IT is an incontrovertible fact that the Highland Council area has one of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes on Planet Earth.The cathedral-like skies of Caithness, and mountains and moorlands, lochs and rivers of Sutherland, Ross and Inverness-shire attract visitors from around the world. Many come to find their ancestral beginnings amongst our Highland clans, some to explore the region's astonishing archaeological heritage, others to wonder at our wild flora and fauna, or simply to enjoy our ancient cliff-top castles and near-deserted beaches.
The value that these visitors bring to our local economy is substantial; to hotels, guest-houses, and B&B establishments, caravan parks, self-catering cottages, shops and other businesses. Their monetary input is vital to the continued economic health of the region and to maintaining and strengthening sustainable employment opportunities where often few other viable alternatives exist.
Therefore, it is fair to say that it is a primary duty of the Highland Council to rigorously protect an environment that brings us such health and prosperity.
But my honestly held view is that the Highland Council has miserably failed in its duty to do so. During the 30 years that I have lived and worked here in the Far North, it seems to me that rather than striving to preserve the integrity of our landscape, the Highland Council (and its predecessor body Highland Regional Council) has gone out of its way to open it up to commercial and industrial exploitation on the false assumption of that by doing so thousands of jobs will be created.
These promised jobs never appear and in the aftermath of their passing huge chunks of the region are devastated, despoiled and degraded.
THE most recent example of this madness is the council's planning committee agreeing not to object to yet another wind farm scheme, in Strathy Forest in Caithness.
This could involve rooting out nearly 4000 acres of lodge pole pine and Sitka spruce to make way for 33 turbines, each of which, from ground to blade tip, will be 360ft in height.
The developer of this 90 million pound project is Scottish and Southern Energy and further wind farm applications are expected in other afforested areas, including 77 turbines at Strathy South in Sutherland. This latter proposal could probably involve removing another 4000 to 6000 acres of trees.
Were it not so sad, it would be laughable. In the 1980s the regional council welcomed the tree planters in on the promise of 2000 new jobs from forestry in the world-famous Flow Country of Caithness and East Sutherland; a scheme that had nothing to do with trees and all to do with a few very rich London and Home Counties people avoiding paying tax.
During the ensuing "Battle of the Flows" the council did show some concern about the extent of the planting (approximately 200,000 acres), not to safeguard the Flow Country, but rather to ensure that the best bits were left unplanted so that they could then flog it off for commercial peat extraction to turn into barbecue charcoal for sale at home and overseas.
By the time the tree planting had to stop, in the late 1980s, when the tax loophole that was being exploited was closed, the loss to the UK piggy bank amounted to a sum not unadjacent to 30 million pounds.
Nothing daunted, the council pressed ahead with its charcoal processing plans, based upon a promise of, yes, you've guessed, 2000 new jobs.
The proposal attracted a huge number of objections and although the council granted permission, it was hedged about by restrictions that persuaded the developer to abandon his scheme and pack up and go; but not before several thousand acres of irreplaceable Flow Country landscaped had stripped and shipped.
You can still see the black mess that was made to the west of the A9 Latheron to Thurso road; one of the main tourist routes into the heart of Caithness and which, by the way, already has its own crop of wind-farm turbines.
NEXT up for the local authority was a madcap scheme for a super-quarry at Loch Eriboll in North Sutherland (yes, another 2000 jobs promised) and again the council was flooded with objections and the scheme died an unnatural death.
Nothing daunted, council then decided to jump on the factory-fish-farming bandwagon so that now nearly every coastal loch has its quota of unsightly cages spewing thousands of tonnes of untreated waste into once pristine waters; with disease and pollution from these farms killing wild sea trout and salmon as they pass by on their migration routes.
I believe that I have adequately supported the statement I made earlier about the local authority's environmental credentials.
Members seem to blunder on blindly, heads stuck firmly in a peat bog, or perhaps up to the ears in fish farm filth and howling wind farm turbines.
Whatever, for them, it seems to be just business as usual, but for our precious natural heritage it is a disaster. I predict that, sooner, rather than later, and like all the other allegedly job-promoting projects, it will all end in tears.