BACK at the turn of the century my wife and I hiked the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California with a bunch of friends
During our traverse of the trail one of our companions, Terry Leyland, decided to shortcut a series of zig-zags on the trail by jogging directly downhill.
Waiting for him at the foot of the zigzags was a National Park ranger, uniformed and impatiently tap-tap-tapping the holster on her hip, as though gently reminding Terry that there was something inside it. It was apparently a felony to short-cut the zig-zags.
Probably because he acted like a dumb foreigner he got off with a severe ticking off, but the memory of the contents of that holster, worn by an irritable ranger, haunted him for some time.
The following year I climbed the majestic Mount Rainier in the Pacific North-West of the US. It was a wonderful experience and while I was there I took note of a hundred mile plus trail that circumnavigated the mountain. It’s called the Wonderland Trail.
I was keen to hike it so in 2003 I applied for a permit. My application was rejected. I applied again, saying I was a journalist who was very keen to walk the route and write features about it for the UK outdoor press. Again, my application was rejected.
I then contacted some friends in Seattle to make some enquiries and one of them made an astonishing discovery. Because Foot and Mouth Disease was at that time prevalent in the UK the National Park Board didn’t want to issue permits to visitors from this country.
These two unrelated events made me appreciate how fortunate we are in Scotland. Our ranger service doesn’t carry the threat of guns and is not a pseudo-police service.
Neither do we have a permit system that can be manipulated by a National Park-type bureaucracy for almost any purpose that suits them.
So far so good – but let’s roll on to more recent times. The following is a statement given in 2013 to the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group by the Loch Lomond & Trossachs National Park, led by its convener Linda McKay.
“At present people have a right of responsible access but there is no sanction if people are irresponsible. This leaves a grey area where somebody is behaving irresponsibly and is outside their access rights but they are not necessarily committing a criminal offence. This makes management difficult for access authorities, police and landowners. The National Park Authority suggests a move to a fixed penalty notice for irresponsible access that rangers and the police have the power to enforce.”
The briefing notes for Linda McKay’s appearance before the LRRG also contains the following statement:
“National Parks provide an opportunity to test new approaches before rolling out across Scotland.”
I think it would be fair to assume from those statements that this National Park Board’s wider agenda is not only to impose camping byelaws on land within the Loch Lomond & Trossachs Park but also to promote the principle of fixed penalty notices for any activity that they deem to be irresponsible anywhere in Scotland.
It is clear to me that we now have a situation created by the management of our first National Park that goes far beyond the issue of wild camping.
It is increasingly obvious that the managers of the Park are determined to fundamentally undermine a key principle of the 2003 Act, which would give rangers the power to issue fixed penalty notices to anyone, anywhere, on the basis that the ranger considered that someone was doing something “irresponsible” (like ignoring a signpost, or taking a piss behind a tree – whatever the ranger was feeling irritated about).
I recall such ranger powers being discussed during the 2003 Land Reform Act debate and it was firmly rejected by politicians of all sides.
Quite apart from the inordinate power it would give rangers (and the landowners who employed them) it would encourage rangers to issue excessive numbers of fixed penalty notices as they strove to meet their targets and raise revenue for the Park, just as some Councils are accused of using speed cameras to raise money and not necessarily to reduce potential accidents.
Despite my fears it is unlikely we’ll see National Park rangers toting guns in the near future, but it’s clear that if the LL&TNP management has its way then rangers could form a pseudo-police force with limited police powers. I can’t believe anyone in their right mind would want to see that happen, particularly members of Scotland’s Ranger Service.
Unfortunately, thanks again to the management of the LL&TNP, a permit system of camping is being introduced in the Park from March 1st for backpackers, hikers, canoeists, wild campers and motorhome and campervan users, even though no-one appears to know yet, with only a few days before the new bylaws are to be imposed, how or where in the Park this system will operate.
With Easter holidays coming up shortly it’s an intolerable state of affairs and symptomatic of the continuing mis-management of this National Park.
You may require a permit for wild camping on the Park’s lochsides today but could we see the imposition of a permit system for climbing Ben Lomond in the future? The Park’s management team will refute this vigorously but this is the same National Park Board that said after the imposition of the East Loch Lomond bylaws a few years ago that this was a one-off and wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere in the Park.
It’s very clear that the management of the LL&TNP speaks with a very forked tongue. Post-truth and ‘alternative facts’ have become the norm in statements issuing from Balloch.
And note this – this is the same National Park that recently sent a Press Release to campervan and motorhome magazines saying you couldn’t spend an overnight in the National Park in your campervan unless you had applied in advance for a permit.
That’s simply wrong!
The Press Release went on to suggest that anyone found wild camping within the ‘Camping Management Zone’ between March and September will risk a £500 fine.
They didn’t mention you would also be criminalised.
Think about that for a moment. For the ‘crime’ of sleeping overnight in your campervan you would join murderers, rapists and robbers on a police criminal records list. With such a conviction you would find it hard to get a visa to visit the US for example, and a criminal record would forever blemish even the most glowing CV.
But the fact of the matter is that the Park’s Press Release has been wallowing in the current craze for alternative facts, ie lying.
My understanding is that anyone can spend a night in a car, campervan, or motorhome if it is in a layby or car park that is under the jurisdiction of a Roads Authority, unless that Authority has explicitly prohibited this under Road Traffic Legislation.
There are very few places in the Management Zones of the National Park where the Roads Authority has prohibited vehicles stopping off or staying overnight. Campervans will still be able to stop off almost anywhere in the camping management zones as long as they are prepared to stay on the road network.
The statement in the Press Release that a permit is required to stop overnight is, at best, a blatant piece of misinformation.
How long have we to put up with all this nonsense from the LL&TNP? I personally believe it’s time for heads to roll and I’ve written to the Scottish Cabinet Secretary Roseanna Cunningham with my concerns. Nothing will happen unless the Scottish Government becomes fully aware of what’s going on in the plush Balloch offices of the LL&TNP.
Will you write to your MSP about these concerns? The issues at stake here go way beyond wild camping on Loch Lomond’s famous banks and enter the territory of Michael Matheson MSP, the Justice Minister. Write to him too with your concerns, with a copy to Roseanna Cunningham, the Environment Minister at Holyrood?
If we don’t see any action from the Scottish Government the day will come when the Park’s Rangers could well be running around issuing fixed penalty notices to all and sundry – and they might even, at some point in the future, be found wearing holsters on their hips, holsters with guns in them.
Michael Matheson MSP, Cabinet Minister for Justice
Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Minister for Environment, Climate Change & Land Reform,
St Andrews House, Regent Road, Edinburgh EH1 3DG, or email via the Ministers’ Mailbox at firstname.lastname@example.org