At stake is the future of Scotland's green energy revolution - and thousands of acres of unspoiled Scottish countryside.
When the public inquiry on plans to build a high-voltage power line from Beauly, in the Highlands, to Denny, Stirlingshire, opens today, it promises to be one of the most important and hard fought in recent Scottish history.
The inquiry has received some 17,000 objections to the proposal by Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE). By the time the three reporters have finished hearing evidence, it will be December.
According to supporters, the new line is vital so that electricity from future wind farms and wave and tidal energy schemes in the north can be taken to population centres in the Central Belt and England.
It would enable 1,000 megawatts of renewable energy to be transferred efficiently, potentially saving 600,000 tonnes of carbon a year from being pumped into the atmosphere. It would also help Scotland, which is rich in sources of wind, wave and tidal power, become a world leader in green energy technology, creating tens of thousands of jobs.
However, the planned route has outraged conservation groups such as the John Muir Trust and Scottish Wild Land Group, as the cable, supported by about 600 pylons, some 200ft high, would go through the heart of the Highlands. Seventy-six pylons would be built in the Cairngorms National Park and it would pass through the site of the Battle of Sheriffmuir, the resting place of some 1,000 soldiers.
The Scottish Executive said the inquiry had received a number of submissions supporting the power line but admitted the "overwhelming" majority were against.
In a letter sent recently by Ian Marchant, SSE's chief executive, to Scottish ministers and MSPs, he said the country could become "a world leader in green energy and in the fight against climate change".
But he added: "Fulfilment of Scotland's renewable energy potential is being held back by a planning system which is capricious and fundamentally incapable of delivering in a timely and orderly fashion consent for any renewable energy development.
"Planning policy needs to reflect the fact that renewable energy is central to Scotland's economic and environmental future and that, without a successful battle against climate change, much of Scotland's natural heritage legacy will be lost."
Jason Ormiston, the acting chief executive of the Scottish Renewables industry group, said the line should go ahead for three reasons: the economic benefits, the improved security of electricity supply and tackling climate change.
"Renewable electricity is the only genuine reliable source of clean green power and we need upgraded electricity networks that can get the electricity from where it is generated best, to where it is needed most," he said.
"Aside from attracting construction contracts in excess of 1 billion to the region, connecting 1,000MW or more of renewable electricity projects will pump more than 175 million into Scotland's Highland and Island rural economy through land rentals and community payments [from wind-farm schemes] over a 25-year period."
This supply of green energy would replace power from coal- and gas-fired power stations, potentially saving more than 600,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year - nearly a quarter of the Executive's target of emission reductions by 2010.
But Davie Black, wild land campaigner for the Ramblers' Association Scotland, said there were alternatives to the Beauly-Denny route.
He argued that, given the emphasis on off-shore renewable schemes - of wind turbines as well as wave and tidal power - it would make more sense to lay an underwater cable down to Hunterston in Ayrshire or Torness in East Lothian, where there are connections to high-voltage cables to serve the nuclear power stations. "We question the need for this completely, given the range of options available," he said.
Mr Black added that the presence of the power line through the heart of Scotland would encourage more wind-farm schemes near the route, increasing the industrialisation of countryside renowned for its scenery. "This is just the first phase of massive development in the Scottish hills.
Why trash our environment through trying to save our environment?" he asked.
After the inquiry, the reporters will submit their findings to Scottish ministers, who will make the final decision, probably next year.
We deserve environmental ASBO - we must act
FOR: JAMES CURRAN
THE whole of mankind should be served an ASBO - we are the neighbours from hell when it comes to the global ecosystem.
The latest climate-change report provides an upward ratcheting of dire warnings.
That is bad enough, but then add the potential for climate change to become irreversible. There are huge dormant stocks of carbon around the world - the peat in Scottish mountains alone holds 5,000 million tons. If climate change unlocks these carbon deposits, through cycles of drought, flood, warming and melting, then the planet itself begins to release enough to accelerate climate change - irrespective of reductions in our own emissions.
Some may not fully accept these predictions, but they should be sufficiently concerned to accept a precautionary approach.
Buckminster Fuller complained that planet Earth had not come with an instruction manual but, in this case, we know the answer - reduce emissions.
We will need to turn off those gas fires, boilers and coal power-stations, and permanently park those petrol-driven cars. We must become energy efficient and grasp every watt of carbon-free power. This means more electricity and it must be renewable.
