Summing up – What can we do? by Hugh Logan, former Director General of the New Zealand Department of Conservation
The conference is the third in a series where people passionate about sustainable management of mountain areas have gathered to discuss social, environmental and economic issues affecting mountain areas from the perspective of sustainability.
In summing up, first, what we covered; in a sense applicable internationally?
Spiritual aspects of mountain areas and what they mean for local people (in the different many ways “local people” define themselves around the world)
Biophysical change and natural hazard
Human impact and how to avoid, remedy and mitigate it
Governance and management issues
It falls to me to draw out from the discussion what I see as some themes, some things that can be taken forward in the future, and something that we may have danced around too lightly.
I want to say these are my views. Each of you will of course have your own conclusions from this conference
First – Awareness of spiritual values
I have been struck by how far many have come in recognising spiritual values of local people; what was once unspoken, ignored, or forgotten is now more common-place and openly recognised; not just in New Zealand but increasingly in other parts of the world.
Second – Managing and reducing the human footprint
Awareness that the human footprint in mountain lands has been growing. In response, education about these impacts has been having a positive effect in some places (but not all). Furthermore, behaviours of people who are educated and knowledgeable are changing for the better – but this is not universal, there is an elephant in the room which I will talk about later.
The work on sustainability and continuing to work on reducing human impacts must be carried forward. It was striking that the principle of carry in-carry out to remote parts of the globe is becoming the norm, at least for rubbish. As this conference has heard, there is a challenge in managing human waste, particularly in abiotic zones (especially glaciers and abiotic mountain zones, and where numbers of people overwhelm natural processes in biotic zones). The carry out policies implemented in some parts of the world seem to be effective but some challenges regarding carbon footprint and management of these wastes once they are carried out remain to be addressed effectively and efficiently.
Third – Awareness of biophysical change and hazards
We know so much more now about the speed that mountain lands are changing. Whereas once they were regarded as never-changing, it is now clear that they change climatically and in biophysical shape dramatically and sometimes catastrophically. One thing is certain – things will not stay the same. We have to manage for change, probably at a faster rate than we believe. This requires far greater speed and flexibility in responding to potential changes, affecting where people live, how mountain lands are accessed and where structures, buildings and activities are located.
Fourth – Mobilising the power of local communities and businesses
Local communities, volunteers, and commercial enterprise can play a significant role looking after places, changing behaviours of mountain land users, and generally helping sustain mountain lands environmentally. There can sometimes be an innate conservatism in these groups, which is both a positive thing in maintaining unique cultures and a constrain to adopting new practises where existing activities are harmful to the natural environment. Hence, the role of the environmental activist, whether inside the communities or companies, or from outside, are important. But when business and communities commit themselves to a strong environment ethic, the results are impressive
Fifth – The importance of leadership
Traditionally this is the role of mountain land management agencies –usually park services. This role has more recently been devalued or decried – but if you look at presentations we have seen in the conference such an attitude is very mistaken and in fact destructive. Many very important sustainability initiative are undertaken and lead by the management agencies. The risks for mountain land management agencies lie in the political expediencies and trade-offs that inevitably attach to government agencies, and in an overbearing attitude of “we know best”. But where mountain lands are being well managed it is common to find an effective government agency, either as a direct operator in their own right, or empowering others by support, education and setting high standards, while avoiding the curse of corruption.
The role of local people in leadership – the people who can bring local knowledge, wisdom and values to look after places. Risks can sometimes lie in sometime not recognising wider forces for charge or internal tensions between protecting places and the power of the dollar. In New Zealand we have distinguished between the Tangata Whenua, Maori people with rights interests and associations, and local people. Such a distinction is not necessarily the norm in other parts of the world. In New Zealand we must remember that local peoples’ knowledge and attachments to mountain lands are critically important in how those lands are managed.
The role of commercial enterprises in setting standards for quality experiences, in educating clients and supporting environmental sustainability is very important for a small but potentially influential group of mountain users. The risk is the rush to the bottom, lowest common denominator or non-protectionism and loss of the owner – operator with their feed on the ground.
A last example of ‘leadership’ lies in activism. Erik Bradshaw spoke passionately about this to the conference. To elaborate on his words, “If no one complains or campaigns, the forces of darkness will prevail”.
What I would like to cover now is some things I feel we danced around too lightly and which would deserve more attention at future conferences.
There are three things
First: I think we have dealt too lightly with the issue of mass tourism and its effects on mountain lands. With increasing wealth in China, India and many populous countries, mountain areas, their cultures, and their communities will come under increasing pressure. China itself is experiencing this in its mountain lands in the south west, and we in New Zealand are about to experience it – we are unprepared and unwilling to take corrective action until has already had an effect. Future conference could usefully dwell on this issue and how to formulate anticipatory actions, rather than just reacting in a de facto manner
Second: The conference has focused on hiking and alpine sports recreation and tourism, but what about hunting and harvest? And what about managing invasive species? These are big issues in New Zealand. They are big issued elsewhere. But they tend to be dealt with in separate forums. If sound stewardship of mountains is our objective, then we need to think in a more integrative way.
The issue of stewardship of mountain lands about environmental protection, economics / commerce, legal protection – enforcements – but it’s also about another feature – Equity.
The mountain lands of in New Zealand at least are common heritage of all New Zealanders. In societies where there are increasing levels of inequality (and I would argue, perhaps controversially, that this is a first world problem, not a developing world problem) that it is ignored a peril. Look at the phenomena of Brexit, or even Trump. So much of this conference has been about wealthy peoples’ issues. Even here in New Zealand, how many people can afford to come and stay in this Park, and how many families can afford the hut fees of Great Walks? I would like to see the figures but I wonder in our country and even in places like the US whether affordable domestic use of is in decline – other than at very local, minor protected places.
I would like to conclude with a proverb which I think underlines both what has drawn participants to this conference and which underlines all the themes of the conference;
“The eyes of the future are looking back at us and praying that we can see beyond our own time.” Terry Tempest Williams (with thanks to indefatigable mountain traveller Colin Monteath)