Despite the stated goals and policies of the Icelandic government for the protection of wilderness areas, these areas have consistently been under seige. A recent study at the University of Iceland shows that they decreased by 68% from 1936 to 2010. It is very important to stop this trend and protect those areas that are still unspoiled. Nevertheless, there are plans for power plants, paved roads and power lines in the region.
Þjórsárver nature reserve and river Þjórsá
The Norðlingaalda Diversion is still in Landsvirkjun's plan of implementation, even though the Icelandic Parliament put the proposed power project in the protected category in the Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources. A proposed expansion of the Þjórsárver nature reserve awaits signature by the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources. This expansion would, among other things, prevent the complete desctruction of three large waterfalls in Þjórsá river: Dynkur, Gljúfurleitarfoss and Kjálkaversfoss waterfalls. Furthermore, Norðlingaalda Diversion would damage undisturbed terrain west of Þjórsá river in close proximity to Þjórsárver nature reserve. Þjórsárver is the largest, most diverse and most dynamic highland oasis. There, you can find one of the largest nesting places for the pink-footed goose in the world. In 1981, the area was declared as protected and is on the Ramsar Convention list as one of the areas in Iceland that enjoys international protection as a wetland rich in bird life. There are permafrost palsas of worldwide conservation value in Þjórsárver nature reserve and there you will also find an ancient goose pen, the only one known in Iceland. Additionally, the most famous outlaws in Iceland, Mountain-Eyvindur and Halla, stayed twice in Þjórsárver, and their dwellings, Eyvindakofi by Eyvindarver are now protected relics.
Hágöngur and Skrokkalda
Landsvirkjun has plans to construct power plants at Hágöngur and Skrokkalda in the center of the Icelandic Highlands. Dams were built in the Hágöngur area in 1998 to form a reservoir for power plants in Þjórsá and Tungná rivers. This brought the vast and nearly unspoiled land under water, including a geothermal area. Continued development of infrastructure in the area with the associated power plant structures, road construction, power lines and pipes would greatly increase the disturbance in the region and further break up wilderness landscapes west of Vatnajökull glacier, on the edge of Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park and Vonarskarð. The value of the national park would diminish greatly. Irreversible effects of the Hágöngur Power Plant would destroy the area east of Hágöngur forever. Furthermore, the Hágöngur area is not only on the active, tectonic plate boundary but it is also very close to the hot spot that lies under Iceland - one of the most volcanically active hot spots on Earth. Its conservation value is therefore very high. Skrokkalda Power Plant is only estimated at 30MW and, as such, has little importance in the country's energy management. On the other hand, it would be necessary to provide about 60 km of power lines and high-tension towers near the Sprengisandur route south to the Vatnsfell area with associated road construction, visual impact and destruction of the overall highland vista.
Landsvirkjun has received permission to investigate the possibility of harnessing Skjálfandafljót river. The river is among the most valuable areas of the country with respect to landscape and wilderness. Fljótshnúkur Power Plant and Hrafnabjörg Power Plant would drain Aldeyjarfoss waterfall which has long been considered one of Iceland's most beautiful waterfalls with its unique columnar basalt form. With the construction of Hrafnabjörg Power Plant yet another large highland area of vegetation would be immersed with a 25 km long reservoir. Therefore, this is a hugely valuable area; it would be desirable to protect Skjálfandafljót river from source to estuary. The Skjálfandafljót river basin is home to stunning natural features, such as Aldeyjarfoss, Ingvararfoss, Hrafnabjargafoss, Goðafoss and Gjallandi waterfalls, Vonarskarð, lake Gæsavötn by Gæsahnjúkur and Tungnafellsjökull glacier. In Króksdalur valley, birch reaches the furthest inland and the area's highlands are unusually rich in species relative to height above sea level.
Icelandic Hydroelectric Power Ltd. strives to construct a 20MW power plant at lake Hagavatn at the edge of Langjökull glacier. If the power plant were realized, Nýifoss waterfall would vanish completely, along with the whole surrounding area which is considered by scientists to be a unique platform for viewing the constant change of nature. The vastness of the area's landscape increases its tourism value, and it is popular for outdoor activities. The Icelandic Touring Association runs a mountain cabin at a unique tuff ridge called Jarlhettur in the proposed power plant area. The area attracts hikers who want to enjoy its spectacular and unspoiled nature, geology, outdoor activities and adventures. The proposed dam and power plant at lake Hagavatn would intervene in one of Langjökull glacier's most spectacular land formation processes, as the area is like an open and easy to read geology book.
