National Parks ‘face balancing act’ in returning to normal

Yorkshire’s National Parks will face a difficult balancing act in managing conflicting interests as they plan their return to normality, some of their leaders have said.

Sarah Fowler, chief executive of the Peak District National Park Authority

After a bruising month which has seen the tourism landscape decimated and many businesses threatened, they have spoken of a “long haul” before visitor numbers can return to their pre-lockdown levels.

Inevitably there is going to be an economic impact,” said Sarah Fowler, chief executive of the Peak District National Park, which covers parts of West and South Yorkshire as well as vast swathes of Derbyshire. “But it’s also a question of managing the environmental and social recovery. We have to look at all three in the round.”

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The social impact has seen increasing distrust between residents and visitors, with some rights of way closed and notices posted to warn off visitors.

Ms Fowler said the responsibility lay with both sides. “With the right to access a National Park comes a responsibility to care for it, and with the right to live in a National Park comes a responsibility of being a custodian for the nation,” she told The Yorkshire Post.

“No matter where you are, that anxiety about spreading the virus is going to be there. I live in a small town and people use the path that runs behind my garden. You have to accept that people need to get outdoors in their own locality.”

David Butterworth, chief executive of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, said the Government faced “a real problem” in communicating a new sense of wellbeing when the time was right to lift the restrictions on social distancing.

“The apprehension is going to remain for some considerable time. I’m expecting quite a long haul,” he said.

Yet the enforced separation from the parks had underlined their importance to the wider community, said Andy Wilson, chief executive of the National Park Authority in the North York Moors, who added that it was “not too early” to take stock of positive outcomes from the lockdown.

“The National Parks will return bigger and stronger,” he said. “There will be a bounce back and a very strong one.

“The position we’re in now has reminded us how important the connection to nature really is. It has even jolted even people who were not customary walkers into not taking the countryside for granted.”

“I get the impression from the public that the idea of a return to nature is growing stronger, the longer that people are locked up. So the will is there for a great return to the countryside.

He praised the behaviour of “the vast majority of people” who had “not only accepted but embraced” the official guidance on staying away.

“The fact that they have done this without heavy-handedness is terrific,” he added.

Both he and Ms Fowler also said the parks could be instrumental in helping to improve lives in a post-pandemic world, in the way they had done after the Second World War, when they were conceived as a “reward” for returning service personnel.

“The National Parks were born from a movement in the Peak District, of people who wanted to care for the countryside for returning war heroes, and of people in the cities who were demanding access to that countryside,” Ms Fowler said.

The Peak District, the first area of the UK to be designated a National Park in April 1951, will mark its 70th anniversary next spring, and its chief executive said: “I see that as a landmark.

“Its purpose in this time is as important as it was 70 years ago. We need to care for the countryside for those key workers who are going to be here in the future.”

Mr Wilson added: “It’s a question of forging a better world, as we did after the Second World War. Working from home, once you know how to do it, has proved that a lot of the business journeys we used to make were not necessary and by shifting away from those, we can cut down carbon emissions permanently.

“We may not need to do as much rushing about in the future but we can have better and more fulfilling lives for less effort.”

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