The Lake District National Park is to axe the free guided walks carried out by over 100 volunteer rangers because they attract only “middle-aged, middle-class white people”.
The scenic walks, which introduce thousands of tourists to the fells each year, are being scrapped as part of a three-year plan to bring more ethnic minorities, inner-city children and the disabled to the area.
The national park’s authority said it would be able to meet Government targets to attract minority groups and attract more funding.
It said it had also taken the “hard” decision to reduce significantly the services provided by the park’s 10 information centres.
Among activities facing the axe is a programme of 900 events run by 300 rangers. These include a magazine, informative talks, slide shows and children’s farm visits.
The decision has “astounded” volunteers who give up their time to carry out the walks.
They say the authority is obsessed with hitting targets and that the move smacks of political correctness. They also say that thousands of novice walkers among the 12 million tourists who visit the park every year could now be put in danger on unfamiliar terrain.
In a letter informing volunteers of the authority’s decision, Paul Tiplady, national park officer, said more regional and EU funding would be attracted by refocusing on the “urban young, people from ethnic communities and disabled people”.
Mick Casey, a spokesman for the authority, said 30,000 people used the events programme and 4,500 took part in the walks each year.
“Our research shows that the majority who do the walks are white middle-class, middle-aged people.
“The Government is encouraging national parks to appeal to young people, to ethnic minorities and to people with disabilities.
“It is saying we ought to focus our activities on these kinds of groups.”
Mr Casey said the authority had no plans to replace the rangers and the events system.
Derek Tunstall, the former chairman of the Lake District Voluntary Rangers, said it was impossible to force people to visit the park just to meet Government targets.
“How the heck is the authority planning to attract new people when it doesn’t yet have a plan in place?” he added. “We accept the fact the authority wants to save money and wants to change things but there has been no consultation with us.
“We dispute the figures the authority says we attract. The only thing we know at the moment is that at least 30,000 people are not going to be looked after.”
Mr Tunstall, 51, a maintenance engineer, said that last year the rangers cost the authority only £32,000 in travel expenses, safety equipment and courses.
He said: “We do this for the love of the fells. A lot of volunteers believe they have been treated shabbily.”
Another ranger, Clive Langley, said: “This is an unbelievable way to manage a national park.”
Mr Langley, 60, a retired chartered surveyor, also said there was a risk of more accidents if the rangers were not on the fells. “The people who return to us every year will feel slapped in the face. One woman told me she cried when she heard and says she won’t be able to come now because she does not feel safe.
“While we may not fully reflect the ethnic and age profiles, we do normally have some ethnic minorities and young people from inner cities. We also run tours for disabled people.”
Mr Tiplady said: “I have listened to our volunteers and I understand their concerns and frustrations. We hope many of our volunteers will want to take up this new challenge.”
The decision is due to be ratified at a meeting tomorrow.
“Lots of volunteers are going to the meeting,” Mr Tunstall said. “We are going to fight this all the way.”