River Jökulsár in Skagafirði
Experts in the 2nd phase of the Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources rate the eastern and western Jökulsár rivers in Skagafjörður fjord, their river basins and the highlands north of Hofsjökull glacier among Iceland's most valuable areas when it comes to cultural and geological relics, hydrology, valuable species, ecosystems and soil. The silt deposits of the glacial meltwaters are the driving force behind the vast wetlands of lake Héraðsvötn in the lowlands in Skagafjörður fjord. If the rivers were harnessed, it would have a negative impact on internationally important bird areas (IBAs); the vastest marshes in the country - and even in Scandinavia; sea-run populations of salmonids, particularly Arctic char; and reduce the habitat of resident populations. Dams in the rivers would adversely affect tourism in the province, and some tourism fields would stop, such as the popular river rafting on these glacial rivers. The eastern Jökulsá river is considered one of the best river rafting rivers in Europe.
Specialist Group I in the 2nd phase of the Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources rated the southern Central Highlands, including the Skaftá-Tungufljót river basin, among Iceland's most valuable areas when it comes to cultural and geological relics, hydrology, valuable species, ecosystems, soil, landscape and wilderness. The Búland Power Plant, i.e. reservoirs and dams, would be located very close to Eldgjá canyon. The area is spectacular, the landscape is varied and it is a popular recreational area. The power plant would entail large dams and irrigation structures with associated disruptions and power lines. The orientation of the power lines from the power plant has not been made public and it is unclear how it would be conducted. Several routes are available but all are bad in terms of nature conservation, especially because of how important this area is for tourism and the tourist experience.
Hverfisfljót river originates from Vatnajökull glacier and flows at the edge of Eldhraun lava, one of Iceland's wonders. Hverfisfljót river is at the edge of Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park and its river basin is still undisturbed. The area enjoys growing popularity for recreational tourism. Hverfisfljót river has a row of several grand waterfalls seeing as it is still forming a channel through the lava that flowed in 1783 and changed its course. The plans for Hverfisfljót river involve a run of river hydropower plant of up to 40MW. It is clear that all disclosed power proposals in Hverfisfljót river will hugely impair this outdoor area and have a negative impact on the tourist experience. Power projects in the Hverfisfljót river water basin could have unpredictable effects on the springs at the edges of Eldhraun lava, including the springs and streams of Brunasandur that is a unique bird habitat.
Hólmsá Power Plant at Atley with a 10 square kilometer reservoir would be located at the eastern periphery of the Fjallabaksleið south route and therefore the power plant would have a significant negative impact on the tourist experience of that route. The area in question involves unspoiled wilderness areas east of Mýrdalsjökull glacier extending down to the lowlands. Studies show that tourists' visits to experience the unspoiled nature in the area are on the rise. The proposed power project would involve a connection to the electrical grid at Sigöldulína, about 30 km away from the plant. This line would cut through the Skaftártunga heathlands and cause severe visual pollution for residents and tourists in the area where the busy mountain routes connect, Fjallabaksleið south route and Fjallabaksleið north route. It is also unclear whether Sigöldulína could cope with the increase in energy and its expansion would adversely affect the Fjallabak Nature Reserve, Fjallabaksleið north route and most outdoor areas in the region. Hólmsárfoss waterfall is just above the proposed reservoir and the reservoir would have a negative visual impact seen from the resting place for tourists by the waterfall. Water flow in Hólmsá river would diminish below the dam at Atley and that would affect Hrossafoss waterfall which would become low in water. A native birch forest can be found on the slopes of Snæbýlisheiði heath and about 40 hectares of it would be flooded.
A parliamentary resolution has been put forth regarding a year-round road across Kjölur plateau. The Icelandic Tourist Industry Association has concluded against a paved road across Kjölur as such an implementation would transform the tourist experience. The resolution states: "A road of the type we are talking about deprives the Highlands of their distinctive features and the wilderness experience that tourists are pursuing. The Icelandic Highlands are of great value for the nation and by providing a paved traffic through one of the main highland areas the experience people seek is being destroyed." The Travel Club 4x4 is also against a paved road across Kjölur because of both the visual and noise pollution that accompany it. Furthermore, the club believes that a year-round road would deprive the Highlands of their distinctive features and the wilderness experience that tourists are pursuing.
In the regional planning for the Central Highlands, a connection between the electrical power system between the Þjórsá river area and the national transmission system in North Iceland is allowed for, i.e. with a high-voltage power line across Sprengisandur plateau. This is being reviewed by Landsnet (National Grid). In the draft for the national planning of the Central Highlands through to 2024, structures across Sprengisandur are planned but nevertheless there is considerable discussion about the area's conservation value: "The wilderness offers a unique experience that fewer and fewer worldwide regions can offer. It is therefore important to protect the Icelandic wilderness. It is important that the public can enjoy the uniqueness that the Highlands have to offer, without further intrusion." And later: "In the environmental assessment for the national planning of the Central Highlands, the main power transmission system options across the Central Highlands and beyond were viewed specifically. The assessment of these options indicates substantial negative environmental impact of building a transmission system across the Central Highlands, especially in the highland landscape and its image."