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Europe’s largest national park established amid criticisms

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Stefan Helgi Valsson  Jun 12, 2008

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (eTN) - Iceland’s Vatnajokull National Park is Europe’s largest national park, Icelandic Enviroment Minister Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir proclaimed last Saturday.

“Vatnajokull glacier represents Iceland in the same way the Eiffel tower represents France,” said Mr. Arni Finnsson, chairperson of the INCA (Iceland Nature Conservation Association), who welcomed the park’s proclamation.

Vatnajokull National Park includes Europe’s largest glacier in its entirety, some land bordering it as well as land previously belonging to two discontinued national parks. The initial size of the national park is 12,000 square kilometers, which authorities hope to increase to 15,000 square kilometers within the next couple of years.

Inside the borders of Vatnajokull National Park, there is continuous interaction between glaciers and volcanic activity, jokulhlaup (glacier surge), volcanic eruptions and geothermal energy.

“The proclamation of Vatnajokull is the single most important nature conservation project in Iceland’s history,” sais Anna Kristin Olafsdottir, chairperson of the Vatnajokull Committee. “Vatnajokull National Park includes some unique land formations and unique collective landscapes which certainly will lure tourists to the area.”

The number of tourists visiting the area is forecasted to increase, according to Ms. Olof Yrr Atladottir, who is the vice chairperson of the Vatnajokull Committee and Iceland’s tourism director. Speaking at the park’s inauguration on Saturday, Ms. Atladottir said evaluations made in connection with the establishment of the park suggest 7 percent increase in visitor numbers each year until 2012, providing 150 new jobs and generating additional US$160 million for the area.

The new Vatnajokull National Park is named after Vatnajokull glacier which covers about 8 percent of Iceland’s surface. The glacier’s average thickness is 400 meters and covers 8,100 square kilometers, which makes it Europe’s largest glacier.

Two smaller national parks, Skaftafell NP in the South East of the country and Jokulsargljufur NP in the North East, have been discontinued. Both discontinued national parks have been incorporated into the new Vatnajokull National Park, as well as the entire Vatnajokull glacier and some areas bordering it.

Vatnajokull NP’s management policy is in compliance with International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (ICUN) standards which is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental network. Within the IUCN framework there are six levels of acceptable land use, ranging from little or no protection to that of total protection where access is limited to scientists. Protection in the Vatnajokull NP spans all six levels.

“Sustainability is the key word,” said Olafsdottir, who is hopeful that in future Vatnajokull NP will be included on the UNESCO’s World Heritage Site List, whole or in part. “We hope that Vatnajokull NP will illustrate that environmental protection on the one hand, and an improvement in employment opportunities and local economy on the other hand, can go together.”

The government’s initial plan, proposed ten years ago, was to include 15,000 square kilometers within the NP’s borders. Several farmers in the area are unwilling to allow the government to incorporate what they consider their own private property into Vatnajokull NP. Some of the farmers have legal documents to present their case against the Icelandic State while others can only support their claim by recounting their farm’s traditional use of the land, sometimes over several generations.

Critics of Vatnajokull NP’s nature conservation policy call for stricter regulations for land use, for motorized vehicles and horses, for example.

Critics of the park’s funding say that the government has not made enough money available for this important but giant project. Further, they say the money is incorrectly spent. Instead of improving access to the national park or paying salaries, most of the money is allocated to the construction of four new visitor’s centers. Two visitor’s centers already exist.

Also, critics of the park’s management policy have expressed their concern about possible management problems due to conflicting interests between the 30 stakeholders representing areas around the park.

Europe’s largest national park established amid criticisms

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