[VIEWPOINT]Our national parks have it backwardAn ibex is a type of wild mountain goat that lives in the Alps. With large crescent-shaped horns on its head, an ibex cuts a graceful figure on top of a rock perpetually covered with snow. They spend their summers in France and winters in Italy. The Italian government created the Grand Paradiso National Park to protect the animals, and France followed by designating Vanoise National Park.
However, as long as a border fence exists, the life of an ibex cannot be complete. Despite the efforts of the two governments, the number of ibexes has continued to dwindle.
An idea was proposed to combine the two parks, and after 20 years of contemplation and planning, the fences were removed throughout the habitat of the ibex. A preservation zone transcending the border was created in 1992. The ibexes finally could freely move around the mountains of the Alps.
The idea that an ecosystem can transcend a political boundary is a relatively new concept.
In medieval times, national parks were hunting grounds for the powerful. The word “forest” actually refers to a wooded area set aside for hunting by the royal family.
The purpose of conservation was nothing more than an effort to increase the number of hunting sprees.
Korea had a similar tradition. Development was banned in an approximately 25-mile radius around the four major gates of Hanyang, the old name for Seoul. The area was designated Seongjeosipri.
The pine trees in this zone were called “golden pines.” Not even the aristocrats could cut them down.
While the main purpose of Seongjeosipri was to defend the fortress, the king and the members of noble families frequently used it as a hunting ground.
In the olden days, hunting was not a mere pastime. It was a national event that doubled as a military drill. Military arts were displayed, and the unity of the king and the vassals were strengthened. In the fairy tale, “Ondal the fool and Princess Pyeonggang,” Ondal was promoted to a general at a hunting contest celebrating the new spring on March 3.
Yellowstone National Park became the first national park in a modern sense in 1872. At the time, the national park was designed to be a playground for the citizens to enjoy freely.
Conservation was an idea to preserve the intrinsic value of nature so people could enjoy it more. This type of national park spread around the world in the 20th century.
However, national parks are evolving. They have been given a role in protecting and improving the Earth’s survival system by preserving the natural ecosystem. As we have seen in the example of the ibexes, even a national border can be ignored if necessary. There are 45 national parks in Europe and 33 in Africa that transcend national borders.
While the eco-friendly concept is a global trend, Korean national parks are going backward.
One of the most noticeable moves is the abolition of the entrance fees to the national parks, a decision pushed by the government and the ruling party.
Starting next year, Koreans can enter 20 national parks around the country for free, but that is hardly good news.
I already hear chopping and scratching noises like an hallucination. The opponents insist that those who benefit from a park should pay a fee, but the government claims that parks are part of the natural environment, not artificial facilities, so such a fee is inappropriate.
To policymakers, the national parks were nothing but a field trip destination. The authorities have an even more pathetic reason. About 30 percent of the budget for the national parks should come from entrance fee profits. Authorities now need to find a better way to secure a stable budget from the government.
Politicians are swayed by interest groups. As of 2004, there were 447 restaurants, 227 lodging facilities, 37 karaoke bars and 27 pubs in business in and around the 18 national parks, with the exception of Mount Halla and Gyeongju.
Such commercialization is unprecedented in any other national park around the world, but the politicians insist they need to remove the entrance fees because the number of tourists is decreasing.
The Oze region in Japan, which was designated as a national park in 1934, is the largest marshland in Japan, located 200 meters above sea level.
The authorities have promoted a strategy to purposefully discourage tourists from visiting the Oze region by closing mountain paths, prohibiting cars from entering and getting rid of trash cans.
After a half-century-long preservation effort, the Oze National Park can finally afford to open up its hiking paths. It is a great example of nature and people harmoniously coexisting.
It is frustrating that the administrators have failed to learn this lesson when model examples are all over. It’s conservation, stupid!
* The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom