National Geographic Traveler magazine, July/August 2002
Travelwatch: Preserving Our Great Destinations
Hydropower vies with traveler power for the future of a unique landscape
By Jonathan B. Tourtellot
Geotourism Editor, National Geographic Traveler
Director of Sustainable Tourism, National Geographic Society
Driving across the open green terrain, you won’t see one of Iceland’s best known sites until you’re almost upon it. Only when you park next to the tour buses and stroll over to the rim of a gorge do you first hear, and then see, Gullfoss—the Golden Waterfall. The falls that almost died.
Walk down the path through the roiling mist, your eyes and ears filled with the cascade, and it’s easy to overlook the plaque erected nearby to honor a local farm woman, Sigrid Tómasdóttir. Sigrid (known Icelandic-style by her first name) died in 1957 at age 86, but the battle she once waged to preserve this place now echoes across the decades. Citizens of the world’s great destinations would do well to remember her.
And Iceland is a great destination. After five trips, I still haven’t tired of the saga-steeped geography, the overachieving people, the volcanic big-sky landscapes. I’m not alone; only the fishing fleet earns Iceland more revenue than tourism.
Last year I revisited Gullfoss. In this land of waterfalls, Gullfoss is surely the most toured. Not only is it a mighty, double falls, it’s well located: just six miles from the famous Geysir geothermal area (from which our word “geyser” derives) and about two hours’ drive east from Reykjavik, the capital—perfect for day tours by travelers checking out Iceland on their way across the Atlantic.
We visitors should thank Sigrid. In the 1920s she fought wealthy Icelanders who wanted to dam Gullfoss on behalf of foreign hydropower interests. To block the dam, Sigrid made numerous horseback trips to the capital over rough country in tough weather. (Her lawyer would become the first president of the Republic of Iceland in 1944.) Despite setbacks, the falls were finally saved, becoming a nature reserve in 1979. Now, some 300,000 people see Gullfoss every year.
North from the falls, a four-wheel-drive road took me into a realm where new battles have arisen. I wanted to see a hot-spring field and backcountry camp called Hveravellir, deep in the western section of Iceland’s uninhabited central highlands.
Well, sort of uninhabited. In the cool, crystal, endless daylight of high-latitude summer, vacationers both domestic and foreign venture into these stark, untrammeled highlands by foot, mountain bike, SUV, even high-clearance tour bus. For the next couple of hours I traversed a landscape unmatched anywhere on Earth—lava deserts, lakes, subarctic oases, glaciers. For Iceland, it’s a tourism treasure.
And part of it is at risk from, yes, hydropower.
In the highlands 80 miles east of the road to Hveravellir, the Icelandic government wants to build the controversial Kárahnjúkar (cow-rahn-you-car) project: a major hydroelectric dam, several lesser dams, and the country’s largest power plant. All this would provide juice for a huge new aluminum smelter, to be sited 34 miles away on the rural eastern coast. Norsk Hydro of Norway—foreign interests again—would build and run the plant, producing metal for cookware, airplane parts, and other such aluminia.
Opponents argue that the Kárahnjúkar area should instead be a national park. They say that the new roads, reservoirs, and dams would destroy a rare ecosystem, as well as the experience of visiting an empty hinterland. “It’s the largest intact wilderness in western Europe,” says Árni Finnsson, chairman of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association. “It’s unfragmented by human structures. We’ve had visitors from the Sierra Club in the U.S. who were stunned by it.”
With Icelanders split on the issue, the environment minister, Siv Fridleifsdottir, gave a conditional go-ahead to the project last December, citing the need for rural jobs so that young people won’t keep moving to the city. But in March this year, Norsk Hydro balked, delaying any decision to join the project. Undaunted, the government is now wooing Alcoa.
I reached Hveravellir, where a chill wind tore apart clouds of steam from the hot springs. The dormitory-style visitors hut looked over a sprawl of tents and camper vans. A boardwalk wound among the geothermal formations—bubbling pools, a whistling steam vent, and polychromatic silica deposits. A round turquoise spring, dinner-platter size, entranced me. Every few seconds it would blurp and issue a single bubble, sending out a perfect, circular ripple. Zen hot spring. Its Icelandic name means Virgin’s Eye.
An Icelander complained to me about a long-contested plan to improve the road to Hveravellir for tour buses and build a restaurant for them here. More visitors at this little site? I looked at all the tents. I looked at the delicate,
unprotected mineral formations. Gullfoss can withstand busloads, but not these springs. How long before some klutz fries his foot in the Virgin’s Eye?
Politicians rarely seem to get it right: At the proposed dam site, Kárahnjúkar, for instance, Icelandic leaders don’t see the fruits of tourism; at the hot springs at Hveravellir, they’re ready to cut down the whole fruit tree to get at them.
Still, the promise of tourist cash helps preservation advocates argue their case. Worldwide, the economic power that travelers now muster puts projects like Kárahnjúkar under added scrutiny. If hydropower wins today, will people travel tomorrow to see an Icelandic highland that is less wild, laced by roads and power lines, its rivers tamed and piped?
At Gullfoss, looking at all those tour buses, I had wondered how much money travelers from abroad have put into the local economy. Would damming the falls have earned as much?
Either way, the kind of sites we leave for future visitors matters more. After all, Sigrid didn’t fight for Gullfoss to bolster the country’s balance-of-payments sheet. She fought for the falls because they were beautiful.