A petition for improved wild land conservation will be discussed in a Scottish parliamentary committee tomorrow, where the relevant ministers will be in attendance. This comes just days after Highland Council decided not to oppose two controversial proposed wind farms that will heavily impact a core Wild Land area - one of the best we have.
The John Muir Trust's (JMT) 'Better Protection for Wild Land' petition will be discussed in detail at the Scottish Parliament's Petitions Committee on Tuesday 29 May, when MSPs take evidence from Paul Wheelhouse, Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, and Derek Mackay, Minister for Local Government and Planning.
The cross-party committee, which last month heard from the two top officials of Scottish Natural Heritage, will explore the Scottish Government's response to the Trust's campaign for a new national designation to protect Scotland's finest wild land.
The petition, lodged in January 2011, calls for 'the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to improve the protection for the best areas of wild land by introducing a new national environmental designation'.
But will the Scottish Government's newfound public enthusiasm for wild land conservation be matched by meaningful action?
Speaking in advance of the meeting, Stuart Brooks, John Muir Trust Chief Executive, said:
'We welcome the appearance of the two Ministers in front of the committee, which sends out the message that wild land protection is a matter of national importance.'
'Since we lodged the petition more than two years [ago], we have demonstrated that there is considerable public concern for the future of wild land and we are pleased that progress has been made in getting the issue of wild land protection onto the political agenda, especially in the most recent period.'
'Mr Wheelhouse is aware of the depth of feeling about the future of Scotland's wild land – in a recent letter to the John Muir Trust, he stated his support for the principle that areas of wild land should be protected.'
The recent publication of an official wild land map of Scotland (reported on UKH here) marks, says the JMT, a 'great advance' for the cause of wild land protection.
The Trust also welcomes the statement in the Government's recent Scottish Planning Policy consultation document that 'plans should identify and safeguard areas of wild land character...based on SNH mapping of core wild land published in 2013.'
'But we believe that the Scottish Government, having taken a strong step in the right direction, should now go further by reinforcing their declared support for wild land protection with a pledge to introduce a national designation' insists Brooks.
'Policies can be chopped and changed as Ministers and governments come and go, but we believe the ongoing devastation of our landscapes, habitats and ecological systems demands bold, radical action that will safeguard our wild land for generations to come and allow us to repair the damage wreaked by centuries of exploitation.'
The Trust lodged its petition in response to the pressures that wild land has come under in recent years. In only the most recent illustration of the steady industrialisation of the Highlands, the Highland Council last week raised no objection to a further two large-scale wind developments on wild land - despite objections from the government's landscape and nature watchdog, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
The proposed developments at Glencassley and Sallachy near Loch Shin and Ben More Assynt are on core wild land areas mapped by SNH.
The two projects, which together total 48 turbines all at least 125 metres tall, have attracted fierce criticism from conservation groups including the JMT and MCofS. Meanwhile SNH claimed the windfarms would impact "an area of the strongest wild land character – as confirmed by the wildness mapping work carried out" by the Government agency, and said there would be a negative effect on the Assynt and Coigach National Scenic Area - arguably the finest scenic wild landscape in the UK.
Despite this SSE's Glencassley project won unanimous support last week in the council's North Planning Committee, while the WKN proposal at Sallachy got in on five votes to three, despite the objection of chair Isobel MacCallum.
In response Helen McDade, Head of Policy at the John Muir Trust said:
'Local councillors have numerous demands on their time and are understandably forced to rely on advice from planning officials, but the advice upon which this decision was based has been one-sided and misleading.'
'Both the Search Areas for Wild Land, which are referred to in current planning policy, and the core wild land areas in Scottish Natural Heritage's updated 2013 map should mean no major industrial development on these sites.'
'Also the recommendation in the Scottish Government's Scottish Planning Policy draft consultation paper, that wild land character should be safeguarded clearly shows the direction of Scottish Government thinking.'
The importance of these national guidelines has been downplayed by the Highland planning officials, McDade claims. She goes on:
'Since these developments would be on peatlands, the Trust is also concerned that not enough consideration has been given to the release of greenhouse gases by the degradation of peat soil, because the retention of gases in healthy peatland plays a vital role in locking in carbon and reducing greenhouse gases.'
'Meanwhile, far-fetched promises by the developers of jobs and financial windfalls appear to be accepted at face value by planning officials, even though other, similar, industrial-scale wind developments locally have created very few local jobs.'
'The industrialisation of the Highlands under forests of steel turbines has been a bonanza for energy corporations and landowners, but little of that wealth trickles down into local communities.'
Rigorous scrutiny of these projects will require a Public Local Inquiry, say the JMT, and indeed since statutory consultee SNH has objected to both developments the standard procedure now is for the Scottish Government to call such an Inquiry regardless of the council's vote.
'Beyond that, the decison underlines the need for robust protection at national level for Scotland's core wild land as mapped out by SNH' says McDade. 'Wild land is not a commodity to be industrialised and exploited for profit, but a precious natural resource that should be protected and enhanced for future generations'