The Newest Challenge for Europe’s Parks: A Surge of New Nature Lovers

By Paige McClanahan


Lockdown-weary city dwellers across the continent are visiting parks and other protected areas for the first time, overwhelming staff and generating pleas for more support.

Lockdown-weary Europeans have sought out nature in record-breaking numbers this year, putting sudden and substantial pressure on national parks and other natural areas across the continent.

Toward a new rural economy

But funding national parks and other highly controlled natural areas is an expensive proposition, said Frans Schepers, co-founder and managing director of Rewilding Europe, an initiative that aims to promote “rewilding” as a new approach to conservation across the continent. He argues that policymakers and land managers need to embrace less intensive and more cost-effective ways to manage and generate income from the continent’s many natural areas, not just its national parks.

In 2016, Rewilding Europe launched its own travel business, the European Safari Company, which aims to bring tourists — and their money — into rural areas, primarily in Southern and Eastern Europe. The company works with local guides and tourism operators in places like Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Italy to help them develop wildlife-watching tours, bison- and wolf-tracking escapes and other diversions. The goal, said Mr. Schepers, is to make nature and wildlife the basis for a new economy in these rural areas, where populations have been on the decline for decades.

“This is how new life can be brought into these areas that are suffering,” Mr. Schepers said. “We just need to make sure that nature-based tourism is done in the right way and that it will support conservation and not just exploit it.”

And while government funding for national parks might still be in short supply, Mr. Schepers praised recent policy developments in Brussels, where European policymakers are crafting ambitious targets and policies on issues like land restoration and tree planting. With rural landscapes emptying out, he said, Europe now had “a historic opportunity” to return its landscapes to a more natural state.

Excerpt from an article featured in The New York Times. By Paige McClanahan December 2020.

Read the full article here.