Leading a Trail Team in Iceland

By: Erica Prather, Campaign Assistant

Gudmundur Ogmundsson (superintendent of Vatnajokull National Park), Laura Kottlowski (member of 100 Women for the Wild), and Erica Prather at Ljotipollur Lake.
Gudmundur Ogmundsson (superintendent of Vatnajokull National Park), Laura Kottlowski (member of 100 Women for the Wild), and Erica Prather at Ljotipollur Lake.

From June through August of 2016, I was on an international trail team with the Environment Agency of Iceland, selected as one of 16 from around the globe to form four teams of 4, and move about Iceland weekly, assisting rangers at various reserves and National Parks with a variety of projects. We built and maintained trails, mitigated erosion through re-vegetation, and worked closely with park staff, learning the nuances of running a park operation.

I was asked to come back to Iceland as a trail team leader this summer, and elected to lead a team for one week. It takes a lot of time and resources to get to Iceland, and even more energy to camp and work in its oftentimes unforgiving climate. I have done the most extreme camping and backpacking more than anyplace else I’ve ever traveled or lived in this semi-Arctic country  – enduring 100 mph winds, sandstorms, two weeks of zero sunshine and continuous downpours. The trail teams have to be resilient and find a sense of humor and solidarity both in working and living outside.

So – why does anyone do it beyond just being a great way to see the country of Iceland?  I had to ask myself that very question considering the circumstances. For me, connecting with others who have a different background from all over the world over the same issue – conservation and love of wild places – is the reason. This year, trail team members included a Botanist from the UK, a ranger from Croatia, and people who have worked on conservation projects in Portugal, Brazil, Czech Republic. Hearing how and what people in those roles have to say about conservation and land use is a very powerful, broad lens.

I’ve also learned so much from Icelandic rangers and Superintendents of the parks in Iceland, and they learn from me. As national parks in both the US and Iceland have seen a surge in tourism over the past few years, setting record numbers of visitors, with both countries facing a staffing shortage due to budget cuts or budget shortfalls to the parks, our challenges are often similar. How do we designate areas so that they can both be protected and enjoyed? How do we deal with the current fad – drones – in our parks? When do we know to develop more infrastructure – toilets, a visitor’s center, hotels – and when to leave it alone? We share stories of what’s worked, what hasn’t, what books we are reading, where our favorite ‘secret’ spots to camp are where no tourists really go. It’s a special bond I don’t take for granted.

There are roughly 15 full time rangers in Iceland, only 300,000 residents, and over 2 million visitors per year. The challenges have been enormous, with off-road driving, illegal camping, and destructive behaviors on the rise – these issues also exist in the US, and education is key, but I’ve also shared regulations we have in place for backcountry use or in fragile areas of our monuments and national parks. Sharing information and finding solidarity in our love of wilderness is an extension of both my work with Rocky Mountain Wild as well as my desire to enhance my ‘outdoor’ experience with stewardship to land that has given me so much. This love is really its own ‘language,’ much like musicians can jam together without words, we can enjoy a park or hike with a certain level of appreciation for the nearly ‘no man’s land’ international feel of national parks around the world.

Through my friendship with Icelandic rangers, I have commented on development projects that were missing the bar on environmental assessment aspects in the Icelandic Highlands, and they have returned the favor several times as well – commenting on our Stand with Gunny campaign, for one. Showing international solidarity for wildlands further validates and demonstrates their value. Of course, economically (US National Parks are a huge draw for foreign tourists), but intrinsic value, as well.  Stepping into the backcountry, bush, Highlands, backwoods – whatever it is called in your country – is a universal experience of something deeper, something higher. It makes me unspeakably happy to be walking in a lava field with my Icelandic ranger friend, Gummao, chatting about our shared love of Edward Abbey. The force of protecting wild places is powerful, far reaching, and heartwarming. I’m inspired to keep our public lands public for more than just Americans; for Icelanders and anyone who wishes to experience them – for generations to come.

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