Proposal for Expanded Highland Protections Protested

Energy companies and some local municipalities are hotly contesting a new proposal to expand environmental protections within the Icelandic highlands, RÚV reports. Per a proposal put forth by the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources, a new and expanded national park would include Vatnajökull National Park – already the largest national park in Western Europe – as well as 85% of the central highlands.

The boundaries for the new national park were suggested by a bipartisan committee appointed by the ministry in April 2018. The committee, which included MPs from all of the sitting parties in Alþingi as well as representatives from the Icelandic Association of Local Authorities, maintains that expanding the boundaries of the protected area would not negatively impact Vatnajökull National Park’s recent designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The proposal has since been opened for public comment, but will only remain so for the next two weeks, or until August 13.

Although the Association of Local Authorities has been part of the proposal process, however, many municipalities whose boundaries fall within the proposed national park feel that they were not appropriately consulted.

Ásta Stefánsdóttir, head of the district council of Bláskógabyggð in West Iceland says that it was the committee’s job to make proposals about the new national park, not to specifically evaluate the pros and cons of whether this should be done at all. Bláskógabyggð feels that this evaluation has yet to be done and that the current proposal represents an encroachment on the zoning power of local municipalities.

“There are large areas within the highlands that are within Bláskógabyggð and farmers and residents have put a lot of work into reclaiming the land, for instance, in marking riding trails and guiding traffic there, i.e. ensuring that people don’t enter sensitive areas and the like. People are only concerned because if there is some kind of centralised agency, some kind of government agency, which oversees this, that that will somewhat undercut all this volunteer work that people have done.”

Energy companies have also expressed opposition to the proposal. Samorka, the federation of energy and utility companies in Iceland, says that under the new protections, that all new energy generation and transmission would be prohibited in almost half of the country, making current laws about energy protection irrelevant.

For its part, Landsvirkjun, the National Power Company of Iceland, says that it is necessary that all of its power plants remain outside of protected areas and says that the utilisation of energy resources in the highlands have considerable economic significance for the country overall. The renewable energy produced in the highlands, it says, is the foundation of the nation’s economy and overall quality of life today.

Repairs Begin on Church of Akureyri

Akureyri Iceland

Repairs are finally underway on the Church of Akureyri following vandalism to the building facade two and a half years ago. RÚV reports that repairs are expected to cost over ISK 20 million ($163,863/€147,366).

Residents in the North Iceland town of Akureyri woke one morning in January 2017 to find that four churches had been defaced with hateful slogans and symbols. While it wasn’t difficult for the graffiti to be painted over at three of the churches, the stone cladding of the Church of Akureyri absorbed the paint, making it impossible to effectively cover the damage without major repairs. The church is a major local landmark, having been designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, the same architect who designed Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík. As such, its exterior has protected status, making it both complicated and time-consuming to locate the right materials to repair it. Church leaders are now waiting for 14.5 tons of special stone cladding to be delivered so that they can begin repairs in earnest.

“The material is coming, in part, from Norway,” says Gestur Jónsson, the treasurer of the Church of Akureyri council. The council will receive feldspar and obsidian from abroad, but still needs to source Iceland spar as well, in order to match the blend of stones that was originally used in the siding. Once the church acquires the proper mix of stone, master masons will remove the vandalised siding from the church walls and replace it with the new.

The expense of replacing the stone siding will not be funded using parishioners’ congregation taxes. So far, the Church of Akureyri has received ISK 9.5 million ($77,907/69,887) to fund repairs, which will cover repairs to half of the church, including the towers and the southern side. The council’s plan is to continue raising funds and be able to finish repairs to the northern side of the church next summer, thereby avoiding any major visible differences to the texture of the stone.