The seed of the idea for a national park could well have been planted 200 years ago by the poet William Wordsworth when he described the English Lake District as a “sort of national property… which every man has a right to perceive… and a heart to enjoy”.
Twenty years later, the painter George Catlin expressed a similar yearning during his travels through the American West, when he wrote in 1832 that the Native Americans might be preserved “by some great protecting policy of government... in a magnificent park... containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty”.
The world’s first national park – Yellowstone in the US – was established in 1872 and was followed by the Royal National Park of Australia in 1879 and the Rocky Mountain National Park in 1885. Sweden led the way in Europe when it created nine national parks in 1909.
It took a little while longer for Belgium to establish its first – and as yet only – national park, when, just six years ago, the Hoge Kempen National Park was officially opened in Limburg province. (Technically, Belgium established its first national park in 1925 when Albert I designated an area of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo as the Albert National Park, since renamed the Virunga National Park).
The Hoge Kempen National Park covers more than 5,000 hectares and stretches across the municipalities of Dilsen-Stokkem, Maasmechelen, Zutendaal, Lanaken, Genk and As. In the spirit of Wordsworth, it welcomes anyone and everyone with a “heart for nature”.
Five locations serve as gateways to the Hoge Kempen, each with parking, easy access via public transport, information kiosks and a cafe. Admission to the park is free.
That the park exists is largely down to the campaigning of Ignace Schops, director of the Regionaal Landschap Kempen en Maasland (RLKM). It was Schops who brought together private industry, regional and EU governments, local stakeholders and NGOs to create a new model for land conservation in the EU. His achievements were recognised in 2008 when he was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, which lauds individuals for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment.
The unique feature of the Hoge Kempen National Park is that it’s in a previously heavily industrialised and still densely populated region of Europe. Protecting this natural heritage in the face of further industrial development needed a new approach.
In 1901, coal was discovered in the region, and the open spaces of Limburg rapidly began to decline. For almost a century, the coal industry thrived, but in the 1990s the area’s seven mines closed, leaving 40,000 people unemployed. Jobs were badly needed in the region, and several corporations wanted to build factories in the Hoge Kempen, an oasis of untouched land in the industrial zone that had largely retained its natural beauty. Not surprisingly, a conflict arose between conservation and development.
A key event was when the largest coal company and the largest NGO for nature conservation in Belgium, Natuurpunt, founded the RLKM in 1990. Their goal was to conserve the land in the province and continue to provide jobs and economic development.
In 1997, Schops and the RLKM began to campaign for the permanent protection of a piece of the Limburg landscape through the creation of Belgium’s first national park. Aside from the environmental conservation aspect, they believed that such a park could provide jobs and revenue through eco-tourism. The director of the European office of the International Union for Conservation of Nature at that time, Tamás Marghescu, described it as “extremely innovative and an example for the whole financing of protected areas around the world”.
Over the next four years, under Schops’ leadership, more than €80 million was raised from sources such as the government of Flanders, the European Regional Development Fund, municipal and provincial development funds, the European Union, local stakeholders and the private sector. Eventually, in 2006, the Hoge Kempen National Park was officially opened by the European Commissioner for the Environment.
“It is a fantastic achievement to establish a national park in the midst of one of the most densely populated areas in the world,” said Marghescu at the time. “Nature in this part of the world is scarce and every square metre of land has enormous economic value.”
Not only is it preserving nature and the environment, but the park has created jobs for the local community and brought economic revenue to the region. The World Conservation Union plans to use Schops’ model of creating and funding the Hoge Kempen National Park as an example for other member countries, not only in Europe but around the world. His model demonstrates how a successful public-private partnership in the use and management of nature can be an asset for local and regional development.