This is a wild land, country of my choice, With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
– Robert Graves, Excerpt from Rocky Acres
Established in 1951, Snowdonia National Park was the first designated national park in Wales, encompassing an area of 823 square miles, with diverse geographic regions including coast, mountains and woodlands. Snowdonia gets its name from its highest peak (tallest mountain in Wales), Snowden, which is 3,560 feet. Most land in the park is private at around 90 percent, with about 9 percent owned by the National Trust and less than 1 percent owned by the National Park Authority, which governs the area. 26,000 people live in the park, with 62 percent of the total population speaking Welsh (the park authority itself is actually a Welsh-speaking office). Tourism and agriculture largely drives the local economy, with a hole in the middle of the park where slate quarrying and mining activities occur.
What immediately caught our interest was Snowdonia’s unique mixture of private and public land. In the United States, national parks consist of public land held by the federal government in trust for the American people. Snowdonia, on the other hand, operates more like the Adirondack Park in Upstate New York, the largest park in the United States at 6.1 million acres, consisting of only about 43 percent public land. Managing these type of parks, public and private, require a more holistic perspective that goes beyond just environmental conservation and public access, but also considers local economic development, affordable housing, etc. Therefore, a development plan or master land use plan is adopted solely for the national park in keeping with the national spatial plan and surrounding local and regional plans. The governing entity for the area is the Snowdonia National Park Authority, which reports directly to the Welsh government.
It is a gloomy, rainy morning when we cycle into Penrhyndeudraeth, the location of the Snowdonia National Park main offices. Unfortunately, we had cycled in from the cycle route we were following, rather than the main road, so we got hopelessly lost looking for the office, engaging several locals in conversation before finally arriving at our destination. Thankfully, our interviewee, Iwan Evans, Interim Head of Planning and Policy, is there to greet us with some hot tea and two surprise colleagues, Rebeca Jones and Carys Dafydrl, Senior Planning Officer and Community Officer respectively. After entertaining us with the Welsh version of who really discovered America (Prince Madoc, a Welsh ruler, 300 years prior), Iwan, Rebeca and Carys, are happy to answer all of our questions pertaining to land access in the park and some of the successes and challenges encountered in planning for it.
Our first question pertains to access – if most land in the park is private, then how can it be considered a park? In England and Wales, the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000 gives individuals (mainly pedestrians) certain rights to access land or paths. In some cases, the public has a right of way on public footpaths on private land, some of which are hundreds of years old. People on foot have a right to walk on these paths, but in some cases, land that is classified as “access land” allows the public to deviate from paths and roam freely on the land. Such land includes mountain, moor, heath, down, and registered common land. Rebeca looks up the figure for us; 60 percent of land in Snowdonia National Park is public access land. While people may not own the land, they certainly have a right to access it, though with some restrictions (cyclists don’t have this right). At this point in our discussion, all three rave about the Coastal Path, a public footpath that apparently covers the entire coast of Wales, making Wales the only country in the world to have such a path (not all of this path is in the park mind you, but we thought we’d mention it for walking/hiking enthusiasts).
Next, we chat about some of the complexities and challenges of planning for the park. For example, how does the park authority balance environmental protection and economic development for the individual communities? Taking a clear environmental stance, Iwan cites a recent ARUP study that demonstrated that environmental protection brings economic benefits. After all, in the interest of tourism, who would want to visit a place that had been mostly destroyed? According to our interviewees, the park authority typically does not grant planning permission for people to build in the middle of the country or to mine in the park, actually keeping building to inside “settlement” or growth boundaries. Still, there are checks and balances, with the communities inside the park highly involved with the process and guardian entities (organizations invested in the park) able to make objections to planning decisions.
Another challenge in planning for the park is affordable housing. Because the park is a hot spot for second home vacationers (14% of housing), in recent years housing prices in the area have skyrocketed, jeopardizing the future for families that have been living in the park for centuries, not the mention the culture of park communities. National parks already tend to be more expensive places to live than elsewhere in the country. According to Rebeca, the park authority has been combatting this reality by mandating that a certain amount of new housing be affordable and designated for local residents. An entire separate plan is dedicated to this crisis.
As we move onto successes, Carys chimes in with her experiences managing the Snowdonia for All program that has been in place since the passing of the Disability Discrimination Act of 2005 in the UK (access is a particular interest of mine, given involvement in various community organizations working with people with disabilities since my early 20s). At this point in time, Carys was responsible for writing the equality plan for the park, involving the consultation of various groups, the main thrust being people with disabilities. Now, the park has for its eighth year, hosted a monthly walk for the blind and visually impaired, even tackling Snowden last year. Additionally, Carys works hand in hand with many local organizations, organizing walks, environmental therapy programs, kayaking excursions, and conservation work programs. The park continues to move forward with a view that it is part of their mission to enhance community health and well-being through access and involvement with the environment.
We end our meeting discussing an exciting purchase made by the park using the heritage lottery fund and various grants – a homestead owned by a Welsh poet surrounded in folklore. Hedd Wyn was killed at the Battle of Pilkem Ridge in 1917 and then posthumously awarded one of the highest honors given to Welsh poets, the National Eisteddfod Chair. The chair was draped in a black cloth meant to represent a generation of Welsh youth lost in World War I. The chair has been known forever after as “the black chair.” The farm, Yr Ysgwrn, and the chair were purchased in 2012, highlighting the importance of poetry to the Welsh people and commemorating those lost to war.
Accommodating to the very end, Iwan helps us chart out our route across Snowdonia using a couple large park maps (he is well-acquainted with cycling the roads) and Rebeca offers us more tea as well as a place to refill our water bottles and eat lunch before we go back out into the rain. We are still wishing we had thought to take some hot tea with us, because the rest of that day was pretty nasty (see post, Yes, There are Mountains in Wales). Thank you to Iwan, Rebeca and Carys for a wonderful visit and informative interview!