Interview with Daniel BRAGARD, Representative of the Escaut Plains Natural Park, in Belgium
In a few words, could you introduce the Escaut Plains Natural Park to us?
The area of this natural park adjoins the French border to the west of the Province of Hainaut and practically reaches the boundaries of six different municipalities (Communes).
This area of 26,000 hectares is characterized by the alluvial plain of the Escaut River and numerous canals (Nimy-Péronnes, Blaton-Ath, the old Maubray canal); all in all it covers 63 km of navigable waterways that crisscross the park from west to east and from south to north, the latter possessing wetlands of international importance, such as the Swamps of Harchies-Hensies-Pommeroeul, or areas of more local interest such as the Verne swamps, the ancient meandering waterways and swamps of the River Escaut, and also moors and sandy outcrops. Here we also find huge wooded areas (5,000 hectares, covering 20 % of the territory) such as the Stambruges and Bon-Secours national forests. Farmland (55 % of the park's area) dotted with villages (43) and hamlets, where 61,000 people live full time, centres and striking regional sites such as the Archéosite d' Aubechies and the Stambruges "sea of sand" can also be found here.
What are your objectives with regard to your current plans?
In the medium term:
"Having precise knowledge of the growth in frequentation of these areas allows us to pinpoint and match what we offer to tourism (associated products, accommodation needs ...) and to suitably manage the natural areas."
" Being able to give our partners (town [commune] / provincial / regional councils) access to objective data to help them make informed decisions with regard to rural and touristic development."
" Optimizing the potential of any investment grants"
Is it therefore just a huge observation post, noting and checking pedestrian attendance and usage?
Yes, but not only that. As a matter of fact, we are currently developing a landscaped route of some 120 kilometres which will cross the whole territory, and also cycle or bridle paths. This will allow people to combine different methods of discovering the countryside. It is a look-out post for noting attendance, but only in the broadest sense.
Between the decision-making, the acquisition and realization stages, how long was necessary?
About three years. Having time to reflect and make decisions are essential phases in order to guarantee the success of a project which is relatively heavy in investment terms (both human and material).
Even at at today's date, we are only at the beginning of a long process and a huge learning curve in creating this observation post.
How do you envisage managing your Eco-Counter park?
Putting the observation post in place presupposes a methodological study of the specific characteristics of the chosen sites.
It would also have to include various regulations regarding the implantation (meticulous attention must be paid when setting up the material) and the frequency of the data readings.
In our case:
1. The setting-up process was entrusted to a company specialising in roadsigning which had previously developed various road-based products, and was therefore more than able to deal with the difficulties inherant in managing such work.
2. The data readings will be taken by one or two trustworthy people (discretion being essential on set-up sites)
3. The method to be used for processing and returning data is currently under consideration. It will eventually be incorporated into both a management software (access) sytem and a mapping of geographical information system, and be backed up by field-based market research.
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