2); or promote understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the area (3).

The proposed park almost exclusively works against the aims and goals of a national park area and the general care of wild and natural places. An amusement park is virtually designed to create noise, chaos, and waste. A haven of fun and carelessness, they are a great source of joy, but rarely belong near natural parks or nature reserves.

Local communities and the public at large appear to have come to the same conclusion. Speaking out against the development over 53,000 signatures have been collected to object to building the £30m facility.

The level of objection raised for Loch Lomond’s new flamingo land park has set a national record for any planning application in history.

Treasured National Parks

The overwhelming public opinion against the development speaks to the very reason we have national parks at all. These areas, set aside as locations of exceptional natural beauty, are designated to be protected against cash-grabbing developers and short-sighted political gain.

It took over half a century between identifying lands for exceptional national parks and the implementation of the National Parks Act in Scotland. The act, a hard-won victory for nature preservation and outdoors access should not be so easily thrown away.

It’s hard to imagine such an exceptional natural beauty being thrown away elsewhere. Development on top of Yellowstone, roller coasters through the Grand Canyon, or building over the top of table mountain. If we watched the same events happen to any other location in the world, we would be watching the ruin of an iconic location.

The level of objection raised against the project shows a great deal of hope in the level of care and appreciation the public has for its own wild spaces. More and more people make use of the countries parks and reserves every year. Those same visitors are raising their voice more and more when business, government, or individuals attempt to dump or take from these unique places.

Well over a century since the idea of national parks came about, now more than ever they are places that are being enjoyed, used, and protected by everyone who cares to claim ownership.

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