Sjálfboðaliðar Umhverfisstofnunar – Iceland Conservation Volunteers, 2010
Umhverfisstofnun (UST), The Environment Agency of Iceland reporting to the Ministry for the Environment, promotes the protection as well as sustainable use of Iceland’s natural resources, as well as public welfare by helping to ensure a healthy environment. Iceland Conservation Volunteers (ICV) is a programme which was created by UST to manage the conservation and sustainability of the extremely fragile Icelandic environment. The programme runs for a total of 11 weeks and sees the volunteers travelling to various National Parks and Nature Reserves throughout Iceland. Working alongside Countryside Rangers and Wardens, the volunteers assist in a series of practical projects such as footpath restoration, removal of invasive or “alien” species, way marking and improving access to the mountains by improving drainage and placing steps on steep slopes.
This summer, I was fortunate enough to be accepted onto the scheme as I wanted to gain practical experience working within nature conservation in a more demanding environment, and with helpful funding from the Eleanor Peel Trust fund, was able to purchase the camping and clothing equipment required and plane tickets to get me to the start location.
The programme consisted of a training week, and then two week placements at other National Parks and Nature Reserves around the island. A holiday week in week six was also included.
Map of the work locations I was based at throughout the summer.
The 11 week programme started with a training week in Skaftafell National Park. Here I met the other members of the 2010 Trail Team which included three Canadians, two French, a Slovenian and two British. Here we were divided into two groups of four people who we would spend the remainder of the summer with.
This was dedicated to training us volunteers in all aspects of stone work and path management in the Skaftafell National Park, South East Iceland. The work completed here was drainage on Skerhóll, a popular walk to Kristinatindar, a large mountain overlooking the Skaftafell Glacier. Each day consisted of an hour long hike to the work site, carrying tools such as rock bars, shovels, buckets and rock carriers. Once on site, we dug drainage channels alongside the existing paths and cross drains, collecting large rocks from the surrounding hillside. The rangers explained that this would improve the deteriorating path that has become a popular hiking route.
Weeks two and three
Weeks two and three were based in Reykjahlíð on Lake Myvatn. Here we were involved in a number of projects around Mývatnssveit.
The first week was spent at Dimmuborgir, the immensely popular lava field. Here, the locals and rangers were expressing concerns that the increase in tourists was having a detrimental effect on the delicate vegetation and lava formations due to notices being ignored and people straying from marked paths, creating new paths by treading down and killing mosses and damaging the lava. Our task here was to replant vegetation on the unmarked paths to try to disguise the non permitted routes and discourage people from straying from the permitted routes. We did this by visiting donor sites and carefully digging up mosses and young trees to replant. We were also involved in educating visitors to the area about the work being carried out, particularly tour groups, stressing the importance of keeping to marked paths to limit damage to the environment, not only at Dimmuborgir but in all areas of Iceland.
Week two in Mývatnssveit provided more varied tasks, including removal of invasive species (Cow Parsley) as it had been found to spread wildly making it difficult for native plants to grow. We levelled paths through Skutustadir (a popular location for visitors to the pseudo craters) where we placed temporary rubber mats along the pathways to protect the local farmer’s land and as an attempt to reduce the footpath erosion during the summer period. At Hverir, a large geothermal site, we were tasked with removing platforms that had the potential to become dangerous as the mud beneath had started to crumble, leaving the possibility that the platform could fall into the 80-100 degree mud. This was done under the strict supervision of the rangers. Our final task in this location was to walk the trails from Leirhnjúkur back to Reykjahlið, placing and painting way markers to assist hikers in their journeys.
Weeks four and five
Weeks four and five were based in Landmannalaugar in the highlands of Iceland. Here, the first week consisted of working on the famous 54 km long Laugavegur trail, the three day hike from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk. The task here was to hike all of the trails between Landmannalaugar and Hrafntinnusker (“the first hut” along the trail), and ensure that all of the way markers were visible and painted and to place more where appropriate. As this was the most difficult part of the Laugavegur, it was imperative that it was marked clearly as visitors to the area, particularly on this trail, had increased dramatically since the combination of the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and the Laugarvegur to Þórsmörk MaraÞon taking place that week.
