From Iceland — Controversy Surrounding Proposed Highlands National Park

Controversy Surrounding Proposed Highlands National Park

Published December 11, 2020

Photo by
Timothée Lambrecq

The Highlands of Iceland is one of the largest undeveloped areas in all of Europe, covering some 40,000 square kilometres of Arctic desert, glaciers and mountains. Accessible only during a brief window of summer due to its elevation and other factors, it is a point of pride for many Icelanders.

As such, it is probably unsurprising that the government wants to make the Highlands a national park, with the stated goal of “improv[ing] and strengthen[ing] Iceland’s image as a nation supporting the preservation of pristine land and wildlife and will be of tremendous benefit to all those who visit Iceland as well as to Icelanders themselves. The national park will be a sanctuary for those who wish to enjoy the natural environment of the central highland, and who take pleasure in outdoor activities and relish the first-hand experience of pure nature.”

However, the proposal has been met with concerted criticism and is being hotly debated in Parliament—even amongst parties within the ruling coalition—and objections have also been raised by rural municipalities and tourism industry workers.

How it started

The establishment of a national park for the Highlands was part of the joint policy agreement of the then-newly elected ruling coalition—the Left-Greens, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party—in November 2017. Over three years later, on December 1st, a bill on its establishment with submitted to Parliament.

Minister for the Environment Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson formally introduced the bill a week later. The first round of discussions on the bill lasted some nine hours. Upon conclusion, the bill was referred to the Environment and Communications Committee for further work. It is uncertain if the bill will complete its journey to passage or failure by the end of the parliamentary session, or by next autumn’s elections.

What’s the issue?

Criticisms of the Highlands National Park proposal come from many points of view. Independence Party MP Jón Gunnarsson—himself the vice chair of the Environment and Communications Committee—criticised the short window of time being given to work out the finer points of the bill, as well as what other interests it might affect.

Those interests are indeed numerous. A number of rural municipal territories are covered by the proposed area for the national park, with some of these municipalities raising objections that it constitutes the national government running roughshod over these small rural towns.

Another issue raised was the cost, and where exactly the money will come from. Guðmundur himself says it will likely cost close to a billion ISK over the next five years, but believes that tourism money and employment opportunities within the park will help offset the costs.

Tourism and freedom of movement

Perhaps the biggest objections being raised comes from the tourism industry. The Highlands National Park proposal is currently the hottest topic within groups such as Bakland Ferðaþjónustunnar, a Facebook group for tourism industry workers.

The most common criticism of the proposed park that can be found in this group is that it will restrict and limit access to an area which covers roughly a third of the country. Many of them cite the repeated issues that have arisen with the Vatnjökull National Park, where tourism companies have had to turn people away from the area due to unfit conditions and other issues. A great many of them express worries that the establishment of an even larger area of Iceland into a national park will bring with it an increase of rules and regulations, most of all a capacity limit for the area, such as has been done with Vatnajökull National Park, that will deter tourists—even though one of the express purposes of the Highland National Park is to encourage tourism.

That said, Guðmundur has gone on record offering assurances that any regulations placed on the Highlands National Park, including a tourist quota, would be done in full cooperation with all companies and municipalities operating in the area.

“A whining minority”

While Guðmundur seems to be trying to be diplomatic about the matter, a less diplomatic statement was made in Parliament last Tuesday by Parliamentary President Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, who characterised critics of the Highlands National Park as “a whining minority” trying to force the issue their way.

With this reaction, and the persistent criticisms in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that a petition objecting to the establishment of a Highlands National Park is at the time of this writing up to over 11,000 signatures.

A long ways to go

There is little doubt that Icelanders love the Highlands. Poll after poll has shown that most Icelanders want to protect one of Europe’s last remaining wildernesses.

However, given the number of raised objections, the strength of the pushback, and the numerous issues that are still unresolved, it is quite unlikely that the Highlands National Park is going to become a reality any time soon. When a bill from the government raises objections from MPs from within that government especially, it is a strong indication that there is still a lot of work to do and a long ways to go.

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