In many parts of the world nature is monetized, access controlled, and only the well-off can afford to get outdoors. Do we want to see that anywhere in the UK?
We'd normally think of Scotland as a beacon of progressive access legislation, the least likely place for regulations and charges. But this year things have come to a head. While free access to the countryside is enshrined in Scottish law, problems can arise if we all seek to exercise that right at once, without sufficient awareness of our personal impact. Crowding, litter, 'dirty camping' and convoys of campervans reached a new peak this summer, while facilities on the ground have been largely inadequate to meet the post-lockdown demand. As a result, local communities have felt under siege, and calls have mounted for extreme measures such as regulated access and visitor charges.
Emily Donoho asks: are the ideals of public enjoyment of the outdoors at odds with the needs of conservation; and how might we steer a path towards a healthier, more equitable balance?
Although this is mainly a hillwalking and climbing site, I'll begin with a story about a kayaker. Deborah Anderson, a specialist foster carer from Aberdeenshire, was out on the shores of Loch Assynt on July 7th with her husband, Terry, and three of the teenagers in their care. Deborah was a having cup of tea in their van while Terry was at the lochside, getting the boats ready. A man drove up in a Freelander and started shouting at the teenagers. Deborah stepped out of the van to see what the commotion was. On her Facebook page, she wrote that she was approached by "an aggressive, intimidating male who told me he did not want those boats in his loch. When I politely asked him why, he informed me 'that the loch was protected and that I would need to get in touch with the landowners to get permission.'"
Though Deborah knew that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act of 2003 gave her the right to paddle in the loch, she asked the man for the landowners' contact details. Deborah told me, "He was unable to answer any of questions coherently," but he suggested that there were multiple landowners, "And I should ask in the village." The man eventually retreated into his car and drove away. Deborah, who spends most weekends hillwalking or kayaking around the northwest, was shaken. She'd never encountered that sort of hostility before.
Before chipping away at access rights, we should look at the benefits of our unique laws, which have the potential to give people a sense of equality and develop an appreciation and respect for the natural world
It's not surprising that some locals in the Highlands are at their wits' end and even experienced outdoor-users are encountering some hostility. By now, the hillwalking and climbing community and everyone else will be aware of the visitors flooding the Highlands (as elsewhere in the UK), the 'dirty' camping on loch sides and beaches, the littering, the overpacked car parks, and cars parked in the middle of roads. It's been picking up national news coverage.
It's also not surprising that people cooped up in their homes for months are desperate to rush outside and travel. There's pent up wanderlust and frustration, and people feel entitled to the holidays they couldn't take earlier this year. Meanwhile, the government has promoted the 'staycation,' although I never want to read that word again. Can't you just call it a trip? For some, this means raves and parties on beaches, an ongoing problem in places like Arisaig and Loch Morlich. On sunny weekends in July, many places, including Arisaig and Morar, the far north, Glen Etive, Loch Tummel, and Loch Rannoch were overwhelmed by tents, campervans, and, unfortunately, badly-behaved or just clueless campers.
This is a perfect storm: the fear of the virus, the enthusiastic uptake of camping and outdoor pursuits by novices seemingly unfamiliar with the Scottish Outdoor Access Code (SOAC), and the large numbers of visitors has Highland communities on edge about everyone. Moreover, groups are popping up all over Facebook, with names like "NC500 The Land Weeps," "Glen Etive the dirty truth," and "stop trashing Mallaig Morar Arisaig," where people are posting pictures of and complaining about rubbish, abandoned campsites, human excrement, toilet paper, damaged fences, chopped down trees, and the herds of parked campervans and tents. The NC500 group now has over 6000 members.
Many of the people posting on these groups say they would like to see informal camping banned. Others have more draconian suggestions, including closing the Glen Etive road. "An other [sic] way forward might be the Canadian National Park approach" one user of the NC500 group offered, "where you need a permit to enter and permit prices reflect the length of your stay. It is either patrolled by park rangers or by payment stations at entry and exit points. Perhaps Sutherland or indeed the entire area North of Inverness could be a National Park?" Someone else on that group wrote, "I propose a congestion charge on all entry points to the Highland Council area using the same technology as London." Jamie Stone, the MP for Caithness and Sutherland, has taken up that petition.
