Jobs versus nature in battle for mountains

Conflict in Cairngorms: Heritage body to rule on pounds 17m mountain railway for skiers and walkers opposed by conservationists
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The future of Britain's finest tract of wild land will be decided by Scottish National Heritage tomorrow, when it meets to decide whether to approve the pounds 17m plan for a funicular railway on the Cairngorm mountain range, in the Scottish Highlands.

The SNH is caught in the middle of the fierce debate over the proposed 2km railway. Conservationists still believe the developers would threaten the high mountain plateau with too many boots tramping over it, while Highland councillors are anxious to encourage the local economy and job opportunities.

Magnus Magnusson, chairman of the SNH, and the organisation's board, will reconsider their original objections to the scheme which was put forward by the Cairn Gorm Chairlift Company. The railway would consist of 93 concrete pillars almost to the summit of Cairn Gorm, at 1,245 metres one of Britain's highest mountains.

The Highland council voted last month to support the railway if the SNH objection was withdrawn, despite concerns from environmentalists. With a semi-arctic climate, the plateau is the nesting ground of several rare birds, notably dotterel, snow bunting and ptarmigan. Land adjacent to the ski area is owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Proposed as a World Heritage Site - though unlikely to get this international accolade if the funicular goes ahead - the Cairngorms are already subject to the European Union's most stringent protection for birds and natural habitats. If SNH drops its objection in response to assurances that summer funicular users will not be able to spill out on to the plateau, the RSPB and others could well take their fight to Europe.

The chairlift company is hoping to get up to pounds 13m of the cost from public funds, including pounds 6m from the EU. However, funding must not breach the EU's own environmental law.

Lloyd Austin, the RSPB's conservation and planning officer in Scotland, said in the event of SNH giving way, the RSPB would review its options and consider legal challenges, "potentially involving the European Court of Justice".

The RSPB has joined withthe Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link and another body, Save the Cairngorms Campaign, in proposing a pounds 14m alternative that, they claim, would be less of a blot on the landscape and likely to create more jobs - 55 full-time equivalent jobs compared to 50 with the funicular. Instead of a funicular there would be a gondola running from the Glenmore forest in the valley, where there would be a visitor centre and car park. The top section would be a chair lift open for skiers only.

The impact on the mountain of the two schemes would be radically different. Outside the skiing season, the funicular could carry a hoped-for 250,000 people a year. The alternative would erase the eyesore of the existing vast car park part-way up the mountain, close the approach road and recreate a "long walk in" for summer climbers and walkers.

Campaigners are optimistic that SNH will maintain its objection - a decision taken by eight votes to four behind closed doors in March. Mr Magnusson was said by sources to be sympathetic to the scheme at the time but may feel sealing the visitor centre destroys any "mountain experience".

A further blow came last week in a letter to Hamish Swan, chairman of the company, from a prominent local businessman doubting the viability of the funicular. David Hayes, director of Visitor Centres Ltd, said he could not see how an environmental exhibition at the top station, "no matter how much is spent on it", would have sufficient drawing power.

Bill Wright, of the Save the Cairngorms Campaign, said he would be "surprised" if SNH changed its mind. "The funicular gives all the wrong messages about the protection of wild places. Nor would there be a quality experience for visitors."

But the chairlift company believes it has met SNH's objection. "We hope the board will feel happy that the closed system meets the needs of the EU directives," said communications manager Tania Adams, adding that the company had looked at the gondola idea and found it "flawed". It would be more at the mercy of high winds on the mountain.