A legacy for John Muir

Speech by Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive to John Muir Trust, AGM, Dunbar, 3 May 2014.

Speech by Stuart Brooks, Chief Executive to John Muir Trust, AGM, Dunbar, 3 May 2014.

Dunbar 2014 is a significant time and place for the John Muir Trust. As we reflect on achievements from our 30th year, we do so in the context of other anniversaries and a new national pride in, and recognition of John Muir, son of Dunbar. Many of us were in Dunbar two weeks ago, seeing the First Minister officially open the new 134 mile John Muir Way. A new inscribed flagstone has just been laid in Edinburgh in his honour; books, festivals, conferences – even a new John Muir Wilderness Ale – carry his name and his message this year.

The Trust has no more hold or legitimacy for championing John Muir than anyone else, but we are intimate with his philosophy, and we go back to him time and time again and find that his ideas stand up to scrutiny in our modern age. I don’t imagine John Muir would find the challenges we face today different from those he fought tirelessly against. He fought and won many battles. He lost a few too. And he left a powerful legacy: a language for sharing the love of wild places.

But a legacy is more than a memory and a celebration of a lifetime’s achievements. Conserving wild places is not a transient objective. It needs to endure. There is little point in celebrating John Muir’s achievements and bringing him to prominence in Scotland if we plan to do nothing to carry forward his legacy into practical action.
This was the thought of the founders of the John Muir Trust over 30 years ago. They should be immensely proud of their initiative because the Trust has made a big difference: as owners and managers of some of our finest wild places such as Ben Nevis and Sandwood Bay; by standing up for wild land where it comes under threat from development; and by connecting thousands of people every year with wild places through the John Muir Award – now in every National Park in the UK.

We’ll never know what he would have thought of the organisation that took his name and inspiration – but we were deeply honoured to have received the International Earthcare Award last year from the Sierra Club – the organisation John Muir founded in 1892.

Reaching this stage in our journey has involved a huge collective effort across our members, trustees, staff and supporters. All of us now in the privileged position of carrying forward the Trust’s name and work owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

A sad irony of conservation is that your relevance and impact is to some extent a measure of the threat you are addressing. For us, it’s the disappearance and degradation of wild places. To acknowledge we are stronger, more relevant than we’ve ever been is to acknowledge the escalation of the threat to our wild places and the growing need to work with others to address disconnections with the natural world, especially among young people.

Some of the most poignant of John Muir’s words appear on the wall of the Scottish Parliament – “the battle for conservation will go on endlessly”. That’s a sobering thought but there are many achievements to be proud of. Changing attitudes towards conservation and growing awareness of climate change and other human impacts on the planet should give us hope that perhaps the tide is beginning to turn.

For a few years now the Trust has fought against the industrialisation of our wild places – the current pressure mainly coming from big energy developments. At a time of heightened understanding of climate change, this has at times been difficult.

We are not anti-renewable, and nor do we underestimate the threat of climate change. We do not believe that the only way to reduce our carbon emissions is to tear up our wild land. Our arguments are now better understood, and the debate has matured, but it has at times been hard going. Standing up for core principles and values can win you as many enemies as friends. However, we are resilient and understand that one of the core functions of NGOs in civic society is to ask tough questions and campaign for what we believe is right.

I’m sure some might see some parallels and please don’t take any inference – but I’d much rather be running a ‘yes’ than a ‘no’ campaign. A campaign that sets out a positive vision of how society benefits from conserving wild land – with an aspiration not just to protect it as it is, but to improve it ecologically, so it can support sustainable development, and improve our health and well-being.

That is the Trust’s vision – but it’s founded on the need to protect what we have already. That is the immediate priority and that’s why governments should act now before it’s too late. Future generations need us to take decisive action in 2014.

I think there is little doubt that the majority of people want to protect our wildest places from further loss. When the Scottish Natural Heritage core wild land map was published almost exactly a year ago, along with draft policy documents proposing strong protection for the areas mapped, we commissioned a Scotland-wide survey to gauge public opinion at that stage. The result in favour was overwhelming.

But that was before the debate had begun. We know that Scotland’s wild land is worth countless billions of pounds for those who see nature as something to be exploited for profit. And we knew that others, for a range of reasons, would be hostile to the map. And so, for the latter part of last year and early this year, the core wild land map along with the draft proposals to protect it, came under significant challenge, especially in the Highlands and Islands where most of the UK’s wild land is located.