In Scotland the assumption has long been that unenclosed land, the mountains, glens, and lochs, should be accessible to everyone, from dirtbag climbers to working class families. Yet as tourism increases, it's becoming apparent that openness and accessibility are double-edged swords
The Scottish Government may be unlikely to implement the more extreme ideas, but they illustrate the degree to which locals are fed up. Cameras tracking every road journey? Why not if it stops people from trashing the beaches? Much of their ire is well-deserved. Along with the litter and waste issues, people have reported visitors camping in cemeteries, children's playparks, and farmer's fields - and even Prime Ministers have been at it. The SOAC calls for responsible access, and most of what's angering people isn't.
Still, amidst the photos of rubbish, loo roll, faeces, and fire scorch marks, there are photos of tents and campervans just sitting there, parked or pitched legally. The inhabitants of the vans and tents haven't yet committed an offence. Locals complain that the informal campers are 'freeloaders,' wanting something for nothing, and they don't put money into the community. When someone on the NC500 page pointed out that permits or forcing everyone into B&Bs, hotels, and expensive campsites would make the Highlands unaffordable and inaccessible to many, another user responded, "If it's not affordable then save up until it is. I'd like to go to the Galápagos Islands but until I can afford to go then I won't."
There are many places in the world where nature is monetized, access difficult, and only the well-off can afford to see it. Nature becomes exclusive. Ostensibly, this protects wildlife and habitats, but there are markets involved. On one hand, it could be argued that the astronomical prices are for the public good by helping to save endangered wildlife and preserve delicate landscapes; but on the other hand, charging for access to nature widens the schism between people and the natural world. Why should anyone care about something they can't afford to see? For example, it can easily cost $170 a night to stay in an African national park.
My brother, Forrest, has been working as a high school teacher in Zimbabwe for the past six years. He told me about a place called the Malilangwe Trust, a private concession for rhino started by the Jones family, of Dow Jones. "It's one of the only places to see the rhino in Zim," he explained. "But for the rich, started by the rich, because their capitalist system killed the rhino." He added. "People born here, even in villages neighbouring parks, haven't seen major wildlife like lions ever in their lives. Access is too expensive for average people here." When people lose that connection to nature, they don't care about it. Forrest said, "I've had to instruct people working for parks to not burn and bury trash."
Similarly, the United States has one of the finest national park systems in the world, but they've never been particularly accessible to poor, non-white, or non-able bodied demographics. The national parks charge around $25 to enter on a day pass, more if you want to camp or backpack or raft, and most are hundreds of miles away from urban areas (though that's nobody's fault). Marcela Maldonado, the Preserve Stewardship Coordinator for nature conservancies in Mt. Kisco, New York, wrote, "Before the pandemic hit, we [the United States] were already facing a lack of equity in participation and access to nature and outdoor spaces[…] The people who are most impacted by lack of access to nature right now are also those who have been systematically excluded from outdoor spaces and nature. The pandemic has put a spotlight on this inequity."
The law doesn't recognize tensions between access takers and the potential for overuse, and its measures for dispute resolution are slow and clumsy. Which is how we find ourselves faced with a reckoning
Unlike African safaris or American parks or even most of England's land area, Scottish hills have never been solely the preserve of the landowning elite (although there are a lot of Victorian hunting lodges). The history of Scottish mountaineering is replete with stories of dossing in derelict sheds or under bridges or roadside camps. Mick Fowler wrote of the Sligachan Hotel in the mid-80s, "Its derelict (now demolished) garages provided superb accommodation for the discerning weekend dosser." Or David Hughes, writing of his first ascent of Yo-yo with Robin Smith, recalling, "We camped at the head of Glencoe.[…] Those of course were the days you could leave your belongings with security at any roadside or campsite, sure that they would still be there when you came back." It's not the '60s anymore, but I have climbing friends who have lived out of their cars and vans, eating ramen. I've spent countless nights sleeping in a car or tent at the base of a mountain, having rushed to the Highlands from Glasgow late in the evening to catch a spell of good weather. Are we all 'freeloaders?'
