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The Newest Challenge for Europe’s Parks: A Surge of New Nature Lovers

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Lockdown-weary city dwellers across the continent are visiting parks and other protected areas for the first time, overwhelming staff and generating pleas for more support.

Many European parks, among them, Parc National des Ecrins in France (above), rely on volunteers to augment staffing needs, but this year there were fewer volunteers because of the pandemic. Many European parks, among them, Parc National des Ecrins in France (above), rely on volunteers to augment staffing needs, but this year there were fewer volunteers because of the pandemic.Credit…Getty Images

By Paige McClanahan

  • Dec. 10, 2020

Lockdown-weary Europeans have sought out nature in record-breaking numbers this year, putting sudden and substantial pressure on national parks and other natural areas across the continent.

“You could see this increase in irresponsible behavior, and in a lot of parks it felt like this was out of control,” said Nikoleta Jones, a principal research associate at the University of Cambridge and an author of a recent study of the pandemic’s effect on protected areas in Europe. “The resources they had were not enough. It was just so much more than what they had experienced in the past.”

A telling episode occurred in Germany in November, not long after the country had gone into a partial lockdown. Three young adults went on a day trip to the Bavarian Forest National Park, 60,000 acres of woodlands, bogs and boulder fields about an hour’s drive from their home in Straubing. As they neared the end of their hike, a young man in the group realized that he had left behind his smartphone. The sun was low on the horizon, but they all turned around to look for it — and ended up lost in the dark, and very cold.

ImageThe Bavarian Forest National Park in Germany is one of many European parks that is seeing a rise in first-time park visitors seeking safe outings during the pandemic. The Bavarian Forest National Park in Germany is one of many European parks that is seeing a rise in first-time park visitors seeking safe outings during the pandemic.Credit…Armin Weigel/DPA, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“It was a marked trail, but they were disoriented and they did not have the right clothing,” said Teresa Schreib, the park’s manager of regional development and tourism. The local police and mountain rescue service mounted a search and found the hikers just before midnight, a local news outlet reported. They were taken to a hospital for hypothermia.

The incident was typical, Ms. Schreib said, of what the park’s employees had seen since the pandemic hit: a new crowd of people — many of them young city dwellers — visiting for the first time, and often unprepared and uninformed. It was, she said, a challenge to manage all of these new visitors, some of whom were aggressive toward rangers and other guests, while also allowing for social distancing and protecting the health of the park’s small staff.

If the trend of nature-seeking tourism persists after the pandemic — and there’s evidence that it will — then experts say the continent’s protected areas will require a significant increase in investment to deal with a surge in nature-based tourism that could bring jobs and income into Europe’s rural areas, which have been steadily emptying out for more than half a century. The trick will be accommodating all of those visitors sustainably — and finding a way to finance the work.

The Swiss National Park in eastern Switzerland had its busiest summer on record, with visitation an estimated 50 percent above normal.Credit…Getty Images

While Ms. Schreib and her colleagues were busy managing crowds, the Swiss National Park — a nature reserve in eastern Switzerland and the oldest national park in the Alps — had its busiest summer on record. The data are still being tabulated, but park officials estimate that visitor numbers in 2020 were 50 percent higher than normal. And it was a new crowd: A survey conducted over the summer revealed that 40 percent of respondents had not been to the Swiss National Park at any point in the previous decade. The park’s staff noticed the difference.

“We have more than doubled the amount of fines this year compared to other years,” said Sonja Wipf, the Head of Research and Monitoring at the Swiss National Park, who noted that the fines were primarily for bringing a dog into the park, leaving marked trails and disturbing wildlife with loud noise or unruly behavior, including flying drones.

Overcrowding, irresponsible behavior and parking issues were among the top challenges identified in the study, led by researchers at the University of Cambridge, that analyzed the experiences of 14 European protected areas during the coronavirus pandemic. All of the areas saw an increase in visitors from the previous year, especially during the summer.

The study identified some of the most effective responses to the year’s challenges, including public information campaigns, online education programs and careful planning of visitors’ movements.

But finding the time and money to implement those responses is another matter, especially given that, unlike in the United States, very few national parks in Europe charge visitors an entrance fee.

“I think in the early days we were simply coping,” said Sarah Fowler, the chief executive of England’s Peak District National Park, an expanse of limestone gorges and moorland plateaus within an hour’s drive of more than 16 million people. Ms. Fowler added that the park has a ranger team of about two dozen to cover 555 square miles. The park normally relies on a broad network of volunteers to supplement the rangers’ work, Ms. Fowler said, but this year the volunteers’ contributions were reduced to meet government requirements on Covid-19.

