Army under fire in battle over national park: Christopher Bellamy and Oliver Gillie report on plans to widen wilderness roads for big guns

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ARMY PLANS to build roads to take heavy guns for training in Northumberland National Park have come up against opposition from conservationists who want the park to be preserved as one of England's last wilderness areas.

The Army has plans to train with a 42-tonne gun and multi- launch rocket systems (MLRS) in the Otterburn training area, including the national park. But the guns are so heavy that special roads will have to be built for them. Some 30 miles of road about 2m wide will have to be upgraded to 5m wide with 1m of hard shoulder on each side.

The Ministry of Defence said the plans to widen and strengthen the roads and build 'gun-spurs' for use by the new AS-90 howitzers and MLRS launchers were designed to preserve the environment, not damage it, and minimise movement over soft ground.

'There is no value to us in turning the Otterburn training area into a desert or something resembling the Somme,' said an MoD spokesman. He added that the tracks would be landscaped.

Chris Bonington, the mountaineer who is president of the Council for National Parks, is calling for a public inquiry into the proposals.

Withdrawal of troops from Germany and cuts in defence spending are forcing the Army to reorganise training and extend its use of sites in Britain. The MoD is proposing to use its land in Northumberland, which occupies about one-fifth of the national park, for training five regiments from the 19th Mechanised Brigade. Two of the regiments are based on Salisbury Plain and will have to travel up three times a year.

The Council for National Parks says that 25 hectares of open moorland will be lost. Conservationists say the multi-launch rocket system will also cause considerable problems because it emits hydrochloric acid fumes and the rockets drop spinweights which are used to maintain their trajectory.

'The issue is not about pressing for military withdrawal from Otterburn, it is about resisting massive intensification,' Mr Bonington said.

He added: 'The Council for National Parks is concerned about the scale of the proposed developments: the damage to the environment and loss of public enjoyment that they will cause.'

The MoD said it had refined its proposals after a study by environmental consultants, and a 'comprehensive environmental impact assessment' was now required.

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