In the United States, the first national park was established in 1872, during the same decade as the Battle of Little Bighorn, the adoption of the 15th Amendment and the advent of both blue jeans and the incandescent light bulb.
In the United Kingdom, the first national park was established in 1951, during the same decade as the detonation of the first British atomic bomb, the publication of the debut James Bond novel and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
Obviously, when it comes to creating and fostering national parks, the U.S. is a few years ahead of the U.K. — 79 of them, to be exact.
But times, oh, have they changed.
As America’s national parks adjust to a strange and precarious new reality in which seemingly nothing is certain, a new review of national parks launched by the British government offers reassurance that existing parks in the U.K. will be even better off than they are now 10, 15, 50 years down the line. And there might be a whole lot more of them, to boot.
"Amid a growing population, changes in technology, and a decline in certain habitats, the time is right for us to look afresh at these landscapes," says Environment Secretary Michael Gove. "We want to make sure they are not only conserved, but enhanced for the next generation."
Located entirely in Cumbria in the northwest of England, the mountainous Lake District is home to the second largest and by far the most visited national park in the U.K. (Photo: Alh1/flickr)
A plan to enhance ... and potentially to expand
First and foremost, American national parks and British national parks are entirely different beasts despite the obvious similarities.
For one, British national parks are not wholly owned by a governmental entity but by a motley mix of interests including private landowners, conservation charities such as the National Trust and individual, government-funded authorities. And while stateside national parks are vast and sparsely populated "wild" places, across the pond you’ll find bustling farms, villages and towns all located within the boundaries of its national parks. These are national parks in the traditional sense and more specially managed landscapes — "protected areas because of their beautiful countryside, wildlife and cultural heritage" — where people also live, work and go about their daily lives.
There's also the matter of volume. Beginning with the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the U.S. and its territories are now home to 60 designated national parks ranging from Arcadia (Maine, 1916) to Zion (Utah, 1919). After the Peak District in the East Midlands was named the inaugural British national park in 1951 following the passage of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949, 14 more have sprouted up across the U.K. — nine in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland. The most recent, South Downs, in southeast England, was established in 2010. Northern Ireland presently has none (but not for a lack of trying.)
Yet despite being stuck at the 15-park mark for nearly a decade, the U.K. could soon see an uptick in protected natural areas boasting official national park designation as part of an effort to, in the words of the Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), "meet our needs in the 21st century."
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the British national park system will become more like its older, government-controlled American counterpart. (The national park systems of Canada and Australia also predate Britain’s.) This isn’t the case at all. It simply means that there might be even more naturally stunning landscapes for Britons to embrace, enjoy and protect for future generations of park-goers.
In fact, the recently launched review into improving and potentially expanding national parks across the U.K. takes a markedly different approach than that of the Ryan Zinke-headed United States Department of the Interior, which, these days, seems to be in the business of protecting national parks less while making them more expensive and, in turn, not as accessible to all Americans. (With so much talk of slashed budgets and plundered public land, there’s a good reason why nearly the entire National Park Service Advisory Board resigned in protest earlier this year.)
Designated in 1957, Brecon Beacons National Park is the third oldest of Wales' national parks after Snowdonia and the Pembrokeshire Coast. Umbrella organization National Parks UK is headquartered here. (Photo: Phil Dolby/flickr)
Explains Defra in a press release:
Weakening or undermining their existing protections or geographic scope will not be part of the review, which will instead focus on how designated areas can boost wildlife, support the recovery of natural habitats and connect more people with nature.
Undertaking a review is one of the key commitments of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, which outlines our vision for improving the environment over a generation by connecting people with nature and helping wildlife to thrive.
Julian Glover, a journalist, political speechwriter and special advisor to the Department of Transport, is leading the review, which “will also explore how access to these beloved landscapes can be improved, how those who live and work in them can be better supported, and their role in growing the rural economy.”
"The system they created has been a strength, but it faces challenges too," says Glover. "It is an honour to be asked to find ways to secure them for the future. I can’t wait to get started and learn from everyone who shares an interest in making England’s landscapes beautiful, diverse and successful."
