Canada vs. Iceland: The National Park Edition

Canada celebrates nature. It celebrates nature as ‘wilderness’ that much attacked idea that for nature to matter it cannot be touched by human hands. This is the legacy of the human history of Canada as a settler society that was – and remains – so sparsely populated that there is ample space that can fit the idealized image of nature. This historical narrative of settlement also constructs a sense that undeveloped, unsettled, untouched environments are constantly threatened by settlement and general human meddling. This fear helps fuel the national parks movement and parks supporters use it to justify creating new parks and restrictions on access to existing ones. The sense that unless it protected by a boundary and park designation wilderness will cease to exist is problematic because it creates blinders to the value of environments humans have established relationships within and how certain uses of the land can create new environments that are reflective of human history. The fingerprints of humans do not always need to be erased from the land and recognition of how humans alter nature is valuable to understanding why we place the cultural values we do on the environment. National Parks outside North America are not focused on the ideal unpeopled and untouched wilderness and allow for humans to have a place in protected environments.

Banff National Park (taken in the Banff townsite)

A comparison of national parks in Canada and Iceland illustrates the different understanding of the place of humans in nature well. Despite the vast size difference between the island in the North Atlantic and the Great White North, both have small populations relative to land mass. In both the majority of the population are concentrated in specific areas – most Canadians live within 250km of the border and 2/3 of Icelanders live in and around Reykjavik. Literacy rates are high in both countries, though higher in Iceland, and both countries rely heavily on automobiles for transportation.

Farm near Hotel Búðir inside a nature preserve adjacent to Snæfellsjökull National Park

If you want to visit a national park in Canada or Iceland you are probably going to drive as only the most remote park in Canada require chartering an aircraft to visit. This is where the first important difference between how the nature within a national park appears. When driving up to the edge of a Canadian park signs will let you know you are approaching a protected area. From there, signs direct you towards little booths where you must pay a fee to enter the area – the exception to this are the parks the Trans-Canada highway passes through where as long as you are driving straight through and not stopping to use parks infrastructure or services there is no fee. When you pay the parks entrance fee the attendant will present you with a handful of pamphlets and booklets detailing the rules, regulations and seasonal cautions. Beyond the obvious (no hunting) the best known of these is “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Once inside the park, where you can and cannot go within the is clearly marked through well manicured trails and ample signage. Park Wardens and other staff paid to ensure you obey the rules and help out if you run into trouble and millions of dollars spent on infrastructure to ensure positive visitor experience. It is this maintenance that you are paying for with your park fee as well as a portion of your taxes. Canadian parks are controlled nature. Human hands are all over them, and yet they are held up as spaces where we have made nature paramount.

In Iceland it is possible to be in the middle of a national park and not know it. There are no gates marking your movement into a special space of nature. No fee is paid to a waiting attendant. No list of rules to adhere to. Sheep and horses continue to roam the moss-covered lava fields and functioning farms and harbors and communities go about their daily life in the same way those outside the park do. There are maintained trails but those also exist outside parks in areas popular with tourists and locals alike. There are no special national park signs for a places of historical or ecological significance, just a conveniently placed pull-out on the road or the same red and white place of interest signs found across the country. This signage is sparse and there are many places of natural beauty that are simply marked as a point on a map rather than a place of interest.


The presence of humans does not prevent a space from being a national park in Iceland, which is typical of national parks in European nations. National parks established to preserve flora, fauna, ecosystems, and human history so there is no need to distinguish between a national park and a national historic site as is the practice in Canada. There is no effort to erase human history from national parks or relegate it to controlled spaces as seen with the Cave and Basin in Banff National Park or Green Gables in PEI. When a Snæfellsjökull National Park was created in 2001 farmers were not bought out and removed from the land as occurred when national parks were created in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI. Allowing humans to remain part of the environment does not take away or undermine the importance of the nature being protected. The beauty and ecological importance of the Snæfellsjökull glacier is not diminished by the presence of sheep in the lava fields on the slopes of the mountains. The birds nesting on the cliffs between Arnarstapi and Hellnar are still protected even though fishing boats continue to come and go from Arnarstapi’s harbour. The activities of the people living within the national park are part of what makes the landscape and the environment. They contribute to the area’s importance by showing the ongoing relationships humans have with the natural world. The Snæfellsnes Peninsula is teeming with the wilderness Canadian parks erase people from to protect and the quiet presence of humans among the black peddle beaches and glacial crevasses and waterfalls and ocean-worn cliffs enhances the continued existence of wilderness.

Arnarstapi Harbour

Wilderness does not have to mean an absence of people – and as William Cronon’s much cited article “The Trouble with Wilderness” argues wilderness is a human creation. The wilderness of a national park has ample space for humans and nature; for protecting the natural environment and respecting the legacy of human use of an ecosystem. In this year when the centenary of the creation of Parks Canada is celebrated across the country we should pause to consider if it is time to recognize the constant presence of humans in our protected wilderness spaces. Maybe the second century of national parks in Canada can follow the lead of Iceland and other European parks and blur the heavy-handed boundaries drawn between wilderness and humans.


About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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3 Responses to Canada vs. Iceland: The National Park Edition

  1. Doug Weight says:

    Nice pictures and a most informative article!

  2. Good article though I slightly disagree. The key word being respect. In the U.S. many of our parks are constantly threatened by logging, oil and other extractive industries. Regulations prevent exploitation and disruption of ecosystems and habitat. Man is a natural part of the environment but can also be destructive of areas that are to be preserved in the “wild” .

    • Thanks for the comment.
      I don’t disagree that humans can be very destructive and your example of US parks is dead on for that. What I want to point out is that it is possible to have human activity within parks that is not destructive and recognizes that long before the industrialization of western society and environments this existed. To go too far one way (trying to keep human use of the land out entirely) or the other (not taking measures to mitigate destructive human behaviours) does a disservice to our understanding of the non-human that surrounds us. Finding a middle ground between these two things can encourage societies that are increasingly disconnected from natural environments to better understand that humans, no matter how hard we try to deny it, are part of all environments.

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