During the week from 30 August to 5 September, the Corridor Talk team convened in the Pyrenean region of southwest France, more specifically the pleasant spa town of Bagnères-de-Bigorre, for a series of half-day field trips and business meetings. The trips, to the neighbouring mountain areas of Cauterets and Lac d’Estaing, involved short hikes (and inclement weather!), the latter accompanied by senior Pyrenees National Park ranger Etienne Farand, who recounted stories of regular bear attacks in the region, and who – echoing the figures given by Marco Heurich for Bavarian Forest NP last year – explained the pressures being put on the National Park by increased visitor numbers during the pandemic, and by the emergence – welcome in other ways – of new demographics for tourism in the region, at least some of the visitors associated with which had never been to a national park before.
A further source of tension in Pyrenees NP and other French NPs was revealed to us in a lively meeting with Laurent Grandsimon, the President of Pyrenees NP, a local mayor and member of the steering committee for the French National Office for Biodiversity, who told us that regional and federal conservation objectives don’t always meet and that while local concerns are always taken into consideration, these are not always the best ways of tackling conservation issues that need to be looked at both locally and nationally, and addressed on multiple political levels as well as on multiple temporal and spatial scales.
Laurent also forcefully communicated to us that he was not a fan of the high publicity that bear attacks in the region were continuing to receive, with the result that bear reintroductions had become a poisoned political issue, and that the circumstances surrounding them had come to deflect attention away from some of the other, more pressing environmental issues surrounding the maintenance and governance of Pyrenees National Park. As Etienne also explained to us the next day, so-called ‘charismatic megafauna’ (such as the brown bear) continue to attract a disproportionate amount of media attention, which can be useful in drawing public attention to conservation problems, but can also result in simplified or skewed understandings of complex conservation debates.
It was useful for the team to hear these sentiments being expressed by park officials with vast experience of working in the region (Etienne) and/or lobbying for conservation action at national level and beyond (Laurent). It was similarly useful for the team to gain first-hand experience of the mixed terrain of a national park, to get a sense of the sheer magnitude and diversity of it, and to hear about some of the conservation problems bound up with it: ‘wicked problems’, at least some of them, which have no ready solution and are themselves contained within larger (global) environmental crises such as widespread species extinction and accelerated climate change. The trip to France also gave the team valuable face-to-face time with one another – no mean feat given the continuing influence of the pandemic – and provided an opportunity for a series of conversations and meetings to plan for the future, and to talk about the current state of our individual and collaborative work. We hope to meet for a similar event in the Bavarian Forest National Park next year, since the workshop we organised in 2020 had to be held online; we also set timelines for current and future publications relating to the project. All in all, this was an excellent week that was hugely important, both for the project and for the mental and physical well-being of the project participants themselves.