Muir Trust Journal, Issue 29, Summer 2000
“Why then, one might
ask, could anyone have reservations about the John Muir Trust owning a
significant part of Ben Nevis?” Nick Kempe invites debate.
· WHO should OWN our most important mountains?
· WHO should PAY FOR our highest mountains?
· HOW MUCH should we pay for our highest mountains?
· Ownership and Management
· Future Management of Ben Nevis
Ben Nevis is the single most important mountain in the
British Isles. It is our highest mountain, a symbol as well as a major tourist
asset. It is more important than any other in terms of the quality of the
recreational resource, particularly for its ice climbing which is world class,
but also because even the simple walk up the tourist path involves significantly
more effort in terms of height ascended than any other mountain. For many
non-mountaineers it is the hardest walk they do in their lives. It is important
for conservation, particularly in terms of Arctic-Alpine plant communities, and
as such part of it is a Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI). The scenery of its
North face is superb, particularly under snow, and offers the nearest we have to
an Alpine landscape, while on clear days the summit offers stupendous views.
At the same time, Ben Nevis is under some pressure as a result of human impacts and there are significant issues relating to paths – particularly the tourist track – to the proliferation of memorials and cairns on the summit plateau, and to litter, as well as more local issues such as human waste disposal around the CIC climber’s hut. There is no doubt in my mind that the mountain needs a reasonable amount of investment and needs to be managed according to best conservation principles. Why then, one might ask, could anyone have reservations about the John Muir Trust owning a significant part of Ben Nevis?
WHO should OWN our most
While it is undoubtedly a step forward that a significant
part of Ben Nevis has passed from an individual private owner without resources
to a conservation body with some resources, and that certain risks associated
with private ownership have been removed, this still leaves some questions about
whether ownership by the John Muir Trust (JMT) is the right solution for Ben
First, within an international context, private ownership
of mountains is an oddity. Most ownership aboard is either communal or by the
state. People, whether individuals or communities, do own the lower ground but
not the “mountain wastes”. This is partly because historically people
had no interest in owning ground which had no productive purpose. Scotland was
probably very similar to other countries with mountains – as illustrated by
the current dispute about whether there has ever been a title deed to the
Cuillin – until the advent of sheep and then deer forests. However, the last
thirty years has seen a fundamental shift away from our mountains being places
for private recreation and profit to being places for public enjoyment and
recreation. This should raise questions about the most appropriate forms of
ownership and management of our mountain wastes.
Second, why JMT rather than some other conservation
organisation such as the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) or Scottish Natural
Heritage? Or indeed why not a Nevis Trust or the nation, so long as management
was according to best conservation principles and people with an interest in the
mountain, particularly mountaineers and local people, were given real power in
the way it was managed? At the moment who owns what owes more to the lottery of
the “market” than to any rational considerations. All the
conservation organisations need to start considering their role in relation both
to each other and to the conservation needs of Scotland as a whole.
WHO should PAY FOR our
Ben Nevis is so important that I do not think it should be
left to the generosity of individual members of the public to secure its future.
It is a national asset and there should be a national responsibility to ensure
it is conserved, protected and managed properly. There is even a strong argument
for this in conventional economic terms: Ben Nevis attracts 70,000 plus visitors
a year to its summit, yet employed until recently the equivalent of one
full-time person (far fewer than any museum attracting that number of visitors).
Our failure to invest in our mountains should be a national issue.
If we cannot get the government to act to protect and
invest in our most important mountain, we are hardly likely to do so for other
less important mountains such as the Cuillin. The simple fact is that
non-governmental organisations (NGOs) cannot afford to buy all, or even a
fraction of, our important mountain land – or even certain key areas, as we
saw when the most recent sale of Glen Feshie took place while conservation
bodies were trying to get the funding together. If the NGOs step in and buy land
where we might just have a chance of getting government to do so, we are
actually weakening the conservation position overall.
It is worth noting that the last major government land
purchase was Creag Meagaidh in 1985, and that by a government committed to
non-intervention. We now have a government in Scotland ostensibly committed to
land reform but with no strategy for it. The fact that NGOs have stepped forward
as government has stepped back is not just a coincidence. We need a national
strategy on mountain issues, which includes the role of NGOs.
