Welsh fight wind farms plan for mountains

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For the pioneering ecologist Sir George Stapledon, the "shapely outline" of the Cambrian Mountains was of such beauty that any intervention by man would constitute a criminal offence.

The peaks of mid-Wales were to him the perfect location to site Britain's first National Park, an idea of combining conservation and development that Sir George was energetically promoting in 1935.

His view was shared by the Countryside Commission in 1972, when it designated the Cambrians a National Park, stating that the rolling moorlands, wooded valleys and gorges were some of "the loveliest" in the country, "equal in beauty to existing national parks" and embodying the "spirit of Wales".

But the commission's designation never achieved government confirmation and, 30 years later, Britain's "forgotten National Park" is facing development plans that would have infuriated Sir George.

The Council for Protection of Rural Wales says the suggestion that the Cambrians should be used for two of the biggest wind farms built in Britain, one the largest in Europe, is "a declaration of war" on the mountains.

The first proposal, which came from an Enron subsidiary, Enron Wind, was for 39 turbines, each 100ft high, at Cefn Croes, below Plynlimon mountain. It was given provisional government approval in what the Bishop of Hereford, John Oliver – the Church of England's environment spokes-man and a man not noted for resorting to hyperbole – called an act of vandalism equivalent to the Taliban's destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues of Bamiyan in Afghanistan.

The second plan for 165 turbines 400ft high, proposed by an organisation called the Camddwr Trust would, in the Bishop's words, impose a power station of "totally alien industrial character that would provoke national outrage if sited in the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales or the Peak District".

The proposals have split village communities scattered around the mountains, who are divided over the wind farm's effect on tourism, as well as environmentalists who are torn between supporting renewable energy sources and protecting a unique landscape.

The failure to confirm the Countryside Commission's National Park designation meant the Cambrians never developed their tourism potential. But many villagers now see the move as stifling the only industry likely to revive the area after foot-and-mouth and agricultural depression.

To Peggy Litford, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Cwmystwyth close to where the first wind farm at Cefn Croes would be seen, the developments would be a death knell to an already struggling tourist industry. "We have had foot-and-mouth and the turbines will completely kill us off. People ... come here to escape from urban surroundings and industry and they don't want to see an industrial power station," she said.

Dave Ormerod, a retired BT engineer from Chester who settled in the area after taking early retirement, denied accusations that much of the opposition was nothing more than "nimbys" refusing to accept the need for renewable energy. "Nobody wants them and the powers-that-be think this area does not matter because there's nothing here. They're nimbys as much as us and there's more of them than us."

However, another hotelier, who did not want to be named given the strength of local opposition, said wind farms could actually bring tourists to the mountains. "If they are marketed properly as a centre for green energy they could attract visitors. They won't harm the wildlife; sheep can still graze round them, birds can still fly past them."

A nearby hydroelectric project had involved "drowning" a house and a chapel, she said, whereas the wind farms harmed nothing except a view that was often obscured by mist anyway. Those opposing the schemes risked damaging the tourism they claimed to support by repeating the message the landscape would be destroyed, she added.

Gerry Jewson, director of the Renewable Development Company, which is behind the Cefn Croes development, insists that stopping the wind farms would damage more than the landscape. "There is no evidence to suggest that wind farms put off tourists. The harsh reality is that the mid-Wales economy is in decline through foot-and-mouth, agricultural problems and tourism dropping off.

"The developments could revitalise some of the local villages and stop some of the depopulation that is taking place." He accepted the number of permanent local jobs could be no more than seven, but said that was "quite a lot" in such a rural place.

However Martin Wright, head of the campaign against Mr Jewson's development, argues that a post-war consensus that exceptional landscapes are worth preserving would be shattered. "People in London don't know this area exists but if they came here and saw it they would not believe what is about to be done.

He added: "This is a lost National Park, and we would not accept these developments in the Peak District so we should not accept them here."