I should say I am not always a great fan of Monbiot’s writing, and in this article I think he makes some flawed arguments, however this Guardian article got me thinking about recreational use of rivers more widely and then how this relates to river management issues, including river restoration. The way the majority of rivers are owned and managed at the moment is targeted towards income streams for the land owner, primarily fishing through sale of permits. Although fishing is a very popular activity it is still enjoyed by only a tiny majority of people. Furthermore a river which is profitable as a fishing resource may not be the same as a diverse, viable and sustainable ecosystem long term.
It is my contention that limiting access to river environments leads to the general public failing to fully understand and appreciate them, if this is indeed the case then it goes some way to explaining a lack of support for river restoration schemes and modern, sustainable river management philosophies in general. Also by effectively barring people who are either not interested in fishing, or cannot afford the fees, from actively interacting with a river (in boats or swimming for example) it means the vast majority of people only see rivers as picturesque landscape features. By only valuing a river as something to look at issues such as biodiversity and sustainability are not relevant to people unless they pertain directly the visual health of the river.
It is interesting as contrast to look at forests and woodlands in the UK, where widespread access has long been enjoyed by the public (although some woodlands are exempt from a ‘right to roam‘). Such access engenders an understanding and valuing of the entire environment and habitat and we only have to look at the widespread protests against selling off of UK woodlands recently to see how such understanding translates into political and social engagement. Conversely issues of water pollution, invasive species and river restoration remain largely peripheral, with debates dominated by fishing groups and aesthetic concerns. A recent publicity stunt in China where an activist offered £24,000 for the environment minister to swim in one of China’s heavily polluted rivers naturally focused on what diseases the hypothetical swim may lead to rather than whether the local land-owner or angling club would allow it. Although this is a silly example, a google search for “river pollution protest” yields no UK based stories out of the first 100 hits, whereas “woodland protest” and “forest protest” yields a myriad of sites within the UK.
My colleague Adam Broadhead researches “lost urban rivers” and ways to engage the urban public with the hidden rivers in their midst; I would argue that restrictive access and usage of rivers has left a legacy of “lost rural rivers” that many people do not fully value or understand, a legacy which shapes current management and debate of rivers. Restrictive access to rivers is more than an issue for canoe clubs, it touches the heart of the way people understand and value their rivers and forcing land owners to open up access to rivers cannot come soon enough.
NB: this article was amended on 13/04/2013 to change the wording of “no public right to access or use [rivers] for recreation” to “no formal public right to access or use 97% of English for recreation” – which more accurately reflects the original Guardian article and the current legal position.