Our current crop of 15 national parks are powerplants of energy for the mind, body and soul. We need to take better care of them as we need them more than we care to admit.
Despite its benefits socially, economically, and environmentally, the most recent UK national park, the South Downs, was established in 2010. What other locations could use such governmental protection? Why, more importantly, haven’t more been created since then? And what could the planting of more protected country pose for its people today?
Ever since Yellowstone, widely accepted to be the first and oldest national park as it exists today, was designated 150 years ago, the United States now has 63 across 30 states which were visited by over 84 million people in the last year before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist Wallace Stegner referred to national parks as ‘the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst’ in an often-cited 1983 commentary.
Indeed, it provided the title for the Primetime Emmy-winning 2009 television documentary miniseries ‘The National Parks: America's Best Idea’ by American filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan and has proven to be a fulfilling concept that has grown beyond its shores.
One would think, therefore, that with such a high profile among the populace as an attractive domestic destination, especially during the summer months, this support would be matched by our administration in its ambitious effort to enable us to become a net zero carbon emitting country within the next 30 years. It isn’t. While the cost-of-living crisis may make our national parks a more accessible journey for those on lower incomes, they too have been hit by the effects of inflation.
In England, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Northumberland, and the Yorkshire Dales National Parks have all suffered fundamentally from a manmade drought of investment in people, resources, and vision from government at one of the most pivotal times in our ecological history.
Grants have been frozen for the next three years representing a real terms funding cut of 40% over the last 10 years. Visitor centre closures, decreased maintenance capacity and current employment redundancies are profoundly altering these national parks’ worth to the public from the perspective of their elected leaders who view them as negative assets.
An ever more suburbanite citizenry, focusing themselves on the faster urbanity of city life over the slower rurality of natural settings, also pose a challenge to engage with respect to respect for the natural world and its unique opportunities.
A relentless 24/7/365 lifestyle we have designed for ourselves only accelerates the workplace fatigue and mental health problems that could be addressed by the time and space available for us to experience as we access the internet.
In the face of such distraction from smartphones, a proactive interaction with nature would ultimately make us more productive in realising the benefits of a healthy work/life balance that a walk in the woods, peaks and lakes conveys.
Not through the stories that artists weave though, audially, visually, and textually, but merely by being there. And one must be there, of course, to feel this, not just to think it – through the experience of others who can articulate it for them. One doesn’t have to imagine such a place, it’s already there. Art traces, not replaces. In our focus of mind over matter, we lose focus on what really matters.
National parks play a pivotal role in forming our cultural identity, both at home and overseas; they are for our wildlife what ‘Flying Scotsman’ is for our iron roads or ‘Concorde’ was for our skies. Our tourism industry relies on their thriving, not merely surviving, to inspire the next generation of artists who’ll immortalise its creative powers in our collective consciousness.
In this act, its ecological arguments will become more persuasive as our special relationship with the nature of the countryside, in its physical and mental (as much as environmental) gifts, will move us more to fight for it.
Over 200 years ago, the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth wrote of the Lake District that he, as well as those that visit, ‘testify that they deem the district a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.’
Speaking of, English writer/illustrator Beatrix Potter is recognised as contributing much of the landscape that makes up the Lake District National Park, having gifted the National Trust the 4,000 acres of farmland property she had acquired over 40 years. But this is a responsibility that everyone must share.
In Scotland, however, Loch Lomand and The Trossachs and Cairngorms national parks were quickly instituted 20 years ago in quick succession, but only now has the prospect of a third such area of conservation become more tangible.
In Wales, the current Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Clwydian Range and Dee Valley has been recommended as (finally) a fourth national park, following Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire Coast and (as of 2023) Bannau Brycheiniog (formerly Brecon Beacons), all of which were created in the 1950s (the National Park of American Samoa was the most recent to be formed in the United States, 30 years after this).
As the digital economy diversifies post-pandemic to hybrid or remote working schedules, working from home could mean from inside a national park, as opposed to being just an outside visitor. With the reality of what we might lose, be it our heritage or values from an apathy of financial and emotional investment, we deny ourselves the very resource that enables us to breathe.
It appears we’re receding, not reseeding, which will never lead to growth. Whenever we need to clear our heads, we escape to the country. Need I say more?!
Words and photographs by Adam Zawadzki