For the last few days I have been following an online debate about the pros and cons of charging for access to the Snowdon munition in North Wales. This idea has come from members of the Farmer’s Union of Wales. predictably,t he idea has been rubbished by many outdoors enthusiasts but there are some very real issues for us to consider here.
The Scar on the Hill
There is no doubt that outdoor pursuits are getting more popular but the more boots that we see on the ground — and the more bike tyres as well — the more problems we face.
I’ve spoken about Snowdon and Snowdonia before. I love walking here not least because it is so accessible to me in the West Midlands. Of course, the area is also easily accessible from the conurbations in the North West. I’ve long since given up walking the popular hills of Snowdonia in the summer and on bank holiday weekends. There are simply too many people. It’s not just solitude I enjoy but I worry about the impact of the number. I remember a couple of years ago — on a decent day — watching a seemingly endless chain of walkers making their up Tryfan.
The photo displayed above is of one of the Scottish Munros which, as you can see, is easily accessed from a scar park. You can see the path snaking its way upwards. The path — then at least — was quite a shocking scar on the side of the hill, a hit which is in private hands.
Paths have to be maintained. Sometimes large and well maintained paths are unattractive to hillwalkers, I’m thinking about the path up and over Mount Keen (one of the most easily accessible Munros) which has been described as a walker’s motorway. Snowdon is much the same. There are very good paths here and on a good day it is easy and safe to follow them. I can’t really complain here as it is good people are enjoying a hill even if it is a rare event. But there are always children with wonder and awe on their faces; any one of them could be the hill walker of the future. But even when the path is well maintained there are other issues of wear on the landscape and the local environment.
Paths and mountains have be maintained. I’m amazed at the commitment to many who spend their leisure time rebuilding paths and walls so that I ca enjoy them. But even when volunteers are used there are costs. And on the major hills like Snowdon maintenance and stewardship are costly.
Sadly these days, funds to support maintenance are getting harder to come by. Grants from local and national government are harder to come by and National Lottery spend more and more competitive. I suspect this is going to get worse not least as the whole post Brexit world could be even more focussed on low tax. Taxation has become a wicked concept. These days whenever progressive taxation is mentioned on the BBC news there is always some kind of graphic to explain to younger people what it is and why it is progressive. Over the last fifteen years or so we have sen a gradual expansion of the notion that service users should pay for their service — think rail franchises. Where does this take the hill walker and mountain enthusiast?
When I was a member of the BMC Advisory Group on Hillwalking I suggested the idea of crowdsourcing a mountain (my only real useful contribution I suspect). My idea was based on the notion that many of us have favourite hills and these are probably most likely to be more popular than many. Might hillwalkers be happy to contribute to a crowdsource campaign to support maintenance on that hill? The BMC has since employed this idea to very good effect and I believe the subsequent campaigns have been well supported. These might not generate loads of money but volunteer organisations like the BMC can work wonder with small amounts of money when it comes to maintenance. We are likely to see more of this in the future.
Crowdsourcing will not be an option for our most popular hills like Snowdon and yet the maintenance here are far greater. So, with less public expenditure available should the user pay? In many parts of the world, of course, there are permit systems for walks and trails. These are really use to minimise the impact fragile and special environments but these systems could have a role to play here.
So, I wouldn’t automatically rule out the idea. At the very least this should provoke some really thoughtful debate. Those of us who use the hills have a responsibility to do so carefully. Maybe we also we should be moving beyond the occasional voluntary financial contribution? We have to think about these things. We can’t always just blame mountain bikers for everything!
Hills like Snowdon are showing what a complicated balance needs to be achieved to manage it properly. How do we balance access and equal opportunity for all with the need to preserve the environment and minimise damage?
I’m not sure what the answer is but I can see the problem all too clearly every time I go to Snowdonia.
If we are going to see a continued reduction in public expenditure,and in public taxation, then these issues will become more important. As we move from the Big Society to the Shared Society I suspect more of the cost of maintenance will fall on all of us.
A pay turnstile at the beginning of the Pyg Track? It’s not unthinkable. A permit to walk in some of the more isolated areas of the Highlands? Perhaps, not as outlandish as we think.
The low tax economy will challenge us all. We adhere to and promote high environmental standards. But somebody has to pay. Ultimately, it will be us!