Managing Wilderness in Iceland as Climate Change Melts Its Glaciers

Audrey Ingolfsdottir balances tourism and environmental protection as board chair of Vatnajokull National Park

Audrey Ingólfsdóttir, F99, performs a balancing act. An academic who has devoted her career to sustainability issues, she chairs the board of Iceland’s largest wilderness area, Vatnajökull National Park. She must protect this UNESCO World Heritage site, but, at the same time, she must also manage its use by ever increasing numbers of tourists. Celebrated for its massive glacier, snow-capped peaks, and volcanic areas, the park covers 15 percent of the island nation and represents a large share of Europe’s remaining wilderness. As a national park, the wilderness area is protected from large-scale development.  Ingólfsdóttir says that in the future the most ecologically vulnerable and remote areas might be granted an even stronger protection status that permits only low-impact tourism.

Retreating Glaciers

Iceland created Vatnajökull National Park in 2008 to bar construction of geothermal power plants and hydroelectric dams and promote tourism and rural development. Today the park’s biggest problems stem from climate change and competing tourism interests, says Ingólfsdóttir, who teaches at Bifröst University and the Centre for Capacity, Development, Sustainability, and Societal Change. The park’s glaciers are retreating 100 yards annually. “Five years ago, an ice cave might have been an easy walk from a parking lot. Today, that cave might be a third of a mile away, and tourism companies want us to lengthen roads,” says Ingólfsdóttir.

Tourism Politics

The number of visitors to Iceland shot from 300,000 in 2000 to 2.3 million in 2018. The country’s popularity has put pressure on the board and the four regional committees of the park, which must weigh the competing interests of various stakeholders. “We need more infrastructure to steer people to certain places,” Ingólfsdóttir says. “We need geographic balance because everyone wants their share of the tourism cake. We have opportunities to charge fees for certain things, but these are highly political decisions.” The work unites her conflict management skills with her natural resource management expertise.

Pivot Point

Ingólfsdóttir dug deep to find new faith in humanity in 2006. She had gone with high hopes to Sri Lanka to serve on a cease-fire monitoring mission as that nation’s civil war escalated. “The project was forward-thinking. It used all the progressive conflict resolution methodology I learned at Fletcher, but it could only succeed when everyone worked in good faith,” she recalls. After seeing “really ugly things,” she became pessimistic about humanity’s ability to solve its problems. “I had to make a decision—am I going to stay down in a hole, or am I going to walk up again? Thankfully, climbing out was what I decided to do.” The ordeal gave her a deeper understanding of the darker side of human nature and made her a stronger feminist. “I became more radical in a way and concluded we need more transformative methods for change,” she says. 

Common Ground

A peacekeeper at heart, Ingólfsdóttir is motivated not only by preserving the park’s undisturbed terrain but also by amicably resolving conflicts between her fellow citizens. Locals for decades traversed the park’s remote highland region on foot and on snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles. Today the most difficult disputes are between these domestic groups who have deeply conflicting values and suspect each other’s motives. “These are very complicated conflicts,” says Ingólfsdóttir, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Iceland and University of Lapland in International Relations and Gender Studies. “Some people who are into deep ecology want stricter protection in certain areas, including a complete ban on all motorized traffic, and this is completely unacceptable to some other groups.” 

When Ingólfsdóttir was younger, slow progress on climate change left her frustrated. Now she finds satisfaction in team efforts and takes a longer view. “Everything I do has to do with transformation from the inside out. We must first search for harmony inside ourselves,” she says. “Once we have that, we can create external change through constructive dialogues that resolve differences in respectful ways.”

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