After more than 11 years of political quarreling and opposition from sheep ranchers who fear wolves, state officials have finally set up a new national park in the southern portion of the hills and forests on Oslo’s eastern side. The park will be smaller than initially proposed, but still aims to protect wildlife and nature in important lowlands of southeastern Norway.
The area, known as Østmarka, has long been a popular recreational area for skiers, hikers and, earlier, timber, sawmill and other forestry operations along with small farms. It’s bordered by the municipalities of Oslo, Lørenskog, Rælingen, Enebakk and Nordre Follo.
Oslo officials quickly embraced the national park project, and promoted it after it was first proposed in 2012, but it also needed approval from officials in all the other local governments bordering on the area. Ranchers and other rural interests on the park’s eastern side, especially in Enebakk, objected, because much of the original area included open grazing land and land under private ownership. Opponents, for example, didn’t go along with a national park’s inherent protection of predators.
After years of political disagreement among all involved, a breakthrough came when only publicly owned and managed areas would be included in the park itself. All municipalities approved the new proposed area except Enebakk, nor was there a political majority supporting the park in Parliament.
It was only after the Liberal Party joined the former Conservatives-led government in 2018 that the issue moved forward again, with the Liberals’ climate and environment minister, Ola Elvestuen, taking on the cause against his own government partners (the Conservatives and Progress Party) and not least the farmer-friendly Center Party in opposition. The Labour, Greens, Socialist Left and Liberal parties all supported the national park plan that ironically enough hsa now finally been approved by the Labour-Center government now in power.
The new park will cover 53.9 square kilometers, including a nature preserve and and the protected recreational area called Spinneren already set up in the area. Other recreational areas of Østmarka will also be preserved, resulting in around 71 square kilometers of protected nature in total.
Helga Gunnarsdóttir, chairman of the organization Østmarkas Venner (Friends of Østmarka), is delighted and relieved. “We had hoped the process would take four to five years,” from when it was first launched, she told newspaper Dagsavisen on Saturday. “When it took more than 11 years just to protect forests in publicly owned areas, we can only expect it can take even longer to protect private land.”
She called the decision, announced Friday by Labour’s new minister in charge of climate and the environment, Andreas Bjelland Eriksen, “fantastic news that we’ve waited a long time to get.” He got off to a rocky start earlier this fall, after the Labour-Center government failed to embrace new calls to phase out Norway’s oil and gas industry.
“We’re protecting Østmarka both to preserve nature in itself and to make sure everyone in the future retains access to more intact nature for recreation and enjoying the outdoors,” Eriksen stated. He added that establishment of the park will also contribute to new global preservation goals.
“This will be good for the nature, good for the people and good for public health,” he said. It will still be possible to use the park for organized sports training, skiing on groomed trails already in place, bicycling and use of electric bicycles. Those with privately owned cabins in the area will also still be allowed to chop wood for their own use. Any construction of new buildings will be forbidden, along with other timber-cutting.
Environmental advocates were also relieved. “Having a national park so close to the capital (Oslo) is quite unique and will contribute to both forest preservation and outdoor recreation,” said Karoline Andaur, head of WWF in Norway. Lars Haltbrekken, the former head of Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbund), said there was “all reason” to celebrate the new park. “Finally Oslo and Akershus (the neighbouring country) will also get a national park,” said Haltbrekken, now a Member of Parliament for the Socialist Left Party (SV).
Most other national parks are in more remote wilderness areas of central Norway and northwards. Only limited new infrastructure will be set up to mark the establishment of the park, with a planned park center, maps and some signs to inform the public of the area that features not just forests but also marshes, lakes, waterways and various cultural landmarks.