Gordon Watson, new National Park chief, speaks to Scotland Outdoors

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We caught up with the new chief executive of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park on his first week in the job.

You had more than 300 responses to the consultation exercise on the proposed changes affecting camping in the National Park. Were you happy with that?

Yes, we were delighted to get so much interest in the proposals. The team are working very hard already, going through them all. I think we’ve got about 800 individual comments within those 332 responses, so there is a lot to analyse and a lot for us to think about, but that’s what consultations are for.

So how long will that process take?

We don’t have a firm timetable. It takes time. The next stage will be for us to report on all the points raised and to make recommendations, firstly to our board, about what the next steps should be and what changes we should be considering. And if the board supports a proposal, whether amended or not, then we would have to go to our Minister, Aileen McLeod, for the part of the package that involves a by-law. I would hope we would be sharing the outcome of the consultation with our board, and that would obviously be public as well, towards the springtime. We want to maintain momentum on this but take the time to consider what the consultation has said in doing so.

The proposals may be amended, but may they be completely dropped?

Well, the consultation isn’t a referendum. A lot of the media coverage is focused on anti-social behaviour, but this is an issue about an unsustainable amount of camping that is destroying the environment. We need some means of controlling the amount of camping that happens, anti-social behaviour or not, because the environment cannot cope with it. Those problems are not going away and we would be in dereliction of our duty to say that we’re going to just drop everything and forget about it.

Very roughly, when do you think any changes will come in?

Key to this is having more camping facilities available and we’re targeting having the first campsites available by the 2016 season as pasrt of an ongoing programme. So that’s what we’re working towards right now.

So far, has any particular theme or consensus emerged?

Where there is consensus is in our main partner public bodies, who all support the proposals, in our communities in the centre of these issues, who have all written in support of the proposals. A lot of individual members of the public have contributed and that has been very much differing opinions, some in support and some against. And as you’d expect, some of the prominent outdoors organisations oppose by-laws. Everybody supports better camping and more camping. Who wouldn’t? But a few think we should continue to enforce existing laws, despite the fact that that’s clearly not resolving the issue because that’s what we’re currently doing.

What would your response be to the objection that wild camping bans penalise considerate campers as well inconsiderate ones?

Well, the thing we have to be clear about is that in the areas we’re talking about, during the busy summer season, it is not wild camping. Nobody can wild camp there because of the huge amount of car-borne camping that is happening. So there is nothing available for genuine wild camping in these problem areas; 95 per cent of the park, under these proposals, is still available for wild camping, and these are the places that genuine wild campers tend to want to go anyway.

Sunrise from Ben A'an - Photograph: Donald McMillan

A special viewpoint for Gordon Watson – from the top of Ben A’an. Photograph: Donald McMillan

Looking ahead, what difference are you hoping to make as chief executive?

Well, I’ve been in the organisation since its creation in 2002 so I’ve accumulated a significant amount of experience of all of our issues during that time. I’m looking to make sure that our focus will continue to be on investing in the facilities that the park needs to support a great visitor experience. If we do that then we support conservation and we support the economy. But what I really want to see, and make a difference on over the next few years, is more people who don’t currently access the park coming to enjoy it. So I want kids from the urban areas to come and camp in the park and use our facilities as they haven’t done before. We’re the most accessible National Park in the UK. How can we get more people to enjoy what’s here? I want to see that as a theme as we move forward. There are partnerships, with the John Muir Award, for example, where our ranger service works to help children and young people connect with, enjoy and care for the National Park.

As chief executive will you have a lot to do with your equivalents in the other national parks in the UK?

Absolutely. All the UK national park chief executives meet a few times a year to discuss common issues and to look at how we promote national parks to the public and internationally. And we work very closely with the National Parks that are closest geographically – the Cairngorms, but the Lake District and Northumberland too. We learn from each other all the time. We have a lot of delegations visiting, not just from UK National Parks but from European ones too, to look at what we’re doing – particularly at our broad remit to look at community and economic issues as well as environmental and recreational ones.



Is there any particular area where Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park has excelled? 

We’re seen as very innovative in the way we engage people in planning. We use social media, videos, all sorts of innovative workshops that engage people in planning in the national park and that’s been achieving national recognition. I think we are obviously dealing with some of the heavier visiting pressures and our approach to that, and our working with Police Scotland, is unprecedented. We are working closely with the communities in dealing with a lot of these issues, and the communities themselves are delivering projects to benefit the National Park. We just opened a bridge in Glen Tarken, near St Fillans, which is a community development project. Bracklinn Bridge in Callander is a community project; we’ve just seen the first community hydro scheme in the National Park. The community delivery of Park schemes has been magnificent and people are very interested in how that’s come about.

What conservation goals do you have over the next several years?

We’re about to embark on a £3 million initiative to upgrade our upland footpaths. We were successful, with the Cairngorms in accessing Heritage Lottery funds as a partnership bid and that’ll be getting under way in the coming year. We’ll see a lot of our heavily used upland paths being restored and upgraded to make them fit for use for high-quality mountain experiences. People just don’t realise that this wild, wonderful place requires so much upkeep, but these projects are fantastic in enhancing access.