"The road to roam is one of the most wonderful things about Scotland," said Ken Ilgunas, author of Walden on Wheels and Trespassing Across America. He has worked as a park ranger in Alaska, lives near Edinburgh, and has written extensively about the access laws of a number of different countries. "You feel like a free person in Scotland," he reflected while we chatted on a Facebook call. He is currently stranded in the US, thanks to coronavirus. "We're not confined to our lawns, like in North America. This makes us healthier, more equal, more together."
In Scotland, where 83% of land is privately owned, the conception has long been held that unenclosed land, the mountains, glens, and lochs, should still be accessible to everyone, from dirtbag climbers to working class families. It's the philosophy of 'the commons' – no one has more of a right to the hills than anyone else, no matter where they live, and owning a mountain doesn't give you the right to throw someone off it. A musician from Angus wrote on the NC500 page, "Wild camping is not new. I was doing it as a kid in the 1970s with my parents who also had done it as kids. And btw we used to leave the car parked in a layby and camp in the field and then next day go out onto the hills. This is what working class people have done in Scotland for a long time. That was our holiday."
Yet as tourism increases, it's becoming apparent that openness and accessibility are double-edged swords. Highland communities are feeling beleaguered by too many tourists, which probably had something to do with the man shouting at Deborah Anderson, challenging the very notion that Loch Assynt was part of 'the commons.'
"SOAC puts a burden on landowners and communities," acknowledged Malcolm Combe, senior lecturer in law at the University of Strathclyde and author of The Scotways Guide to the Law of Access to Land in Scotland. He is also an avid hillwalker. "Scotland is still getting it into its head how access rights work. It's not as embedded as Swedish and Finnish laws," he told me. But he also said that the idea of land being a common resource has its own history in the Scottish psyche. "People cleared to cities would still have the right to go back to their ancestral lands," he contemplated. Nonetheless, he said that the SOAC doesn't really recognize tensions between access takers and the potential for overuse, and its measures for dispute resolution are slow and clumsy. Which is how we find ourselves faced with a reckoning.
We should teach people to love the countryside, to nourish it, whether it's a canal towpath or the shores of a loch. You don't harm something you love. If it can work in Sweden and Texas, why not in the UK?
I spoke to Davie Black, the access officer for Mountaineering Scotland, and he observed that restrictions on foreign travel and gyms being closed have brought many "new users" out to the countryside. "They may not know how to comport themselves in a rural environment," he said. Although it seems like a no-brainer that people shouldn't trash the place, anyone who has ever walked along the Forth and Clyde Canal or seen an urban industrial estate could tell you that people will dump everything, from beer cans to shopping trolleys.
English rights-of-way campaigner Nick Hayes recently told The Guardian, "The one thing I think is a genuine and valid concern [on the part of landowners] is vandalism and litter. But this is why we need an early and visceral relationship with nature. Children need to learn about dragonflies by having them land on their noses so that as adults they will find it abhorrent to see a Wispa Gold wrapper next to an orchid… [The Countryside Code] shouldn't only tell you to take your litter home; it should tell you to pick up any litter that you find." We should teach our children to love the countryside, to nourish it, whether it's the canal in Glasgow or the shores of Loch Tummel. You don't harm something you love. I'm probably preaching to the choir, saying this to climbers and hillwalkers, but we've been privileged, growing up learning how to love and respect nature. Outwith communities of outdoorsy folk, there is a toxic cultural malaise and indifference towards the environment. Simply banning things won't fix that.
Ken Ilgunas agrees. "Littering is a systemic problem," he said. "It's not just 'a few bad apples.' You have to relentlessly teach kids littering is bad." He offered Sweden as an example. "They have nature schools. They teach kids early on about having a healthy relationship with the environment." The Swedes, which have similar 'right to roam' legislation to Scotland, have also run national anti-litter campaigns, where 8 to 9% of the population has been involved with cleaning up the countryside. When I pointed out that Scandinavians tend to be quite community-oriented, Ken replied that Texas, one of the most individualistic states in the US, also launched a successful anti-littering campaign called 'Don't mess with Texas.' Celebrities pushed an anti-littering message on TV, radios, and billboards, and within a few years, roadside littering dropped 72%, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. If it can work in Texas, why can't it work in the UK?
