Unlike most of Europe, Spain has retained an extraordinarily rich natural environment, owing to geographical and historical factors. A crossroads between Atlantic and Mediterranean, Europe and Africa, it is a region where historical, cultural and sociological diversity has shaped the landscape almost as much as geographical location. One of the first countries to designate National Parks, Spain has, however, failed to ensure that some of Europe's most important habitats are adequately protected. Though there is no shortage of protective legislation, administration has been inadequate, leading to patchy enforcement.
   In the rush to develop economically during the "Spanish Miracle" of the 1960s and 1970s, scant attention was paid to the environment, so pollution and habitat destruction harmed many areas of great ecological value. New threats have appeared —especially since Spain joined the European Union—although advances have been made in protection, mainly through pressures from non-governmental agencies.
   Spain is a mountainous country, which, coupled with low population density, has helped to preserve many areas—as in the Mediterranean forests of the Tagus valley, mountain areas of the Picos de Europa and Sierra de Gata, and the almost African landscapes of the Coto de Doñana. But it has undergone dramatic transformation by human activity, leaving wilderness areas alongside agricultural landscapes which entailed clearance of the vast Mediterranean forest which once covered most of Spain. Few areas of climax forest are left, and the dry, open plains of the steppes and mesetas are covered with cereal production or grazing, both on an extensive basis and with low use of pesticides and fertilizers until the 1990s. Mountain pastures have seen continuing transhumance systems of grazing over centuries. The agro-sylvo-pastoral system of the dehesa, a parkland created from semi-cleared Mediterranean evergreen oak forests, forms the world's largest oak forest in western Spain. These and other seminatural areas are important repositories of wild life. The importance of Spain's natural environment cannot be overestimated, with large numbers of unique species of flora and fauna. European lynx, brown bear, Egyptian mongoose, black vultures, imperial eagles and black storks find their last refuge in Spain, whilst new species of plants are still discovered in remoter mountain areas. On the migration route towards Africa, millions of migrating birds pass through, many wintering in Spain itself. It is therefore of European and world importance.
   The National Parks, though well established, allow economic activity to threaten their very existence: Teide in the Canary Islands, affected by soil erosion and tourist disturbance; the Tablas de Daimiel (La Mancha), a wetland which is rarely wet; and the internationally important Coto de Doñana (south-west Andalusia), with its wetlands, dunes, forest and coastline, vital for migrating and wintering birds, is under threat from water extraction and from disturbance by agriculture and mining and tourist developments. Many areas have been designated Nature Parks, mainly through local pressures, which have been facilitated by the creation of the autonomous communities. The most important example was Monfragüe in Extremadura, the only large expanse of Mediterranean forest under strict protection in Europe, and one of the world's great reserves. Others followed, campaigners initially preferring this form of protection, with control exercised at regional, not national level, even though this sometimes led to embroilment in local/national political disputes, as in the case of the Santoña marshes. In spite of inadequate regional resources, this seemed preferable to the creation of National Parks, given the history of failures attributed to the institution supposed to protect them, the Institute for Nature Conservation (ICONA). This body was also largely responsible for reafforestation with nonnative species, a disastrous policy which, though largely dormant, could be revived, given pressures on paper prices. Improvements in the 1990s have led to greater faith in the central administration, with some Nature Parks converted into National Parks, including plans for Monfragüe itself. Regional devolution suited the rise of pressure groups in a country with little tradition of this kind of community action. More local control has empowered them to achieve significant results, especially when conservation is shown to benefit local people. Although a national "green" movement never established itself, the successful conservation groups tended to remain apolitical, such as the largest, ADENEX in Extremadura. Bodies like ADENA, (the Spanish WorldWide Fund for Nature), were regarded as too closely linked with the very "establishment" considered to have fostered many of the problems. Spain's membership of the European Union has had mixed effects in the area of conservation. Support for environmental protection measures has improved, even involving a "greening" of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Pressure groups have had success in referring to European law and directives. But Structural Funds have had a devastating impact on the environment. The CAP, applied to a climatically distinct area of Europe for which it was not designed, has led to losses of habitat and wildlife as farmers struggle to gain short-term benefits with intensive methods ill-suited to the landscape, involving clearances, irrigation and the use of chemicals. However, measures like set-aside (if applied logically) and Environmentally Sensitive Areas might enable traditional agricultural methods to survive and thus protect valuable habitats. The Regional Development Fund supports many illconsidered projects, often without the relevant checks of impact assessments.
   Spain is at a crucial point in its environmental history. Pressures have never been greater, but neither has awareness been so high. The tensions thus created will be difficult to resolve, and likely to be further complicated as global warming increases climatic change. Spain is in danger of desertification, and years of drought highlighted this. Inappropriate agriculture and unnecessary developments will bring disasters for wildlife and citizens, and this may encourage the radical policy changes needed to ensure better protection of Spain's natural heritage, above all, by protecting traditional extensive agricultural methods.
   Further reading
   - Bangs, P. (1985) "Monfragüe, a Conservation Success in Spain", Oryx xix, July: 140–5.
   —— (1985) "Regionalism and Conservation", Iberian Studies 14, 1–2: 29–43.
   —— (1988) "Doubt Over Dehesa", Environment Now 11, December: 30–2.
   —— (1995) "The European Union and the Spanish Environment", in T.Cooper (ed.) Spain in Europe, Leeds Iberian Papers, pp. 169–90.
   - Grunfeld, F. (1988) Wild Spain, London: Ebury Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Spanish culture. 2013.

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