Other work here included fencing off grassed areas to cars at the campsite, again to reduce vegetation damage, and the removal of the rapidly spreading and highly problematic Lupin, which has become a major problem in Iceland due to its aggressive growth patterns. Teams of volunteers are drafted in all year around to help to eradicate the plant, which we were included in.
Weeks seven and eight
These two weeks were based at Flokalundur in the West Fjords. Here we worked on trails on the Vatnsfjörður Nature Reserve in Breiðafjörður that had been neglected due to the lack of ranger and volunteer presence to complete the work needed. The majority of the work here consisted of re-routing the trails that had become overgrown by birch and blueberry over the years. This meant marking out a start and end point and working our way through the growth with loppers, saws and shears, using our initiative to make safe but enjoyable hiking routes.
We were also charged with the task of fencing off car access to Flókatóftir (the ruins of the first settlement in Iceland), checking the route along the popular bird cliff in Látrabjarg, and trails up to the Dynjandi waterfall in Arnarfjordur, making sure that routes were safe, clear of large rocks and well marked.
Weeks nine and ten
Working week nine and ten found us working in three locations: Asbyrgi, Vesturdalur and Dettifoss. Due to the new road being built joining the much visited Mývatnssveit to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall, visitors to the area has grown hugely in a very short time, meaning that the impact on the vegetation had deteriorated quite rapidly. It was therefore decided by the rangers at the Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park that platforms and steps were urgently needed to confine damage to limited areas of the Park. This involved digging stone steps into the steep slopes and collecting large flat rocks to create stone platforms and viewing areas.
Weeks eleven and twelve
For week eleven in Esja the team were requested by the Icelandic Mountain Rescue team and the Forest Research Station to create a stairway along a particularly steep and hazardous stretch of hillside that had been the cause of many callouts that summer due to the material on the ground being loose and slippery.
The final week involved placing information signs in Guðlaugstungur. As these areas were very remote and exposed, this involved cementing the signs into large metal cylinders and burying them to ensure that they could withstand the harsh Icelandic weather conditions.
Community, growth and personal development
The main reason behind wanting to take part in the ICV programme this summer was to gain practical experience in the nature conservation industry in a demanding and delicate environment. From my studies at university and my knowledge of Iceland, I was aware that this would be an amazing opportunity to experience such demanding tasks whilst being immersed in Icelandic culture.
With the sudden and quite explosive increase of visitors to Iceland in the past two years, Umhverfisstofnun expressed their concerns over the management of the Nature Reserves and National Parks who were ill prepared for such a sudden influx of visits to the area and so were calling on volunteers on a global scale to assist in the repair and maintenance of these fragile areas.
By taking part in this programme, I was able to contribute my time and knowledge by working alongside locals and rangers to help to reduce the impact of mass tourism to small local communities, whilst also improving the facilities and experience for the visitors to promote further visits to the area.
On a personal level I feel that I gained a lot of skills, experience and confidence through the duration of the programme. By spending prolonged periods of time with people from around the world, I feel that culturally I am more aware of behaviours and attitudes towards such projects.
The most dominant effect that the programme has had has been upon my attitude toward life. As the 11 weeks were spent camping and cooking on camp stoves, ICV has removed my obsession over possessions and personal appearance. An extract from my diary in week 6 states that:
“I have not worn make up since day 2 in Skaftafell, I haven’t shaved at all this summer, I wear the same clothes for days on end and once my underwear had the same fate, my toenails hang out all long with their chipped nail polish, my fingernails are constantly dirty, my hair hasn’t been blow dried or straightened since leaving home and is NEVER washed on a daily basis – more like weekly now! A mirror is a luxury – the last one I looked in was in Myvatn a month ago. And do you know what? No one cares. And I’m HAPPY. SO HAPPY!”
I feel that my participation in ICV this summer has had a profound effect on my personal and social development. I now have the skills and experience required to pursue my career in nature conservation, I have made great friends and contacts from around the world and my confidence in myself has risen to a height where I feel that I can achieve anything that I put my mind to, as I demonstrated through eleven weeks of hard work. I would thoroughly recommend this programme to any future volunteers and I am extremely grateful to all who helped make this possible.