If one were considering progressive, big picture approaches (and governments rarely do), the lockdown-fallout increase in outdoor activities could be viewed as an opportunity. People want to be outside, so why not teach them how to be outside. "There is more footfall on natural capital due to gyms being closed," acknowledged Malcolm Combe. "It's a stress testing moment." He then reflected, "We have lost part of our cultural ecology. How do you reassemble that?"
In a country with some of the worst health inequalities in Europe, telling people to stay out of the countryside unless they can afford a B&B seems shortsighted, risking a further disconnect from nature. In any case, Davie Black doesn't think "we can put it back in its box." Arguably, we shouldn't. Plenty of studies show that being in nature has vast emotional and cognitive benefits. The NHS has even recognized the benefits of being outside, pioneering a program on Shetland where GPs can prescribe 'nature' as part of a treatment plan for mental illness, high blood pressure, diabetes, among other chronic conditions:
In her book The Nature Fix, Florence Williams writes, "Nature, it turns out, is good for civilization." Later, she exhorts, "Our nervous systems are built to resonate with set points derived from the natural world. Science is now bearing out what the Romantics knew to be true." The book disseminates a series of case studies from all over the world showing how nature, from Glasgow city parks to Singapore roof gardens, to the Utah desert, can have restorative qualities for what John Muir called, "tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people."
Scotland already has a national curriculum, and the Scottish government issued a paper in 2010 espousing the advantages of outdoor learning, which could be enfolded into the curriculum. Before chipping away at access rights, we should look at the benefits of our unique laws, which have the potential to give people a sense of equality and develop an appreciation and respect for the natural world. Not just in Glen Coe, but in our urban areas as well. Ken Ilgunas asked, "How can we make people more responsible access takers? We need to foster a relationship with nature with our urban kids, who don't know how to act in nature."
Yet we still face a difficult conundrum – protecting natural resources while not restricting access to demographics already overrepresented in the outdoor industry. Acknowledging this balancing act, Marcela Maldonado said, "The core guiding principle seems to be we can either protect and steward land by limiting access by the public, or we allow access and risk destroying the natural resource as a result. Further complicating this dichotomy is what we mean by 'access' and which communities get to enjoy the benefits of nature?" Everyone arguing on the internet at least agrees that the hiker who backpacks into the wilderness shouldn't be barred from doing so. But that limits access to people who have traditionally had it – that stereotypical middle-class, able-bodied, white male, who has been able to acquire the gear and experience to backpack into the hills. Although the language permitting roadside camping is a bit ambiguous, it is allowed under the access law, which doesn't distinguish between carrying your tent five metres or five miles. In any case, the SOAC doesn't apply to motorized vehicles. Campervans (and any other vehicle) have the legal right to stop off on most roads under the Road Traffic Act. Nonetheless, if informal camping, be it in tents or vehicles, continues as it is, unfettered, can it be sustainable?
A handful of tents in Glen Etive isn't going to have much of a deleterious impact on the environment, but the cumulative effect of dozens will, even if every one in them is conscientious, buries their waste, and packs out their rubbish. One could also argue that there is some irony in Highland councillors getting angry about tents in the glen, while still allowing the controversial hydro schemes to go forward, but that's a different discussion. Environmental degradation comes in many forms:
In any case, like many other climbers and hillwalkers, I've parked up near the base of a mountain overnight – I've even converted my Skoda into a mini-campervan – and I would be dismayed if camping bans appeared everywhere. Last-minute, affordable climbing trips would become as logistically difficult as last-minute river trips in my home state of Colorado. There you can't run a river without obtaining a permit, months, if not years, in advance. Yet no outdoor enthusiast wants to see the countryside irrevocably damaged or overrun. The right to roam may be precious, but the question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not access and protection are mutually exclusive, and if we can balance them in an equitable land management strategy.
Malcolm Combe told me that the Highland Council has the legal authority to enact a camping ban – similar to the one in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park – anywhere within their jurisdiction. However, it isn't a matter of the council snapping its fingers, and suddenly roadside camping is prohibited. He said that new byelaws like that require lengthy consultations. When I asked the Highland Council what sort of solutions were under consideration, a spokesperson responded, "We are working with partners and with Scottish Government to develop and improve our existing infrastructure and facilities in remote areas. We want to ensure that everyone coming to the Highlands has a positive and welcoming experience. We recognise the popularity of wild camping and campervanning, but would appeal to all visitors to appreciate and respect our world class natural heritage and environment and do not leave any trace of your visit behind." No indications, yet, that they are looking into passing byelaws, although the internet is becoming crowded with petitions and journalists quoting Highland residents asking for roadside camping bans.
