The economic value of national parks in Iceland may be easy to overlook. Advocates of national parks tend to guide public debate toward the idea of saving Icelandic nature, but articulating why this is important to policy makers is no small feat, especially when big industry is—as is often the case—making a financial argument on the other side. In fact, no major studies have been done on the economic return of national parks—until now.
Last year, researcher Jukka Siltanen published the findings of his Masters in Science study of Snæfellsjökull National Park, which caught the attention of the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources. His research revealed that this national park brings significant economic returns to the local economy.
Jukka is now conducting a larger research project—commissioned by the Ministry—to study what economic and employment effects national parks have on different regions and rural areas in Iceland.
Nature = $$$?
For his study on Snæfellsjökull, Jukka demonstrated that the overall economic impact of this national park is around 3.9 billion ISK annually. The existence of the park contributes to 700 jobs around the Snæfellsness Peninsula and the capital region, and the investment input versus its output is tremendous. “When you put one ISK into the national park, you get back 58 ISK in total economic impact,” Jukka explains. “The investment value of this national park is extremely high.”
Similarly, Jukka explains that local economies of Icelandic municipalities could benefit enormously from national parks and protected areas. “A 45-year study in the U.S. showed that rural communities sustained themselves because national parks and protected areas provided jobs in ways unparalleled by other industries,” he says. “Also, the money from national parks circulates within the local community, instead of landing in the pockets of foreign industry giants, which is often the case with power plants.”
This is a telling revelation, seeing as foreign-owned heavy industry in Iceland is often touted as a local revenue booster, as was the case with the recent Hvalárvirkjun hydropower plant.
Jukka adds that protected areas such as national parks could also help to turn the negative impacts of over-tourism into something positive. “Why not think of protected areas as a tool to manage what tourists are doing to Icelandic nature?” he asks. “If the nature were protected, there would be rangers to educate and manage tourists, and we could build infrastructure to prevent damage from tourism.”
Jukka plans to share the results of his current study in November, when the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources hosts an environmental assembly. By speaking in fact-driven, monetary terms, his research appears to be having a tangible impact on environmental thinking at Government level.
“The Ministry has been very driven in the topic,” Jukka says. “They want to promote wider knowledge of the benefits of national parks. With this new data, it becomes a value decision: can we justify not investing in protected areas?”