Some of that opposition we believe was based on undue fears and suspicion – that outside conservation charities were intent on sterilising the Highlands, stifling economic activity and imposing our will on communities. That we don’t want people in wild places – that we think they should be excluded, or that wild places should exist only to service the needs of a hectic, over civilised mobile elite.

That has never been our intention. We have stood up and robustly defended the core wild land map against these criticisms and promoted the sustainable benefits to those communities and society as a whole. Collectively, we need to be doing more of this.

Of the entire area of the map just 3.5% is community owned. And most of that – Assynt, Knoydart and North Harris – is owned by communities with which we are in partnership and share our broad objectives. These three areas, as it happens, are also National Scenic Areas which have already been promised strong protection from wind farms, and so would be unaffected by the core wild land map as it stands.

When you strip these areas away, less than 1% is community owned. If there are any concerns then we are more than happy to meet these community groups, hear their concerns and work with them and SNH to try and resolve them. We believe that any difficulties locally can be overcome, and that Scotland as a whole, and the Highlands and Islands in particular, will hugely benefit from a clear map that advertises to the world that we have this marvellous resource that would be the envy of many other counties across Europe. The core wild land map is one of opportunity, not constraint.

We need to ensure we are listening to a wide range of relevant voices in the Highlands and Islands and we take people’s concerns seriously. So we recently commissioned the polling company Survation – whose clients include ITN, Channel 4, Sky News and a host of national daily newspapers – to carry out an opinion poll specifically in the eight constituencies that make up the Highlands and Island region.

The question we asked – which was thoroughly discussed with the polling company to ensure fairness and impartiality was: ‘The Scottish Parliament is currently discussing a proposal that Scotland’s wild land - land that is rugged and remote with a lack of visible built structures - should be given special protection from development such as large scale wind farms. To what extent do you support or oppose these proposals?’

The key findings we can report today are that, excluding 6% who don’t know; 23% say they are neutral, and neither support nor oppose the proposal; 24% are opposed; and 53% support the proposal to give special protection to Scotland’s wild land. That means in the Highlands and Islands, support for protection of wild land outweighs opposition by a margin of two to one.

As well as measuring breadth of support, the poll also measured depth by asking how strongly people felt about the issue. Again we are heartened to report that, excluding don’t knows, just 10% are strongly opposed to wild land protection, while 34% are strongly in favour – a margin of more than three to one.

So our key message to the Scottish Government is one of support and reassurance. This is a resounding mandate to stand firm on the proposal to identify and protect 20% of Scotland as ‘core wild land’. And that mandate is not just coming from conservationists, or from the outdoor recreation community, or from the tourist industry. It is coming from the people who live and work in the Highlands and Islands, adjacent to wild land areas, and have the most to gain or lose from whatever decisions are taken.

The John Muir Trust can rightly take some credit for the Government proposals to protect core wild land. It came about as a reaction to the Trust’s wild land campaign calling for more statutory protection and the awareness we have generated around the issue. But it’s only because so many people truly care about Scotland’s wild and scenic landscapes that we have come this far. We see the importance of wild places to people’s lives in the polls we’ve conducted, among so many of our followers on social media, and in the hundreds of thousands of photographs of Scotland that people from around the world post daily on websites.

Of course we would like the Scottish Government to go even further and clearly prohibit industrial developments in core wild land areas, as they currently are within National Parks and National Scenic Areas. We also want to see core wild land areas receiving Scottish Government support for ecological improvements and development of sustainable businesses including tourism.

Scotland in 2014 is at a cross-roads – in September it faces a fundamental decision about its national identity and governance. Before then it must decide if it is prepared to protect what is, apart from its people and culture, the most important asset it has responsibility for – the land itself. I think there could be no more fitting a gesture as we reflect on John Muir’s relevance to the 21st century, for the Scottish Government to set in place robust legislation to protect our wildest land. So that Scotland will continue to be revered and defined by its wild mountains, moorlands, forests and peatlands.

Exactly half a century after Muir’s death, the United States Congress passed the Wilderness Act, creating a legal definition of wilderness for the first time anywhere in the world, protecting nine million acres. No one has ever tried to reverse that Act. Actually the opposite. The protected wilderness areas in the United States have since been extended to over 105 million acres.

Half a century further on, in the centenary year of John Muir’s death, the Scottish Government has the opportunity to bring in our version of that breakthrough – a wild land map of his native land. In 50 years’ time, as in America today, no one will dream of trying to reverse that achievement.

Politicians and conservationists share a fundamental motivation; we both want to make a positive difference. This is our chance to do just that and carry forward John Muir’s legacy.