Davie Black stressed that Mountaineering Scotland believes it is the behaviour, not the activity, which needs to be tackled. He emphasised that the right of access isn't unqualified. The SOAC expressly prohibits irresponsible camping and promotes responsible access rights. We have laws banning littering, public defecation, and the SOAC doesn't permit camping just outside someone's house, in a historical monument, or in a playpark:
Davie said, "We need eyes on the ground [to enforce these laws]. We need trained people who can defuse a situation. If you have problem areas, you focus on those, with rangers and police." At the moment, there is an online petition to increase the penalties for littering. Education might change people's future behaviour in the countryside, but enforcement deals with it now. We need both carrots and sticks. Mountaineering Scotland is calling for resources to support more rangers and access officers, who can work with communities and tackle problems on a case-by-case basis. And there are fewer 'eyes on the ground' than there were. By 2017, the Highland Council had cut half its ranger service. It once had 22 ranger positions, and it reduced that to 10.5.
People camping in a sensitive, responsible manner will mitigate the impact, but 100 tents in Glen Etive is still 100 tents in Glen Etive. Addressing that, Davie Black suggested, "Creating semi-formal campsites might work. Low cost and semi-wild, with basic facilities." Various internet groups, like the Campaign For Real Aires, have similar ideas, like European-style aires on the outskirts of villages. When the King's House Hotel in Glencoe was sold, we wondered if the new owners would end the tradition of camping out the back. Instead, they built a public toilet, and hopefully, 'jobby woods' now contains fewer jobbies. Harris and Lewis also have community-led projects where they have built basic campsites. If there are convenient, cheap, semi-wild sites for campervans and tents, they will probably attract people, and that might ease the pressure on laybys and roadside sites.
Even that passionate defender of Scottish access laws, Ken Ilgunas, admitted that regulation might be necessary in overused sites. He suggested that it would not be unreasonable to have temporary camping bans but emphasised that they would ideally be fleeting and aimed at specific problem areas. And not everywhere is a problem. Deborah Anderson has since returned to the far north, climbing Arkle, Quinag, and Meall Horn. She only saw a handful of people on those mountains and roadside camped with her boys near Loch Stack. "The A838 was rammed," she said. "But five miles from the main road, there was nobody." Closer to the Central Belt, I hiked up Ben Lawers on July 25th and saw a couple of tents on the loch sides on my drive there, but nothing alarming.
Malcolm Combe speculated that he didn't believe the Scottish government would do anything radical this year, and at this moment, they have indicated that their strategy is targeting anti-social behaviour with existing legislation. Last month in Parliament, Finlay Carson, MSP for Dumfries and Galloway queried, "To ask the Scottish Government whether it plans to clarify what constitutes "wild camping", and what additional measures, if any, Police Scotland will be given to address overnight camping in areas where permission has not been sought or granted." Roseanna Cunningham, the Cabinet Secretary for the environment, responded, "In Scotland, wild camping is an exercise of responsible non-motorised access rights established under Part 1 of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. These rights only apply if they are exercised responsibly." She defined the SOAC and concluded, "There are no plans to provide additional measures to Police Scotland to address overnight camping in areas where permission has not been sought or granted. This is an operational matter for Police Scotland."
Ultimately, everything I've written about here will cost money, whether it's more outdoor education or nature courses in schools, or employing more rangers and police, or adding more campsites in the Highlands. But so will number plate recognition cameras or enforcing camping bans and managing permits. Well before COVID-19 and lockdown, the infrastructure at honeypots was straining under the sheer number of visitors in the Highlands. Investment is desperately needed. "What's at risk is what's great about Scotland," Ken emphasised. Instead of responding with aggressive bans and 'keep out' signs, we should deal with behaviour, as Davie Black said, and seek out long term strategies that could improve society as a whole.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the framers of the US Constitution, wrote, "I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." That's something to keep in mind as outdoor enthusiasts, Highland communities, and governments look for a way forward.