A nature park is not the same as a national park, which is defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and its World Commission on Protected Areas as a category II type of protected area. Nor is it the same as a nature reserve which may fall into different IUCN categories depending on the level of legal protection afforded, but which is more strictly protected than a nature park. However some nature parks have later been turned into national parks.
International nature parks
- European Nature Parks: Cross-border plans and projects are carried out under the Europarc umbrella.
- Protected Area Network of Parks (PANPark), certification by the WWF initiated network which are aimed at combining the preservation of wilderness with tourism
The Nature park is one of the options for area-based nature conservation provided for under the Federal Nature Conservation Act (the BNatSchG). On 6 June 1956 in the former capital city of Bonn at the annual meeting of the Nature Reserve Association (in the presence of President Theodor Heuss and Minister Heinrich Lübke)., the environmentalist and entrepreneur, Alfred Toepfer, presented a programme developed jointly with the Central Office for Nature Conservation and Landscape Management and other institutions to set up (initially) 25 nature parks in West Germany. Five percent of the area of the old Federal Republic of Germany was to be spared from major environmental damage as a result.
Definition of nature parks in Germany
The definition of the category of nature park is laid down in federal law (§ 27 of the BNatSchG). Details, especially with regard to the identification, investigation or recognition as a nature park vary in each state depending on the provisions of local conservation law.
§ 27 of the BnatSchG determines that natural parks are large areas that are to be developed and managed as a single unit, that consist mainly of protected landscapes or nature reserves, that have a large variety of species and habitats and that have a landscape that exhibits a variety of uses.
In nature parks, the aim is to strive for environmentally sustainable land use and they should be especially suitable for recreation and for sustainable tourism because of their topographical features.
The underlying idea is a "protection through usage", so the acceptance and participation of the population in the protection of the cultural landscape and nature is very important. In doing so the nature conservation and the needs of recreation users should be linked so that both sides benefit: sustainable tourism with respect for the value of nature and landscape is paramount.
Basically all actions, interventions and projects that would be contrary to the purpose of conservation are prohibited.
Nature parks are to be considered in zoning and must be represented and considered in local development plans. This is called an acquisition memorandum. They are binding and cannot be waived because of a higher common good.
The sponsors of nature parks are usually clubs or local special purpose associations.
The German nature parks come together in the Association of German Nature Parks.
In Germany today there are 101 nature parks (as at: March 2009), that occupy some 25% of the land area. They are an important building block for nature conservation and help to preserve the sites of natural beauty, cultural landscapes, rare species and biotopes and to make them accessible to later generations.
There are currently 47 nature parks in Austria with a total area of around 500,000 ha (as at April 2010). They are host to nearly 20 million visitors annually. The designation of "nature park" is awarded by the respective state governments. To achieve this award, the 4 pillars of a nature park have to be met: conservation, recreation, education and regional development.
Association of Austrian Nature Parks (VNÖ)
In 1995 all the Austrian nature parks agreed to be represented by the Association of Austrian Nature Parks (Verband der Naturparke Österreichs) or VNÖ.
Currently there are nature parks in the following states:
Switzerland: regional nature parks 
In Switzerland the establishment of regional nature parks is regulated by the Federal Law for Nature and Homeland Conservation (NHG). Regional nature parks fall into one of three categories defined by the NHG. In addition there are national parks and nature experience parks. These two types of park have very strict protected areas, something which does not exist in regional nature parks. The latter focus much more on striking a balance in the level of support between nature conservation and the regional economy.
Since August 2010 there have been three parks with the label Regional Nature Park of National Importance“:
- Trudner Horn
- Sexten Dolomites
- Sarntal Alps
In Croatia there is a total of eight national parks and ten nature parks. Under nature park protection are the following regions:
- Kopački rit
- Lonjsko polje
- Vransko jezero
- Žumberak-Samoborsko gorje
- Geschriebenstein-Írottkő (cross-border park with Burgenland in Austria)
- Raab-Örseg-Goricko (cross-border park with Burgenland in Austria)
In Belgium, there are two different structures. In Flanders, their name is Regionale Landschappen and in Wallonia, the Natural Parks. There are 17 Regionale Landschappen in Flanders and 9 Natural Parks in Wallonia.
- Nationalpark Pieniny accessed on 1 June 2010
- Touristische Potenziale der Österreichischen Naturparke, 2009
- Website des Netzwerks Schweizer Pärke
- Website des Naturparks Thal
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