The Icelandic highland is one of the largest uninhabited, uncultivated areas in Europe. Almost all of Iceland’s population lives near the coastline, owing both to the barrenness and the coldness of the highland, and to Iceland’s fishing-based economy. The government is now planning to designate the entirety of the Icelandic highland as a national park, which would make it one of the largest national parks in the world, covering 30% of the country. But not everyone is on board with the idea.
The highland is a unique area, home to a wide range of natural phenomena, with vast sand deserts dotted with oases of flora and immense lava fields that serve as a reminder of the area’s 20 active volcanoes. Ten glaciers overlook the highland, spouting forth glacial rivers and waterfalls. Competing with the glacial cold are 15 high-temperature geothermal areas, six of which are covered by glaciers. Sheep have long since grazed in the area, which has put a strain on the region’s delicate flora, and the highland also serves as a hunting ground for birds, fish, reindeer, and other animals.
Despite the highland’s natural beauty, it is an unforgiving area. Few venture there in wintertime. But there are hints of human activity. Foreign and local tourists visit places such as the hot springs in Landmannalaugar and Hveravellir, the oasis Þjórsárver, as well as the Vatnajökull Glacier National Park. Emergency huts have been strategically placed in the area, as lifelines for lost travellers. Sporadic roads and trails dot the highland, while energy infrastructure represents the ugly but necessary side of human interference. Harnessing the natural power of waterfalls is an enticing prospect for electricity production.
State of nature
If there’s little human traffic in the fragile highland, what can be gained from officially designating the area a national park? In the eyes of the government, led by Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, the national park would serve as a means of protecting Iceland’s cherished nature (Guðmundur is a minister from outside Parliament, appointed by PM Katrín Jakobsdóttir due to his expertise in environmental matters). A national park is a platform to provide education, to create jobs, and to improve infrastructure in the area while allowing park rangers to regulate an oft-overlooked area of Iceland. Of the proposed area of the natural park, 85% is already public land, devoid of individual landowners. Additionally, the creation of the park would complement a new government plan, announced last summer, that calls for soil reclamation in the country’s most fragile areas.
Furthermore, the Highland National Park would allow authorities to
co-ordinate land usage, to protect natural resources, and to create a framework
for tourism in the area. The number of travellers visiting the area is
ever-increasing, which poses a further threat to an area prone to soil erosion.
The new national park, via visitor centres, would allow for controlled access
to the area, with park staff ensuring that travellers are made aware of the
importance of protecting the area’s natural wonders.
Then there are also financial incentives. Jukka Siltanen’s research at
the University of Iceland shows that every króna spent on national parks yields
a return of 23 króna to the economy. A natural park also attracts visitors, as
experience from Vatnajökull National Park shows. Established in 2008,
Vatnajökull National Park saw an increase from 277,000 visitors in the first
year to over a million in 2018.
In theory, a natural park should improve the experience of visitors and
protect nature. The status of the highland as a national park could also entice
further travellers to the area. The establishment of the park also aligns with
the government’s vision to spread travellers around the country, reducing the
strain on the most visited travel sites.
The idea of the park was first broached in 2016, and a Parliamentary
committee was later appointed in 2018. Now, in 2020, Parliament will discuss a
bill that would establish the Highland National Park.
The most pointed criticism of the proposed Highland National Park comes from municipalities. There are 21 municipalities whose land falls within the proposed boundary. Consider the case of the municipality Rangárþing Ytra in South Iceland. The park would encroach upon 70% of the land belonging to the municipality, which has a population of only 1,610 in a 3,177 square-kilometre area. For hundreds of years, the area has belonged to the people of Rangárþing Ytra.
Municipalities around the country believe that control of the area will be wrested away from them, leaving them without a say in decisions regarding their near surroundings. The National Park could also hinder plans to improve transport and energy infrastructure, which is crucial in providing employment in municipalities that are struggling to sustain their population. Furthermore, the National Park could complicate the process of constructing power stations.
Others say that small municipalities shouldn’t have total control over such vast swathes of public land and that conserving the environment should be prioritised over short-term industrial goals. Farmers worry that their right to graze sheep in the area (as grazing can lead to soil erosion) will be limited and that hunting would also be put up for discussion. Both are traditions that go back hundreds of years. Banning grazing and hunting within the park isn’t realistic as land usage will have to continue but sustainably. If the bill in its current form becomes law, the municipalities should rest easy, as an 11-person board including members from municipalities will exercise authority in each area, in accordance with an administrative plan.
Ultimately, it’s a question of settling on a long-term vision for the Icelandic highland. What should the highland be? Local visitors head to the highland for serenity and solitude. Research by Anna Þóra Sæmundsdóttir, a professor of tourism at the University of Iceland, states that foreign travellers frequently cite factors such as Iceland’s unique and untouched nature, its stillness, and its sparse population as factors that attract them to the country. Many want the highland to be entirely free of human intervention. The National Park would see the creation of infrastructure for travellers, such as visitor centres and accommodations for park rangers. There are not many places in Europe that can boast of pristine nature at such a short distance from urban areas. But should we not want travellers to experience beautiful nature?
In spite of all the unsettled issues, a poll conducted by Michaël Bishop for the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Iceland shows that 63% of Icelanders are in favour of the park – with only 10% being against it.
Take the high ground
The Highland National Park represents a statement by Icelandic authorities – that our nature matters to us. The idea is radical, as the park would contain a large portion of the country and be one of the largest National Parks in Europe. It would also mean that it would be the National Park that represents the highest percentage of the total area of a country, with over 40,000 km²of the total 103,000 km² surface area. Experience from the National Parks in Snæfellsnes, Þingvellir, and Vatnajökull is overwhelmingly positive. The possible creation of the park is happening in the backdrop of the biggest environmental crisis the world has ever faced. Okjökull recently became the first glacier to officially lose its status a glacier, while current estimates suggest that Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier – will have vanished entirely by 2300.