While the State and private land-owners argue about admission fees, nature continues to suffer
For centuries, Icelanders have enjoyed the right to see first-hand all of Iceland’s natural treasures. The privilege is safeguarded by ‘Almannaréttur’ (“Everyman’s Right”) in Iceland’s Nature Conservation Law:
“People are permitted, without expressed permission from landowners or rights holders, to walk, ski, skate and use a non-motorised sled or travel in a comparable fashion through non-cultivated land and stay there. Under special circumstances though, it is permissible to put up signs on gates and steps to restrict or ban people from passing through or staying on fenced off, uncultivated land in the country if it is necessary for utilising or protecting it.”
Although the law remains in effect, its viability has recently come into question as the unfettered influx of tourism to the island continues, with its accompanying demand for maintenance and upkeep.
Kerfélagið (“The Kerið Association”), which owns land around Kerið in Grímsnes, South Iceland, has been charging visitors a fee to visit the astonishing volcanic crater for the past year. In the face of some very vocal criticism and despite legal uncertainty, Kerfélagið has nonetheless continued collecting fees from tourists and travel agencies, which it says will fund preservation efforts to counteract the damage caused by increased foot traffic.
However, it now seems that whatever its rationale, Kerfélagið’s attempts at profiting from the natural phenomenon must come to an end.
As June drew to a close, Kristín Linda Árnadóttir, the head of the Environment Agency of Iceland (EAI), sent the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources a memorandum stating that Kerfélagið’s actions were in breach of Icelandic law. After a year of unobstructed fare collection, Kerfélagið must cease and desist, or else its members must pay a fine of 350,000 ISK and/or spend up to two years in prison.
Kerfélagið maintain they have the right to charge admission, but actually, the law leaves little room for interpretation. According to the Nature Conservation Law, the EAI is the only party allowed to charge admission to sites that are on the Nature Conservation Register, as is Kerið. While the law allows the agency to work out special agreements in which other parties can manage individual sites on the register, and collect fees to safeguard the environment, no such agreement has been made with the proprietors of Kerið.
The number of foreign visitors travelling to Iceland has been rapidly increasing, growing from 320,000 in 2003 to 870,000 last year and the Icelandic Tourist Industry Association expects these numbers to reach one million in 2015. This obviously translates to more strain on the environment, and will demand a more rigorous upkeep of tourist “hot spots.”
The Nature Pass That Came And Went
In an interview with RÚV last year, Kerfélagið Managing Director Gunnar O. Skaptason said that he and his colleagues grew weary of waiting for a government solution and decided to collect a 350 ISK fee from every visitor in order to finance the necessary infrastructure to protect the fragile environment from permanent damage.
A few months after Kerfélagið started collecting fees last year, a committee headed by Minister of Industry and Commerce Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir convened several times with the aim of proposing an efficient method to regulate access to Icelandic nature and raise the necessary funds to counter any damage caused by tourism. Out of these meetings, the idea for the so-called “Nature Pass” was born. This across-the-board solution would require those intending to explore Icelandic nature to purchase a pass that would grant them access to natural sites around the country. The proceeds from pass sales would then go to the maintenance and upkeep of these locations, in an effort to make them sustainable and shield them from permanent harm.
Such a pass would grant entry to every national park and State-owned nature site, and compliance would be enforced through random checks by the authorities instead of erecting tollbooths and fences that obstruct the view. Private landowners could also opt to include their sites among those under the umbrella of the Nature Pass, in return for a cut of the proceeds. Ragnheiður Elín was to present parliament with detailed Nature Pass bill this past spring.
In March, Ragnheiður Elín optimistically proclaimed that there was little opposition to the Nature Pass idea from private owners. However, the three landowner associations that the Grapevine contacted in April were all reluctant to join or endorse the programme, citing their distrust in the government’s ability to fairly distribute the funds amassed. After all, if landowners can collect the fees themselves, they can allocate the funds as they see fit, instead of being required to use them how and where the State decides.
The bill never came to a vote. And it won’t. Ragnheiður Elín recently announced that the government has moved on from the Nature Pass idea, and is looking at other options.
The Geysir Debacle
Another noted natural treasure which has been in the spotlight is Geysir in South Iceland. Host to around 150 different types of plants and moss, the area’s ecosystem is very delicate. It has also made the EAI’s list of 10 sites in danger of suffering permanent damage from foot traffic. In March of this year, Landeigendafélag Geysis (“The Landowners’ Association Of Geysir”) started charging visitors 600 ISK to entry the area, but have since been forced to stop.
Unlike Kerið, Geysir isn’t on the Nature Conservation Register because that would require the permission of the landowners. Spokesperson Garðar Eiríksson is proud to say he that he has opposed this registration for the past few decades. In this case, the fee-collecting efforts were thwarted because the landowners unilaterally decided to start charging admission to fund protective measures without consulting a minority owner of the site, which just so happens to be the Icelandic State. The State filed an injunction, forbidding the admission charge, and now the matter is getting ready to enter the courts, a process that will presumably take the rest of the year.
“The area has deteriorated a lot recently,” Garðar says. “We get up to 700,000 guests per year, and we have a lot of expenses, such as paying people to supervise guests and garbage disposal. We have to raise funds to turn things around. It may sound harsh, but nothing is free in this world.”
Garðar also argues that the landowners should get paid fairly for the use of their land, citing the constitution’s right to property. Several tour guides visit every day with coaches full of people, making money from the Geysir area. “Everyone but us, it seems, is allowed to profit from the use of our land,” Garðar says. In the meantime, the landowners have no way of raising funds to protect the area, other than through rarely-used donation boxes.
Lack Of Solutions
There is widespread agreement between nature conservationists, the State and land owners alike that sitting idly by and hoping that the environment miraculously recovers by itself is not an option. However, a solution that everyone can agree with is nowhere in sight. In an interview with state broadcaster RÚV, Ragnheiður Elín ruled out forbidding landowners of private land which is not on the Nature Conservation Registry from collecting fees, stating instead that she wishes to find a comprehensive solution. This sentiment was shared by Kristín of the EAI in her letter to the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources, which expressed a desire for a simple method of collecting fees that didn’t invalidate the Everyman’s Right.
For now, the State has announced it will spend roughly 700 million ISK this summer towards improving the safety measures, foot paths and observation posts in State-owned national parks and nature sites. In addition, a newly-introduced room and board tax has two fifths of its proceeds (estimated around 80-100 million ISK) earmarked for further environmental protection developments. For the most part, privately owned sites are not getting any of this funding.
And so, until an all-encompassing solution is found that private landowners and the State can agree on, high traffic sites will continue to deteriorate.