Thin line guards the freedom to roam

Commerce and weakening ideals are threatening the National Parks, writes Stephen Goodwin
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More than 100 million visits are made to National Parks in England and Wales each year. Most of the millions will not be stretching for hand- holds at the top of Troutdale Pinnacle, a classic Lake District rock- climb, or even scrambling round the Snowdon Horseshoe. They will be clustered around the ice-cream vans by the caves at Cas-tleton in the Peak District, or perhaps spilling from their cars on Dartmoor mimicking the Hound of the Baskervilles.

But whatever their recreational bent - day-tripping, walking, climbing, cycling or watersports - visitors pour into the parks because these places are special. William Wordsworth recognised it186 years ago when he described the Lake District as "a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest, who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy".

Vision became reality with the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. Within a decade, the finest 10 per cent of the landscape of England and Wales was granted special protection.

But are we living up to the ideals not just of Wordsworth, but of those who fought for the parks as an integral part of the post-war settlement? The voluntary bodies who watch over the countryside fear a weakening of the "thin green line" in the face of commercial pressures, budget cuts and government indifference. Today, quarrying, roads, tank and artillery ranges, power stations and power boats, are all josting for space in the parks.

Amanda Nobbs, director of the Council for National Parks, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, is worried about protection. "Radical change will be needed to enable the new authorities to start living up to the expectations of the parks' founders. Ministers will have to learn to say 'no' to some of the big threats that loom."

The campaign for parks began in earnest in the 1930s with working-class ramblers from Manchester and Sheffieldescaping the mills and steel-works to walk the Pennine moors at weekends, and higher-minded, wealthy worthies, like the Trevelyan family, seeing the hills as a place of spiritual regeneration.

The first National Park was designated in the Peak District in 1951, closely followed by the Lakes. By 1957 there were 10. The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads became parks in 1989. Mostparks have to get by on the amount of money that might be allotted to a medium-sized comprehensive school, and Government support this year for the five parks in England is down to pounds 21m.

John Toothill, National Park Officer for the Lake District, has seen his grant cut by 5.6 per cent to pounds 3.7m this year. He predicts "difficult times" for all the parks. A big worry is the cost of public inquiries - the Lakes' attempt to rid Windermere of power-boats has cost about pounds 500,000 and may yet fail.

All the parks now look to the EC, the National Lottery, water companies and other sponsors, for funds. In the Peak Dis- trict rangers' Land Rovers carry the logo of Severn Trent - the outcome of a partnership deal, and, to some, a worrying trend.