Mourne mountains to become North's first national park
The Mourne mountains are set to become Northern Ireland's first national park, according to Lord (Jeff) Rooker, the North's environment minister.
However, he said the aim was not "about ossifying places" where much of the landscape is still being farmed.
Addressing a Vision For The Future conference in Belfast organised by the Environment and Heritage Service, Lord Rooker said Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK which did not have a national park, and he wanted to "make a start in the Mournes".
He said access to the countryside was "fundamental" because "it belongs to us all". There was also a public desire for national parks, but with local accountability and the required commitment of additional resources to make a national park work.
Lord Rooker also said a review of "environmental governance" in the North was likely to result in the Environment and Heritage Service, which operates as a division of the Department of the Environment in Belfast, becoming an independent agency.
"It doesn't look right to have an environmental agency that's an integral arm of government," he said, adding that the restoration of planning powers to a reorganised local government system in the North was also a "key issue" in the review.
The Mourne mountains were first designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in 1966. In 1986 this designation was extended to include their farmed foothills and the coastline between Newcastle and Rostrevor, Co Down.
The aim was to safeguard the natural beauty, wildlife and historic heritage of the area where, as the Percy French song puts it, "the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea", while at the same time promoting its enjoyment to the public.
In 2002, Dermot Nesbitt MLA, then minister for the environment in the Northern Ireland executive, announced that the Mournes were to be considered for designation as a national park, and a working party was established in 2003 to advance this aim.
The Mourne Heritage Trust, an independent body responsible for managing the Mourne AONB, wants to see it become a "Celtic model" national park like Snowdonia in Wales and the Cairngorms in Scotland, rather than following the more restrictive English model.
To dispel what its chairman, Dr Arthur Mitchell, characterised as "myths and rumours" surrounding the proposed national park, the trust led a study visit by 16 farmers in the Mournes last year to Snowdonia and the Cairngorms to see how their parks operated.
"We believe that a national park offers significant opportunities for the sustainable development of agriculture and the rural communities in Mourne.
"Our view is of an active and ever-changing area, not of an open-air museum," the trust said in a statement.
The intention in Northern Ireland is that most of the land in the Mournes will remain in private ownership.