Wild pLaces for all: Report on JOhn Muir Trust Panel Discussion: November 25th, 2020

The John Muir Trust sees itself primarily as a conservation organisation and its aim is to protect and restore wild places. However, it is well-aware that there are other perspectives on land use that may be at odds with conservation aims: livelihood and recreation. In much of their work they try and harmonise these competing aims so as they work together to achieve their overall aim of protecting wild places.

This panel discussion focused on access to land for recreation. Speakers were: Emma Reed Award and Engagement Manager, John Muir Trust
Mohammed Dhalech Mosaic Outdoors
Alec Finlay Poet and campaigner on disabled access
Catherine Kemp Education and Events Manager, Yorkshire Dales NPA

The panel participants all agreed that we need to ensure that people from all backgrounds are able to enjoy wild places. It is important for people’s physical and mental well-being but also important in order to enlarge the circle of people who care about and want to protect these places.

One of the key points was that many, including people of colour, disabled people, lower income groups, and the young, feel excluded or that they don’t belong in the countryside, that outdoor activities aren’t for them. The pandemic, however, saw an influx of many people new to the countryside and this is a hopeful sign that this experience will have given people a taste for it and encourage them to venture out of the city more often.

The panel addressed the question of why more people don’t access the countryside. The answers tended to be quite general, eg time, money, transport, places not accessible enough, eg not enough infrastructure. Racism was mentioned but perhaps needed to be stressed more. It is important to explore in depth, asking and listening, why people of colour feel excluded in order to come up with strategies. We need to hear about these negative experiences in order to find strategies to deal with them. Nevertheless, recent surveys have shown that racism and a mainly white environment which is not the main problem. As members of the panel stressed- many of the obstacles have to do with economics, so it is social class which is the issue- affecting not just people of colour but many people form urban areas who have low paid jobs and not much time. (See this article: https://theiaincameron.medium.com/the-countrysides-ethnic-deficit-1e17a5205d1a).

There have been initiatives sponsored by organisations such as the National Park Authorities and Natural England. One is Mosaic, represented on the panel by Mohammed. (See: file:///C:/Users/PC/Downloads/The%20Mosaic%20model%20-%20Engaging%20BME%20communities%20in%20National%20Parks%20.pdf). The strategy here is to make changes in organisations such as park boards and organising activities with ‘community champions’. While these are very positive moves, they are very much based on a top-down model. It might be worth considering a more bottom-up approach and supporting initiatives that are organised by people themselves.

There is a history of excluded social groups self-organising and forming their own clubs. Women had to do this when they were excluded from the all-male clubs and many still do as they feel more comfortable in an all-women environment. Working class men also formed their own clubs in the early days of mountaineering as they did not fit in with the middle and upper class traditional clubs such as the Scottish Mountaineering Club or the Alpine Club.

One new group, Black Girls Hike, has received considerable publicity recently (https://www.womenshealthmag.com/uk/fitness/a32969669/black-girls-hike/). The reasons for starting this club are clearly stated: “The lack of representation in hiking is clear for all to see: It’s never something I associated with Black people – it’s not even marketed at Black people. Historically dominated by white middle-class males I wasn’t keen on the prospect of venturing out alone or joining a typical hikers group where there’d be nobody I could identify with”.

There will be other groups out there- people doing things for themselves. Check out Flocking Together, a London birdwatching group for people of colour (https://www.allycapellino.co.uk/blogs/news/flock-together#:~:text=Flock%20Together%20is%20a%20support,avian%20locations%20across%20the%20capital.)

One issue that was not fully discussed by the panel was the problem of ensuring that attracting more people to wild places does not in fact undermine other objectives such as enhancing and restoring wild places for non-human nature. The chair from John Muir Trust asked a very important question- do we bring people to the places or places to the people? This means- do we focus on equipping people with the values and skills to be able to go to wild places or do we do something to the wild places to make it easier for people to be in them. The contributions tended to focus on changing the places, such as building more infrastructure, changing opening times, relaxing rules, making it easier for people to get into the hill, eg use of hill tracks.

This emphasis seems to contradict other central aims of the John Muir Trust and many other campaigns and organisations, including the People’s Land Policy: the need to fight climate change and enhance biodiversity. If our current National Parks and other protected areas are to be turned more into playgrounds than they already are, what about the impact on other species and habitats that we are trying to protect? Is it not important that there are areas that aren’t accessible to humans? This recreation view of land, in its most extreme form, sees nature as something only there to be of service to humans, just like those who see land as something to make a profit from.

Nevertheless, there are potential ways of achieving all these aims: ensuring local livelihoods, facilitating access and protecting wild places. The John Muir Trust is already involved in a number of important initiatives. One is the John Muir Award. This is like the Duke of Edinburgh Award but has much more of a focus on conservation. The values of caring for and acting as stewards to nature are very much at the forefront of the programme. In this way, the thousands of young people, many from deprived backgrounds in the cities, will be encouraged to go to wild places, not as a backdrop for activities they might have done in the city, but because they have a love for these places, want to look after them and want to enjoy them as they are. They don’t want the places to be changed.

Accessibility is a difficult issue but again the JMT has an approach that can address these issues. They stress very strongly that you can experience wild places anywhere, often in or near urban areas. However, they distinguish between wild places and wild land. Some places are just not going to be accessible to everyone if they are to be truly wild. The JMT refers to such places as wild land. You cannot build roads into remote mountain areas without seriously altering the landscape and the species that thrive in those places. This has happened in many of the Alpine regions of Europe, with all the cable cars, huts, motorway paths, guides dragging people up peaks like the Matterhorn and crocodile queues of people ascending popular peaks. Do we want this for Britain?

Maybe we have to accept that there may just be a few people who are able to access wild land- those that are willing and able to do the long walk and carry heavy loads for the wild camp. It is just knowing that these truly wild places exist that should be enough for us. However, that does not mean that people of all abilities should not be able to enjoy wild places. You can get just as much enjoyment out of less remote areas. Yes, more effort needs to be made to ensure there are places, paths etc that are accessible for people of varying degrees of ability but this does not have to include everywhere in Britain, and if it did our objectives of restoring and enhancing habitats to combat climate change and encourage biodiversity would be undermined.

As always, the issue of land, who owns it and controls it, is a basic issue that needs to be addressed. If we are to increase the number of people who want to come to the countryside in order to enjoy and appreciate nature as well as ensuring that these places are actually protected and enhanced, then in a country of 67 million people we need more land where people can do this. The post-lockdown surge into the countryside showed the problems caused, with many of the popular places unable to cope.

This was not covered directly by the seminar but seemed an obvious conclusion to draw. Again, the John Muir Trust is already involved in supporting projects that will increase the land available. The Langholm Moor community buy-out (https://www.langholminitiative.org.uk/) is an amazing initiative that plans on reclaiming grouse moors and making this land fulfil other objectives, including restoring nature, encouraging visitors, and supporting the local community by creating a nature-based economy. With grouse moors making up an estimated 12-18% of Scottish rural land, and with much of northern England used as grouse moor, there is considerable scope to enlarge the areas of land which people can access. However, this does require challenging a very powerful section of society who have dominated land use in the countryside for centuries.

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