Congestion Charges for Hill-walkers?

In the following article, that appeared in The Herald, Rosemary Goring set out to be controversial. We think that she succeeded. What do you think? Our reply is included at the end of the article.

"It's high time we had a congestion charge for the hills"
Rosemary Goring, The Herald, 06 January 2009

In the depths of the Great Depression, a young Glaswegian found good use for his copy of the Glasgow Herald. Shivering in a mountain bothy made from railway sleepers - dubbed The Howff of the Thousand Draughts - Andy stuffed the holes in the wall with his newspaper, "to try for to keep the draught oot". He didn't ask for luxury, but he did hope to live for another day's hiking. The paper seemed to do the trick. Andy was a member of the Creag Dhu Mountaineering Club, a band of poor and unemployed boys from Clydebank immortalised in Alastair Borthwick's classic account of Scottish mountaineering, Always a Little Further. These young men would hitchhike out of Glasgow and spend the weekend in the hills, with a cave as their gathering point and hotel. This rendezvous was so well hidden, only a curl of smoke from its campfire ever betrayed its location. Had anyone left so much as a toffee wrapper behind they'd have broken the rule drummed into hillwalkers since the Jacobites traipsed through the glens: leave the wilds as you found them.

For Andy's generation there was a romance about the mountains that lifted their spirits from the grind of times that were harder even than those we are facing today. I suspect, though, that this doughty brigade would be appalled at the types now clambering across Scotland's mountains and gullies: iPodded climbers peching towards the pinnacle, oblivious to the sound of the wind or the birds; ramblers chucking water bottles and Coke cans into ravines, and maniacs dancing from crag to crag by torchlight as they compete in their 24-hour races, all without care for or interest in the countryside they are passing through.

Munro baggers should be issued with passports...

With the news that Highland Council is considering curbing the numbers climbing Ben Nevis in order to preserve the mountain, the era of the Creag Dhu Mountaineers seems not just quaint but ancient. With more than 200,000 visitors last year, Ben Nevis is under threat as never before. Many of us thought the nadir of public idiocy had been reached when a piano was found 200m from Ben Nevis's summit a few years ago. Now, however, this superb peak, along with Snowdon in Wales and Scafell Pike in England, is part of a sporting feat to see who can scale all three fastest. Mountains are no longer part of the countryside, it seems, but a wing of the gym, the finest cardiovascular workout you could desire, with fresh air thrown in for free.

And there's the rub. Should they be free? If so many of us want to clamber up mountains that we risk destroying them, surely we have to ask at what cost. The wilds of Scotland are one of its finest treasures, and it is a proud birthright that anyone who wishes can explore them. John Muir would have raised his hands in horror at the thought of regulating who could and could not enjoy such freedom; but in his day, few had the time or energy, let alone the desire, to head for the hills. Now that all three are in abundance, the countryside is suffering.

And let's not fool ourselves. There is little true wilderness left in Scotland. Climbing the easier Munros is like a trip to Ikea, with so many fellow travellers there should be white lines and roundab outs to keep order.

The number of walkers is only part of the problem, though. Almost every party leaves behind its spoor: a trail of plastic bags, bottles, crisp packets and decomposing banana skins. Meanwhile, mountains are being turned into shrines, and their ecology sabotaged as urns of ashes are scattered upon them. Followed by bouquets. And farewell notes. Whatever else a mountain path is these days, it is not a walk on the wild side.

Which is why I can see no alternative to imposing some sort of restriction or tariff on over-worked peaks like Ben Nevis. On every approach there should be a checkpoint, with a daily quota that cannot be breached and, on the most popular hills, a fee to cover their upkeep. Litter wardens should patrol the slopes, and every climber be given a paper bag to bring down any litter they find en route. Munro baggers should be issued with passports, renewable only on evidence of good behaviour.

Draconian? Well, so be it. We have been given the right to roam wherever we like in Scotland, yet we seem to have forgotten our side of the bargain. The real meaning of the wild, and of nature and remoteness, is being lost in the craze for thrills, sensation and group activity. Those who drop litter do not love the countryside and its creatures, nor do those who race through it, stopwatch in hand.

It's quite simple. So long as I lift up my eyes to the hills and see a Gore-Tex army ahead of me, I will happily pay to set foot upon them, going to their aid as they have so often to ours.

NEMT's reply

Dear Sir,
I'm writing in reply to Rosemary Goring's column in yesterday's Herald on charging for access to some of Scotland's more popular hills. I'm sure that she fully expected to provoke controversy and she appears to have succeeded. Many of us would agree with her description of the effects of the worst excesses. However her proposal is wrong in principle and, I believe, hopelessly impractical.

Our hard-won Outdoor Access legislation is the envy of many. Charging for access would not only run counter to the principles of the legislation but would create an incentive and dangerous precedent for private landowners to further restrict access. We have enough difficulties already with some unscrupulous landowners. Let's not make it any worse.

How practical is it to issue Munro-bagging passports? Would one have to declare a desire to become a Munro-bagger and then register and wait for a passport to be issued? How many checkpoints would be needed to "guard" a mountain such as the Ben with its many possible access points? Once issued with a litter bag, would one not be allowed off the mountain until it was certified as filled with other people's rubbish?

I certainly share her love of the Scottish hills and strongly wish to limit any damage caused by visitors. However, I'm less pessimistic than Rosemary. I don't see the need for an army of litter wardens. Generally, when off the heavily used tourist paths, there is remarkably little litter. I have even enjoyed lunch with just the two of us on Scafell Pike. Yes, Snowdon has been desecrated and the Ben needs some attention, but we are not going to win this battle by restricting people from enjoying a walk on a well-known mountain. Far more people climb the Ben for simple enjoyment than to rush up it in some sweat-soaked frenzy. If we charge these people for the right to climb a mountain or to access wild land, how do we expect them to react when we ask for funds to enhance our National Parks?

Yours sincerely,
Dave Windle (on behalf of North East Mountain Trust)

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