When established in 2002, Scotland's Cairngorms National Park was the largest of all national parks in the U.K. It's expanded multiple times since then. (Photo: *pascal*/flickr)
Campaigners for future parks prick up their ears
At the outset of the U.K.’s potentially game-changing national parks review, Defra smartly avoids mentioning any specific areas that might join an expanded national park network, which in addition to the current 15 national parks includes 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).
Instead, emphasis is placed on the review’s impact on existing national parks — how they can be bolstered to better protect wildlife and serve the public as the population rapidly expands and certain habitats fall into decline. The pressing challenges — funding woes, accessibility, waning wildlife diversity, traffic and so on — mentioned by Glover will no doubt be addressed.
And once they are, a veritable parade of grassroots groups and campaign organizations from across the U.K are eager to jump in and state their case as to where the next generation of national parks will be.
Many are pushing for Dorset's drop-dead-gorgeous Jurassic Coast to be designated as a national park if there are indeed future expansions of the national park network. (Photo: Richard Szwejkowski/flickr)
As the Guardian notes, the rolling hills of the Cotswolds in south-central England and the fabled Chiltern countryside in the southeast are prime contenders for national park consideration. Both the Cotswolds and the Chilterns already enjoy Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty status although, like other AONBs, they are both without their own planning authorities and therefore are more susceptible to unchecked development in two different, rapidly growing regions. Becoming a national park would afford them additional protections.
One group in Dorset and East Devon has reportedly been at work for several years preparing a study that it hopes will convince authorities that the picturesque and historic Jurassic Coast, already a UNESCO-sanctioned World Heritage Site spanning 96 miles, would make an ideal future national park.
In Scotland, past efforts have been made to establish a coastal and marine national park with no success.
There’s also a significant push to create a national park in the sprawling but national park-deprived Midlands region, home to Birmingham, England’s second largest (and technically most populous) city. Andrew Hall, a spokesman for the Campaign for National Parks and a Birmingham native, relays to the Guardian that his nearest national park growing up was Brecon Beacons, one of three Welsh national parks — that's a 3-hour-plus drive away. As such, Hall is "personally very sympathetic" toward proposals that would benefit his fellow Brummies.
Known for spooky legends and semi-feral ponies, Dartmoor National Park in Devon, England, was established in 1951 not long after the U.K.'s first national park, the Peak District. (Photo: Mark Coleman/flickr)
Birmingham, however, might be some sort of weird exception.
Per Defra, national parks cover a quarter of England’s total land area and are home to over 2.3 million people. Additionally, more than 66 percent of the English populace lives within a half hour of a national park or AONB. According to National Parks UK, an impressive 19.9 percent of land area in Wales is comprised of national parkland. (It's 9.3 percent and 7.2 percent of land area for England and Scotland, respectively.)
It’s safe to assume that future national parks, like their forebears, will also be administered by their own government-funded authorities, all belonging to the Association of National Park Authorities, and owned by numerous parties mostly consisting of private landowners. (National Parks UK, which is sometimes confused with but very different than the U.S. National Park Service, functions as an umbrella organization dedicated to collectively promoting and engaging the public about all 15 national parks. Founded in 1977, the Campaign for National Parks is the only national charitable organization dedicated to promoting and protecting the parks.)
The first U.K. landscape to be established as a national park, the Peak District has a rich literary history and is conveniently located near the cities of Manchester and Sheffield. (Photo: flöschen/flickr)
After the Peak District was designated as the very first national park in 1951, a slew of national parks were named in relatively quick succession. The Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor all followed later that same year. This almost rapid-fire establishing of national parks lasted throughout the 1950s: Pembrokeshire Coast and North York Moors (1952), Exmoor and Yorkshire Dales (1954), Northumberland (1956) and Brecon Beacons (1957). And then, up until the late 1980s, the flow of new national parks stopped.
At 1,748 square miles, the largest national park in the U.K., Scotland’s Cairngorns National Park, was established in 2003. Home to over 120,000 residents, South Downs, the newest national park, is also the most heavily populated.
Together, the U.K.'s national parks and AONBs attract more than 260 million annual visitors.