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Carl Lis - the head of the UK's National Parks on his fears for their future

PUBLISHED: 20:32 03 December 2012 | UPDATED: 12:15 28 February 2013

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Never have we needed our national parks more than we do today yet they are under government threat. Terry Fletcher reports

When you pay peanuts, so the old saying goes, you get monkeys. Carl Lis would tell you thats not always so. Just occasionally, he believes, you get some of Britains most dedicated people and a national bargain. Carl is nearing the end of a second four year stint as head of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and has just been re-elected as chairman of UKANPA, the umbrella association for all 15 UK parks.

Chairing the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is the job which he says has brought him more pleasure than any other he has ever had but it brings plenty of headaches too, although none as big as todays. Now he is worried for the very future of the national park movement itself.

Although not publicly owned, the parks are largely financed by the government through grants from the environment ministry DEFRA but after budgets were cut by a third and with the threat of further reductions on the way he thinks that national parks are at a tipping point.

He says: I once worked out that the grant for all the national parks in England was the same as the support for the National Theatre in London alone but our audience runs into millions of people every year. That works out at just coppers per visitor. Its peanuts.

In return, he says, England gets a priceless resource in the shape of thousands of square miles of protected landscape stretching from Dartmoor and the New Forest in the south, all the way up to Northumbria and the Lake District. Yorkshire alone lays claim to three parks the same number as the whole of Wales - in the Dales, the North York Moors and about a third of the Peak District, which stretches its fingers towards Holmfirth and Huddersfield. Now Scotland has two parks, centred on Loch Lomond and the Cairngorms with Ulster possibly set to follow. Each year the parks attract a total of more than seventy million visitors who in turn pour an estimated 4.8bn into their local economies

National parks are an absolute bargain, says Carl. And the country needs them now more than ever. They are the countrys breathing spaces, the places where people can go for peace and tranquillity. That has been a part of their role since the first national park, the Peak District, was designated after the Second World War and, he says, that basic need has never changed. Since then, however, the pace of life and its pressures have increased, making the parks more necessary than ever.

They are much more than just beautiful places. When I talk to people from the health authorities I tell them they do not make enough use of the parks. They are marvellous places for exercise but also to just relax and soak up the tranquillity. I think for many people they are more use than going to the bathroom cabinet for some tablets.

They also have an important cash value, as was proved during the devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001. That summer restrictions closed the national footpath network, visitors stayed away and many rural businesses were driven to the brink of bankruptcy and beyond, bringing home to many, including politicians, perhaps for the first time, the importance of the tourist economy.

But that economy depends on high quality landscape conservation, as delivered by the national parks and he fears it may not be possible for much longer. We have had 30 per cent cuts already and had to make good people, dedicated people, who were doing good work redundant and the message we are getting now is that we have to make more savings.

We have things we are obliged to do by law and Im not sure we will be able to. We may not have the pressures of local authorities who are trying to balance all kinds of services but nor do we have the council tax to fall back on. If our grant is cut it hits us particularly hard. And if we are not looking after the landscape will the visitors still come?

Carl, who comes from the hard-headed world of business where he managed the local quarry at Ingleton, says: The government said it wanted to be the greenest government ever but now it is concentrating on just one thing. The first round of cuts was made in a rush and it was across the board. If it is done the same way again we are looking at our very existence.

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