Two years away from the anniversary of John Muir’s death and the organisation which named itself in his honour is concerned that this wildness is gradually being eroded.
Land under its ownership includes Ben Nevis, Schiehallion, Sandwood Bay, part of the Cuillin on Skye, Quinag in Assynt and 3,000 acres on the remote Knoydart peninsula.The John Muir Trust (JMT) owns more than 25,000 hectares of land and the charity, which has more than 10,000 members, has been running since 1983 to protect ‘wild places’.
In March this year it failed in a joint bid with the Borders Forest Trust to buy the Talla and Gameshope Estate in the Scottish Borders, which it described as the “wild heart of the Southern Uplands”.
It has spearheaded the debate on the development of onshore wind by challenging plans for some wind-farm initiatives and has also been causing controversy over the culling of deer on land it owns in Assynt.
But while the trust is dedicated to conservation work, its chief executive Stuart Brooks told Holyrood the emphasis is on “protection” and not “preservation.” “We don’t use the word preservation,” he says. “That implies we want things to stay exactly as they are. The environment is constantly changing. “I know that we now are fully accepting that climate is changing at a rate that threatens both us and wildlife, but the environment always changes its dynamic. We want to conserve the integrity of the landscape in order for it to change naturally.
“Once you’ve industrialised it, you’ve lost it.
You can’t restore or recreate these wild land areas.” The charity is based in Perth and covers the whole of the UK, and is dedicated to saving the nation’s wild spaces - although mapping work carried out three years ago showed that many of the most valued areas were in the north and west of Scotland.
Yet only about a third is protected by government statute - which gives the JMT cause for concern.
“Wild land resource is diminishing, and really rapidly at a scale we’ve never seen. Back in 2002 we had about 41 per cent of our land unaffected by [the] visual impact from built development. That dropped to 28 per cent in 2009.
“I don’t know what it is in 2012, but we suspect it’s significantly below 28 per cent.
“The wild areas are important for environmental reasons, whether it’s helping to mitigate climate change or clean water, but of course it’s hugely valuable from a tourism perspective.
“It’s very much at the heart of what Scotland is trying to sell to tourists. We use dramatic scenery, beautiful scenery which is natural, it’s not industrialised and that’s what people come here to see - that’s our reputation.” Research from Scotland’s two National Parks has shown that 86 per cent of people surveyed believed that further action was needed to protect wild land areas. The JMT wants to see more statutory protections - it reports that it has challenged, unsuccessfully, all the planning applications to developments that it has recently contested and one of the biggest challenges, for groups like the JMT, has been the increase in wind turbine applications.
But Brooks insists the organisation is not anti-wind turbine. In fact, he says the trust is not about being ‘anti’ anything, however, it is concerned about large onshore developments in areas the JMT sees as precious wild land.
The trust is one of the groups which has objected to a 31-turbine wind-farm development at Allt Duine, next-door to the Cairngorms National Park, which is currently subject to a public inquiry.
Brooks said: “You’ve got a large wind farm on an industrial scale, right flat bang up against the boundary of the National Park that will have an impact.
“Because most of the easy-to-develop areas have now been taken up, we think that there is going to be an increase in the level of conflict and pressure on wild land.” He adds: “I still think there is a window of opportunity for the Scottish Government to do something positive here for protection of wild land. Not only to protect the scenic property, it’s protecting the ecology too.” He says that the debate over wind farms has matured.
“We’ve found it extremely difficult, I have to say, but I think there are more people coming round to accept that it’s not a black and white debate and possibly not the only answer - or even the answer - to addressing carbon requirements.
“As an environmental organisation, we have found it difficult and uncomfortable at times, but I think because we’re here to protect the wild land, the integrity of Scotland’s landscape, we have no option other than to be resistant to the loss of that and the industrialisation of it.
“If we didn’t stand up for this, then what are we here for, really?” Alongside the criticism of wind strategy, the JMT has also hit the headlines after its policy of deer culling on the Quinag Estate.
It has proposed to kill up to 100 red deer stags in an effort to protect ancient woodlands.
Brooks said: “Deer are one of our most iconic species and the trust believes they should be living healthily, alongside their healthy sustainable environment.
“Fundamentally, without the predators that used to keep deer numbers down we do have to cull. If we didn’t, the numbers would just escalate and escalate.
“We would like to have deer numbers at a lower density that were able to live alongside healthy woodlands. We don’t want to fence deer out of woodlands either - they need the woodlands for food and shelter and that brings us into conflict sometimes with other landowners who wish to maintain deer numbers at a higher density in order to support their sporting interests.
“We’re reliant currently on a voluntary scheme to try and manage these conflicts and the trust has in the past argued for more statutory control.” John Muir may be better known in his adopted United States than back in Scotland, but as 2014 approaches, there are events being planned to celebrate his achievements and the creation of a new long-distance trail from his birthplace in Dunbar to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs.
And Brooks believes Muir’s efforts are just as relevant today.
“He was an active campaigner for protection of wild land. He should be championed and Scotland should be looking to his messages and his words and reflecting on what his legacy means.
“From our perspective, it means that we should be having pride in our best landscapes and our wild land. We should be ensuring it is protected for future generations.
“Muir recognised over 100 years ago that these places weren’t just important as a resource for us to exploit, but actually, we needed to protect them as a resource for us to gain from - spiritually and physically.
“I think if he’d seen what we see now with regard to the climate changing and the need to have a resilient and functioning environment - then he would probably have beefed up his message even more.”