We have a similar challenge with the long distance routes, in particular the West Highland Way. We spent £600,000 on Conic Hill, which is one of the busiest stretches, and I think if you go there now it’s in a far more healthy state than it was a couple of years ago.

Native woodland expansion is also happening. The big one is the Great Trossachs Forest, which is a collaboration with the Forestry Commission, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust. We’re also working with a lot of our private landowners and estates to look at opportunities for more woodland expansion and improving woodland networks.

Government money has been made available through Scottish Natural Heritage for peatland restoration, and we have been engaging with some of the biggest estates in the Park, where a lot of the important peatlands are. We are applying for funding at the moment.

Tom Weir - Photograph Paul Saunders

The new statue of broadcaster Tom Weir at Balmaha picnic area. Photograph: Paul Saunders

Have you got some favourite places in the Park that mean a lot to you?

One thing I really enjoyed over the Christmas period was when we unveiled a statue of Tom Weir, to coincide with what would have been his 100th birthday. Tom Weir inspired me, like many people, to get out and enjoy my countryside. I did the West Highland Way the first year it was open, when I was 15 years old. I camped on east Loch Lomond. I’m lucky enough to live on Loch Lomondside now. So Loch Lomond has been a big part of my life, just being there, looking across the panorama is very special to me.

What about any other places further east?

A place that is quite easy for many people to get to, but offers a spectacular experience, is the top of Ben A’an, where you get the fantastic panorama of the Trossachs and Loch Katrine. I think that’s a very special place.

When you’re able to relax and have a few days off, what do you like to do in the outdoors? Are you still a camper?

I do camp and I camp every year, either in Scotland or abroad. I very much enjoy camping with my family. And like many people in jobs such as mine, it’s making sure you find the time to do it. On Sunday we had a magnificent day and so I made sure I got out and climbed Conic Hill to enjoy the views. So I’m lucky to live and work here and I like to enjoy other parts of Scotland as well. I visit Mull, one of the many great islands in Scotland, regularly.

www.lochlomond-trossachs.org



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One comment on “Gordon Watson, new National Park chief, speaks to Scotland Outdoors
  1. Nick Kempe says:

    Gordon Watson\’s claims in this interview do not stand up to scrutiny.

    1) “A lot of the media coverage is focused on anti-social behaviour, but this is an issue about an unsustainable amount of camping that is destroying the environment. We need some means of controlling the amount of camping that happens, anti-social behaviour or not, because the environment cannot cope with it.”

    FACT it was the National Park, no-one else, who gave prominence in their consultation to police figures which showed an 81% reduction in antisocial behaviour on the whole of east Loch Lomondside and Gordon Watson himself repeated those claims in the media, for example in the studio discussion with Denis Canavan on Scotland 2015. Gordon Watson has now publicly acknowledged on the Out of Door programme that these figures were for a much wider area than those covered by the bye-laws. The Park has produced no evidence to date to show that any improvements along east loch Lomond can be attributed to the camping ban rather than other measures such as the alcohol and car bans.

    2) “Where there is consensus is in our main partner public bodies, who all support the proposals………….

    FACT Sportscotland have objected to the proposals and SNH have made clear they do not support bye laws until the National Park has delivered on creating new campsites.

    3) “Well, the thing we have to be clear about is that in the areas we’re talking about, during the busy summer season, it is not wild camping. Nobody can wild camp there because of the huge amount of car-borne camping that is happening. So there is nothing available for genuine wild camping in these problem areas; 95 per cent of the park, under these proposals, is still available for wild camping, and these are the places that genuine wild campers tend to want to go anyway.”

    FACT The Access Code states; “Access rights extend to wild camping. This type of camping is lightweight, done in small numbers and only for two or three nights in any one place. You can camp in this way wherever access rights apply, but help to avoid causing problems for local people and land managers by not camping in enclosed fields of crops or farm animals and by keeping well away from buildings, roads or historic structures.”

    My opinion. The National Park appears to be trying to redefine the legal meaning of the term wild camping. It has no right or authority to do so. If it is car-borne camping that is the problem the National Park could repeal the bye laws along most of east Loch Lomond because now there is an urban clearway no car-based camping is possible.

    FACT The National Park’s own research indicates that the problems are concentrated on a few weekends of the year in particular hotspots. The proposals however are for a much wider area than the hotspots and extend 1 March to 30 October.

    FACT While the proposed ban may only cover 5% of the Park, it covers a much greater proportion of the area where camping is possible. The areas outside the zones are mainly too steep for camping and often covered in blanket forestry. I have asked the Park for how much of the campable land is covered by the ban.

    4) “So I want kids from the urban areas to come and camp in the park and use our facilities as they haven’t done before.”

    FACT Among the objections raised by the Scottish Canoe Associations and John Muir Trust among others is that the bye laws will stop young people doing canoeing expeditions.

    My opionion: The proposed ban could hit young people most of all: they are the least likely to be able to afford campsites, however, cheap and also if excercising access rights for the first time are most likely to choose to go to places like the shore of our lochs rather than up in the hills. The Park has done no analysis of the impact of the existing ban on walkers of the West Highland Way but has assumed that as there have been no complaints there is no problem.

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