I therefore believe that the time has come for the NGOs to
make quite clear that they cannot and will not fundraise to buy other important
land, and that it is time for government to become involved again. The JMT could
kick-start this process by making clear that it does not intend to purchase the
rest of Ben Nevis because of the resources required, and by supporting calls for
government involvement. This would leave open the question of whether the JMT
might use its expertise to manage any land purchased by the state.
For those sceptical about influencing government, just
consider the effect if every person who gave to the Ben Nevis appeal (or all the
other appeals by the JMT, NTS, RSPB, etc) also wrote or visited their MSPs or
MPs. We would be a major lobbying force. Securing the future of the rest of Ben
Nevis would be an ideal place for us to start.
HOW MUCH should we pay
for our highest mountains?
The £450,000 that the JMT is paying for the Fairfax-Lucy estate appears cheap compared with the £10 million asking price for the Cuillin and a real snip compared with what the National Trust paid for part of Snowdon. However, this does not necessarily mean there are no questions to be asked.
I have already referred to the world phenomenon that
mountain wastes tend not to be in private ownership, partly because they have so
little commercial value. A significant part of the Fairfax-Lucy estate comes
into that category, the land above the 2,500 feet contour being not capable of
supporting any activity except outdoor recreation. The lower ground is also
rocky and is of limited value. There appears to be no appreciable stalking on
the estate while sheep grazing has been, I understand, let for £3,000 a year. A
minimal 2.5 percent return on capital would indicate a value of around £120,000.
So, how does land with so little current commercial value
get to be valued as £450,000? The answer is by independent valuation, although
it is not at all clear what criteria the valuers used – or indeed what
criteria we should use to value mountains.
In terms of current valuation practices the Fairfax-Lucy estate is not cheap. The JMT has bought 4,185 acres of Ben Nevis and neighbouring hills for £450,000, or £110 an acre. In other recent estate sales, researched by Andy Wightman (http://www.whoownsscotland.org.uk), costs have ranged from £174 to £18 an acre. However, almost all of these estates include substantial stalking, forestry, buildings and even farms in the price. Even then the cost of purchasing Mar Lodge in 1996 worked out at £71 an acre and Knoydart last year went for only £41 an acre.
The only arguments I can see for paying £450,000 are
social cachet (on the lines that estates close to Balmoral might go for more as
they make you a neighbour of the Queen); or to stop a developer getting it.
It is hard to see the social cachet factor applying to Ben
Nevis, with its 70,000 visitors a year.
This leaves the developer argument. It is only a few years
since David Michels, as head of the leisure group Stakis, suggested a railway to
the summit, and I am sure advertisers would pay a fair whack for billboards
along the tourist path – but could these things ever happen? The answer is:
not if we pressured government to implement strong planning laws (or mechanisms
like national parks) to protect our mountains and wild land. What price then the
land? It is hard to avoid asking the question whether NGOs are not propping up
the land prices in the Highlands.
This question is important because, whether government or
the voluntary sector pays it, every £1 spent on buying mountains is potentially
£1 less available for their management.
Ownership and Management
There is a clear distinction to be made between management
according to conservation principles and actual ownership. The problem is that
over the last 10 to 15 years the two have become increasingly equated, and
instead of pressing for national solutions to the needs of wild land, there has
been a tendency to solve problems by buying it. Paradoxically the result has
been that conservation has become marginalised to areas owned by NGOs rather
than becoming part of mainstream policy and practice. We need public debate on
these issues, including the role that NGOs should play, and we need to
pressurise government into taking a much greater interest than it does at
Future Management of Ben
Meantime consideration of these wider issues should be
combined with consideration of the current needs of Ben Nevis. Much of Ben Nevis
remains out with conservation ownership or management, notably all the main
access paths up to 2,500 feet, the whole of the North face, and the Polldubh
crags. While JMT is trying to raise, on top of the purchase price, a further £500,000
to manage the Fairfax-Lucy land, this implies that a further £1 million is
needed for effective management of the rest of the mountain. Without investment
in the rest of Ben Nevis, and indeed the surrounding area, there is little hope
of any effective overall management of the mountain and the efforts of the JMT
are likely to be undermined.
It is time therefore that we pressed the Government to make a significant financial contribution to the needs of what is one of our greatest national and natural assets.
Nick Kempe was President of the Mountaineering Council of
Scotland (MC of S) 1994 to 1998, and has had a strong interest in issues
relating to the management of Ben Nevis since the MC of S approached Highland
Council to set up a Nevis Forum.
The John Muir Trust can be contacted via their website: http://www.jmt.org/
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