Energy must be extracted from the seas, hills, forests and rivers and brought to cities, businesses and hospitals.
Nobody wants to damage Scotland's countryside, but it seems selfish, in the cradle of the industrial revolution that ultimately created Damoclean climate change, that we now argue our countryside is too precious to install the cables that offer the chance to cut emissions and take global responsibility. Scientists say that 30 per cent of all species will be at high risk of extinction in mid-century. Will there actually be much countryside worth preserving if we don't take resolute action now?
Let's be practical - design these grid interconnectors sensibly; fit them into the landscape; build them so they can be taken down and removed; construct them of materials to recycle; install them so they disturb the local ecosystem minimally. A line of pylons isn't irreversible; climate change may be. For the planet's sake, build them - fast.
• Prof James Curran is a former head of environmental strategy at the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency.
Highland scenery is not limitless resource
AGAINST: HELEN MCDADE
THE proposed electricity transmission line from Beauly to Denny is part of the largest industrial development in the Highlands - on an even bigger scale than the hydro-electric schemes of the 20th century.
It will have a major impact on the landscape and on the wind-power developments it will encourage. It is more than an "upgrade": it will not use existing pylons or bases and the new pylons will be about as tall as the Wallace Monument in Stirling or the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.
Scottish hills and mountains are internationally renowned and valued. Successive surveys of visitor attitudes by VisitScotland demonstrate that unspoilt environment and wild land are strongly associated with the image of Scotland, and that walking is the most popular recreational activity in the country.
Moreover, this quality of environment is a key reason for business to locate in the area and for skilled workers to choose to live in Scotland. The Highland landscape has been gradually worn away over the past century through conifer plantations, bulldozed tracks, hydro dams, ski developments, wind farms and telecom masts. The Highlands are not a limitless, scenic resource.
The effects of climate change are increasingly clear, as is the need to limit emissions. However, that does not mean we should accept every proposal for "green energy" that big business puts forward without assessing their impact.
The developers argue this line is essential to connect new wind-turbine developments in the Highlands to reduce emissions. But electricity production is responsible for only about 20 per cent of Scotland's energy use and the renewables target is only 40 per cent of that.
It is worth noting that a Scottish Parliament committee concluded that a 40 per cent cut in energy usage could be achieved by energy conservation and efficiency measures.
The proposed power line is justified by the electricity regulator, Ofgem, on a purely economic "cost and convenience" basis to electricity consumers.
Developing onshore wind farms in remote locations and transmitting power over long distances is not as sustainable, environmentally and socially, as exploiting sources closer to consumption.
• Helen McDade is a policy officer at the John Muir Trust.
McConnell pledge on flights
JACK McConnell, the First Minister, made a personal commitment yesterday to halve the number of domestic flights he takes, and he will demand similar reductions from ministers and senior civil servants if Labour wins the election.
He is aware the Scottish Executive has a poor record on flights, particularly as ministers have urged Scots to fly less in order to combat the rise in global warming.
Last year, Scottish civil servants made 10,000 flights within Britain - more than twice the average for Scottish government agencies. This works out at 27 flights a day, producing 4,000 tonnes of pollution a year. Scottish ministers took 87 air journeys within Britain, all of which could have been made by train.
Heralding the start of environment week, Mr McConnell said all Scots had to look at their lifestyles and find ways to make changes. He said he would cut his flights and take the train or use video-conferencing.
Labour's manifesto is also likely to vow to cut the use of official government cars.
Park boundary is 'absurd'
THE existing boundary of the Cairngorms National Park is absurd and should be extended to include Highland Perthshire as soon as possible, MSPs were told yesterday.
The Scottish Parliament's environment and rural development committee met in Blair Atholl to take evidence on a move by John Swinney, the MSP for North Tayside, to widen the area, already the largest park in the UK, by 300 square miles.
Originally, Scottish Natural Heritage recommended that the park would cover 1,775sq miles spread over five local authority areas - Highland, Moray, Aberdeenshire, Angus and Perth and Kinross. But when the boundary was finally approved by the Scottish Executive in 2003, the park was 1,466sq miles, leaving out Highland Perthshire.
Since then, a campaign to extend the boundary, involving a range of public and voluntary bodies and businesses, has been growing.
A report on the bill is due early next month.