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Environmentalist Recognized for National Park Campaign

The Goldman Environmental Prize is awarded to environmental activists around the world annually for what the Goldman foundation calls "environmental grass roots heroism." The prize carries with it $150,000 and has been called the nobel prize for the environment. This year's winner from Europe is Belgium's Ignace Schops. VOA'S Paul Sisco has his story and the story of the national park he helped establish.

Ignace Schops raised 90 million euros through the support of business, government, and citizens to establish Belgium's first and only national park.

It is in the province of Limburg in northeastern Belgium, a region of woodlands, pine forests, wildlife, water, and meadows that was once heavily mined for coal.

In 1997, Ignace Schops says he and some friends decided the lands must be reclaimed and protected, "Every year now a days more than 800,000 cyclists come over this region and there is a big big economic benefit," Schops said.

Schops founded a grassroots coalition that campaigned for nearly a decade for what is now Hoge Kempen National Park, six thousand green hectares stretching across six municipalities.

In April in San Francisco, Schops received the 2008 Goldman Environment Prize for Europe. He was one of seven honored for grassroots action.

The Goldman Foundation says development of the park was from the bottom up, that Schops first convinced people of the economic benefits of a park and extensive bike trails in the region. He then lobbied area businesses, local communities, and the Flemish government, eventually convincing authorities his coalition should oversee Belgium's first and only natural park.

"They also said we give them a lot of money with it 28 million euros, but there is a condition. You will have to find matched funding," Schops said. "And you will have to double it. With my partners we nearly tripled the money."

After raising 90 million euros, the new park was developed and opened two years ago.

It has five gateways and ties together an otherwise unconnected patchwork of disjointed open land.

"We have a station where you can take a train into the park and have a nice hike. You have a place where you can hike immediately after parking your car. In one of the local gateways we have a barefoot trail. There is a real connection, you feel, oh oh it's cold, is warm. It's wet. Just last year over 40,000 people came out to walk barefoot in that area," Schops said.

"Nature is under pressure not only in Belgium but in Europe and the whole of the world and we think that we can give an example where nature has a connection with people," he said.

And there is a push to expand Schops' grassroots model of letting individual citizens take the lead.