The American writer Wallace Stegner crafted his heartfelt ‘Wilderness Letter’ to the US Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in early December 1960.
Stegner argued that the value of wilderness should not be quantified merely by the extent of its economic riches or even the scale of its recreational potential, but should stand for something much more fundamental to us as humans; to give us perspective on our place in a changing world.
He finished his letter by writing: “We simply need wild country available to us even if we never do more than drive to its edges and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
I have been pondering his words as I write a response to the Government’s Review of Designated Landscapes – our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).
It’s not quite the wilderness that Stegner was describing, I know, but the sentiment is much the same: how well are we balancing the need for wild places with the pursuit of economic growth and our own wellbeing?
There are ten National Parks and 34 AONBs in England (one straddles the border with Wales), forming a meandering patchwork across the country. Our National Parks make up around 9.3 percent of the land area, but are home to less than 1 percent of the 55 million people in England.
They are dramatic landscapes, often described as “jewels in the crown”, and wild if not truly wilderness.
Alongside these, our AONBs cover some 15 percent of the English countryside and coast, and represent quintessential, rural landscapes – the Constable country of Dedham Vale, the rolling Cotswolds, or the Blue Remembered Hills of Shropshire – selected for their essential beauty and tranquillity.
These designations came out of the ground-breaking 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, the post-war legislation that was being conceived during the darkest days of the twentieth century.
While I think they have stood the test of time pretty well, my concern is more about whether in our desire to protect the best we have lost sight of the rest. After all, there are still large swathes of the country that don’t enjoy any designations at all, but offer real potential as they change from their industrial past into something new.
The National Forest is one such place in the heart of lowland England. You could never call it a wilderness, but it shows how an industrial landscape can be rapidly transformed without the need for any formal designation.
Through tree planting, the area has seen a quiet revolution, with the natural world returning within a generation. It is this creation of new wild landscapes which seems to me to be today’s real ‘geography of hope’.
In the same way that we have cleaned up our waterways, I wonder what could be achieved if we focused more on transforming our post-industrial landscapes that circle our major towns and cities – our coalfields, chemical wastelands or mineral sites?
Maybe we can create new aspirational landscapes that are better placed to absorb growth, and can do so in a way that enables people and nature to co-exist. Otherwise these places will grow in a way that, as Stegner observes, will be “committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment.”
We have tried for some years to find a way of meeting this ambition. Some of these areas have been supported as landscape partnership schemes, others identified as community forests or even selected as regional parks, but I would argue that we don’t yet have a coherent framework to support landscapes that are still evolving.
I don’t think we necessarily need a new formal designation - the National Forest has shown that – but we do need vision, political backing and support.
Where our existing landscape designations might look back, these post-industrial areas can look forward; where National Parks and AONB’s tend to restrict development, these areas can use development to promote the best of technology and innovation; where designations have a more pre-determined outcome, non-designated landscapes can be more flexible in the face of change.
So, let’s not just focus on those landscapes that have intrinsic beauty, but think about the potential of the less beautiful too. They might just surprise us. Indeed, some of our National Parks were sites of heavy industry several hundred years ago.
The Review of Designated Landscapes will report in 2019, marking the seventieth anniversary of the legislation being passed. My response cannot compete with Stegner’s gifted prose, but I am with him in spirit. In these crowded isles, whether it is existing areas of natural beauty or newly created landscapes, our wild country reconnects us with what it means to be human and we should value that as both primal and priceless.
Today is the final day that you can input to the review.
John Everitt is a British environmentalist who has spent more than 25 years in nature conservation. He is the chief executive of the National Forest Company, responsible for coordinating the creation and management of the 200 square mile National Forest in the Midlands, UK. Stay updated by following @NatForestCo.