It was a similar story in France’s Parc National des Ecrins, home to nearly 25,000 acres of glaciers, as well as some 150 peaks that rise above 9,800 feet.

“The context is that we’ve been losing staff for the last 10 years or so,” said Pierrick Navizet, the park’s head of tourism and communications.

The park’s budget has been finalized for next year, and its staff will be reduced by one. He wasn’t optimistic about the odds of getting more reinforcements down the line.

“The French government is trying to control public spending, so I don’t think there will be job creation in national parks,” he said. “But if there were, that would be good news.”

In Finland, Sipoonkorpi National Park, a forested area outside Helsinki that is popular with hikers, will probably end up with a 200 percent increase in visitors this year, said Henrik Jansson, the regional director for coastal and metropolitan areas for Metsahallitus, Finland’s parks and wildlife service. Mr. Jansson said that the parks system got new government funds even before the pandemic hit, which helped them respond to the year’s challenges. But it was still a sprint, especially at the beginning.

“For two weeks we were working almost 24 hours a day and weekends to get things right,” Mr. Jansson said of the early stages of the pandemic, adding that now they have settled into “a kind of new normal.”

The Finnish government has allocated some of its Covid-19 funding for the construction of parking areas at the national parks, Mr. Jansson said, adding that proposals are now being drawn up for the creation of two new national parks in Finland. He said that any new funding would more likely be used to engage external service providers, rather than hire a lot of new staff.

“We can’t employ too much,” he said, “because we know that at some point, this funding will end.”

Peak District National Park in northern England is within an hour’s drive of some 16 million people, many of whom are only now, during the pandemic, discovering the park.Credit…Paul Ellis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Will all of the new visitors return after the pandemic fades? Officials at several parks expressed their belief that the crowds would continue in 2021 and beyond, although perhaps to a lesser degree.

“We’ve really seen, post lockdown, that hunger to get outdoors, to reconnect with nature,” said Ms. Fowler, of the Peak District National Park. “There’s a huge realization that it supports our mental well-being, our own recovery.”

A continued influx of nature-seeking visitors may be good news for humanity, but it will no doubt continue to strain the protected areas they are visiting. James Hardcastle, director of the Green List program at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, described national parks and other conservation areas as “a vital service,” and said that governments across Europe need to support them “in a much more deliberate way.”

“It’s an area that’s being overlooked completely, across the board,” Mr. Hardcastle said. “Even before Covid, most countries were rolling back the allocation of resources to the nature conservation sector, to parks in particular.”

Finland’s Sipoonkorpi National Park, a forested area outside Helsinki that is popular with hikers, may end up with a 200 percent increase in visitors this year.Credit…Getty Images

But funding national parks and other highly controlled natural areas is an expensive proposition, said Frans Schepers, co-founder and managing director of Rewilding Europe, an initiative that aims to promote “rewilding” as a new approach to conservation across the continent. He argues that policymakers and land managers need to embrace less intensive and more cost-effective ways to manage and generate income from the continent’s many natural areas, not just its national parks.

In 2016, Rewilding Europe launched its own travel business, the European Safari Company, which aims to bring tourists — and their money — into rural areas, primarily in Southern and Eastern Europe. The company works with local guides and tourism operators in places like Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Italy to help them develop wildlife-watching tours, bison- and wolf-tracking escapes and other diversions. The goal, said Mr. Schepers, is to make nature and wildlife the basis for a new economy in these rural areas, where populations have been on the decline for decades.

“This is how new life can be brought into these areas that are suffering,” Mr. Schepers said. “We just need to make sure that nature-based tourism is done in the right way and that it will support conservation and not just exploit it.”

And while government funding for national parks might still be in short supply, Mr. Schepers praised recent policy developments in Brussels, where European policymakers are crafting ambitious targets and policies on issues like land restoration and tree planting. With rural landscapes emptying out, he said, Europe now had “a historic opportunity” to return its landscapes to a more natural state.

Along the Mediterranean, the pandemic has helped to drive interest in exactly these types of tourism experiences, said Carla Danelutti, executive secretary of the MEET Network, an association of protected areas and tourism operators that promotes high-quality ecotourism in the Mediterranean region.

“Covid has been supporting this model that we set up,” said Ms. Danelutti, who noted that tourism in the Mediterranean has traditionally focused on “sun and sand” rather than guided nature walks and visits to traditional farms. Before the pandemic, she and her colleagues had to pursue tourism operators to try to recruit them to the network. Now the businesses are calling them.

The private sector can help to fill the gaps, but protected areas will continue to require the support of their governments, said Dr. Jones of the University of Cambridge.

“With the Covid crisis, there are so many things at the moment that require the support of the state. We’re all a bit concerned that nature will not be a priority,” she said.

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