20 years on from the day Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park was officially opened, our Chief Executive Gordon Watson shares his reflections on the last 20 years, and his thoughts on the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.
Anniversaries are not just points of celebration but mark a time to reflect too. It has been an amazing and unique journey for me to have been part of the process of setting up Scotland’s first National Park in 2002 following the approval of the National Parks (Scotland) Act in 2000. Many, many eminent people had long campaigned for National Parks in Scotland and so helping create a new Authority from scratch in 2002 I certainly felt a great weight of responsibility. My own initial task was to set up a new planning authority and take forward early strategy development as the first Director of Planning.
The main thing I learned in those early years was the need to prioritise. With so many people passionate about what a National Park should do, it became clear it was impossible to meet everyone’s expectations and make meaningful progress. The challenge, and the thing that makes it such a special job working for a National Park, is the need to focus on the most important issues and concentrate efforts on finding the right solutions to them.
I’m proud of what our dedicated team has achieved over the years. There are lots of important areas of our work that tend to get less attention. The investment in improving and maintaining our path network including mountain paths, as well as local and long distance routes such as our significant stretch of the West Highland Way. The huge effort that goes into every visitor season to welcome our visitors, keep them safe and ensure responsible behaviour, while looking after our busiest sites. The early establishment of community action planning which continues to this day and has led to so much being delivered with our communities through the extensive network of community trusts that we helped to get set up.
Most of all, I’m proud of the fact that as an organisation we do not shy away from the difficult issues and are constantly looking to deliver positive and creative solutions. We’ve taken tough planning decisions where the special qualities of the National Park needed to come first. We have secured some landmark court judgements upholding access rights and establishing important case law in Scotland. Sometimes we’ve had to raise inconvenient truths that some would rather not discuss. We have world class access rights, but it has to be recognised that some recreational activities carried out irresponsibly and at high volume need to be managed, when our environment and the enjoyment of it by the responsible majority is being damaged. We’ve introduced byelaws where the extremes of these behaviours need to be dealt with and to rebalance enjoyment with looking after our nature, visitors and communities. Many other parts of rural Scotland now experiencing these issues are looking to learn from our experiences.
I’m also proud that as an organisation we are so responsive to the rapid changes happening in the National Park particularly those we have seen in recent years. How we responded as an organisation to the unpredictable changes and significant challenges brought about by the COVID pandemic was awe-inspiring to me, and I am so indebted to our staff who gave everything over that period. The importance of the National Park and nature to people’s health and well-being could not have been more clearly demonstrated.
Our responsiveness to new issues, demonstrated by the current consultation on the Loch Lomond byelaws, represents a rapid response to significant changes in water recreation on the Loch.
Looking back over 20 years, the most striking thing is how much has changed, both in our work and the wider context in which our National Parks work. While we will continue to make sure Loch Lomond and The Trossachs is a fantastic place to enjoy the outdoors whatever your background, the twin crises of climate change and significant decline in nature and biodiversity are now our biggest challenge and priority.
The National Park has the opportunity to demonstrate how to achieve net zero as a place, both reducing emissions and investing in improving our natural carbon stores such as our peatlands and woodlands. We also need to step-up our efforts to restore nature at scale, building on established successes like the Great Trossachs Forest. We won’t be able to do this alone, and more than ever we will rely on working in partnership with organisations, communities, businesses and landowners to make the urgent progress needed.
I remain absolutely privileged to be in the position to lead an organisation full of such committed and talented people, who are all getting behind achieving the best they can for this very special place over the next twenty years, and beyond.
Chief Executive Officer