THE environmentally fragile summit of Scotland's Cairn Gorm mountain is to be put up for sale after 34 years of ownership by a Scottish quango.
Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) has appointed a land management company to assess options for the ownership of the 3,500-acre Cairngorm estate, which includes a ski centre and funicular railway.
One option would be for HIE to follow the advice of its past chairman, Dr Jim Hunter, who said in 2002 that the estate could be owned or managed by the community. It is thought unlikely that the estate would be sold to a private owner.
Last night there was a cautious welcome to any possibility of community ownership. But one MSP said the new owner must be committed to winter sports and the railway and that Cairn Gorm should not be taken over by conservation bodies, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which opposed the funicular project.
The estate, part of the Cairngorms mountain range, was transferred to the Highlands and Islands Development Board, HIE's predecessor, in 1971 by the then Scottish Office. About a third of the area is leased to CairnGorm Mountain Ltd, which operates the ski area and funicular.
The railway project cost 19.6million, including 2.7million from Europe, with HIE meeting the balance of 16.9million.
HIE says its policy is to dispose of properties it no longer needs. With no further developments planned at Cairn Gorm, it wants to identify potential "exit routes" from ownership.
Douglas MacDiarmid, HIE's director of global connections, said: "We're determined to do all we can to identify a strategy for the future ownership of the estate to balance the important role of the railway and ski slopes in underpinning tourism in the area with the need to manage public access and care properly for this sensitive environment."
Sheena Slimon, a local Highland councillor, said a community buy-out may be possible. "I'm not sure how they would feel about that, or indeed which communities would be involved. But it's a thought- provoking announcement and it presents a real challenge. It could be a goldmine, or it could be a poisoned chalice."
The possibility of the estate being taken over by the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), will also be considered. A CNPA spokeswoman said: "The Cairngorms estate is at the very centre of the Cairngorms National Park so the investigations into the full range of ownership options for this area of land will, of course, be of significant interest to the park authority."
The controversial funicular was backed by Highland Council but was delayed as the WWF and the RSPB conservation bodies sought a judicial review on whether visitor management arrangements were adequate to protect the environment.
Fergus Ewing, the Scottish National Party MSP, said: "It's essential that the new estate owners are committed to winter sports and the funicular. Under no circumstances should it fall into the hands of any of the conservation bodies who fought tooth and nail against the funicular."
Dave Morris, the director of the Ramblers Association Scotland, said HIE giving up ownership of northern slopes of the Cairngorms would "lift a dark cloud" that has hung over the mountains for 30 years when the estate was given over by the Forestry Commission.
"From this decision, one controversy after another has followed as HIDB and HIE have battled with conservation, outdoor recreation and local community interests over unwise projects.
"We hope the northern corries of the Cairngorms are transferred to a new body which fully reflects the range of local, national and international interests."