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A natural legacy is most fitting for John Muir

I welcomed the timely reminder from Keith Geddes about Scotland’s forgotten hero, John Muir in these pages last month and the need for an identifiable legacy with which to celebrate, in 2014, the 100th anniversary of his passing. Whilst recognising that his real contribution was to be found in his philosophical approach to wilderness, Mr Geddes’ suggestion that we should have a trail from Dunbar to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park to mark his life is laudable but hardly lives up to the importance of the man. Admittedly, East Lothian Council are also proposing a John Muir Day, but as the country of his birth we could do more.

John Muir almost achieves sainthood amongst conservationists in his adopted country. His idea that areas of America’s finest natural heritage should be set aside and protected for all time gave rise to the national parks which to this day is widely regarded by Americans as the best idea they ever had, admired all over the world for leadership in the field of protected areas. It is that kind of inspiration I would like to advance as a starting point about how Scotland should celebrate one of her own.

Scotland the brand has many dimensions but there is no doubt that her scenery is spectacular in any language and together with her cultural heritage, the reason why visitors flock here. It is ironic that the country which gave birth to John Muir was one of the last to join the world family of national parks, and did so very tenuously. Of course, as a relatively crowded country, compared to the United States, we do not have the opportunity to set aside large areas of unspoiled wilderness. But what we can do is maximise the opportunity to protect the best of our landscapes, which are not altogether safe from untrammelled development.

Such aspirations have to be advanced in the face of many conflicting pressures. Scotland’s two existing national parks, for instance, present many difficulties for conservationists. I am sure John Muir would join us in viewing the current park authorities almost as pseudo-development agencies, such is their willingness to allow major developments. Cairngorms National Park Authority, for instance, is planning a new town of over 3,000 people and Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority is allowing large scale industrial mining in one of its glens. Both authorities describe this as sustainable development, not in conflict with their primary responsibility to conserve the environment, but both are happening at the expense of the environment.

Likewise, the race to have Scotland achieve a target of 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020, while admirable, should not be done at the expense of our finest landscapes. What would John Muir think of many of the wind farm schemes that have passed muster with planners? While the Government stresses that the planning system for wind energy is under control, we still get many vexatious proposals which could be avoided by more rigorous guidance from the centre. Scottish Natural Heritage has recently assessed the visual effect of the onward march of wind turbines, amongst other development. We are now looking at a Scotland where the area unaffected by any form of visual intrusion from human development has declined from 41 per cent in 2002 to 28 per cent by 2009, largely due to wind farms. Will tourists, expecting the open landscapes of the Highlands and their ever changing land forms, be impressed by identikit wind factories? I think not. The SNH work demonstrates all too clearly what happens when development is allowed to progress without coordination and strategy. We need a vision of where we want to be and how much the country should be protected from such intrusion.

In 1947, the Ramsay Report identified eight areas of the country which merited the status of national parks. By contrast, since 1999, governments in Scotland have been determined to avoid such strategic thinking as far as national parks are concerned, instead relying on local authorities and local communities to accept or reject proposals. We even have the ludicrous situation where the community of Harris organised a plebiscite on whether it should seek national park status. 70.5 per cent of them agreed to seek such an accolade. The local authority were not convinced, but nevertheless asked the Scottish Government to take it to the next stage. The Government refused on the basis that there was no local agreement!

The Scottish Campaign for National Parks together with the Association for the Protection of Rural Scotland are jointly putting together a strategy which will argue the case that Scotland deserves more national parks and that those that we have should be better resourced to carry out their work. Despite our difficulties with some of the management decisions of the existing parks, there is no doubt that national parks represent an investment in our future, well beyond the small sums of public money that is their lot. In fact, economic analysis in the American park system, shows a return of 400 per cent on public investment. The situation in Scotland will be no different, making a strong economic case for more and better national parks in Scotland.

Of course economic potential was far from John Muir’s mind when he looked out over Yosemite Valley. He was simply concerned that those wonders of nature should be protected for their own sake and the benefit to us would be in the magnificence and awe of it all.

• Bill McDermott is chairman of the Scottish Campaign for National Parks