The sand dunes of Scotland's northeast coast have a rugged, unadorned beauty and understated elegance. So when Donald Trump flew his private Boeing jet into Aberdeen airport in 2006 and announced, with typical Trumpian bombast, that he intended to construct a billion-dollar-plus development on the dunes that would include the "greatest golf course ever constructed," he set the stage for a protracted conservation battle that on Monday reached the highest level of Scottish government.
In a much-anticipated announcement, Scotland's finance secretary John Swinney gave Trump permission to go ahead with his $1.56 billion investment, overruling the local authority, Aberdeenshire council, which last year turned down Trump's development on the grounds that it would destroy the ecologically sensitive dunes.
While details of the development still need to be ironed out, Trump now has permission to build two 18-hole championship courses, a five-star hotel, a golf academy, spa, 950 time-share vacation villas and 950 holiday homes that will sell for a minimum of $1 million each.
"We are greatly honored by the positive decision and believe that the people of Scotland will be extremely happy with the final product. We will stabilize the dunes. They will be there forever. This will be environmentally better after [the development] is built that it is before," Trump told The Scotsman newspaper.
The turnaround surprised few, since the Scottish government has been eager to attract investment as proof that Scotland can "go it alone" without tax subsidies from London. Aberdeenshire, with its decimated fishing fleet and dwindling offshore oil fields, has been a specific target for outside investment. Trump has promised to create 6000 jobs there, but that hardly mollified Scotland's conservation bodies. On Monday, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, one of the most vocal defenders of the dunes, accused the Scottish government of selling a "greener Scotland down the river" for Trump's money loaded words, as the rallying cry of many Scottish Nationalists is that the Scots sold their country "down the river" for English gold by joining the 1707 Act of Union with England.
"The Dune system, with its precious wildlife, is too high a price to pay for the claimed economic benefits from this development," Aedan Smith of RSPB Scotland said.
Helen McDade of another conservation body, the John Muir Trust, was even more direct in a statement issued to the press: "The government's reasoning seems to be that it is OK to ignore any number of protections that are in place to safeguard Scotland's environment, provided there is a big enough buck to be made at the end of it."
But Trump's development is still far from a sure thing. Standing in his way is Michael Forbes, a fisherman and quarry worker who has refused all lucrative offers from the American billionaire to sell his ancestral home, which sits in the middle of the property slated for the development. Trump has said that he can build around the Forbes property, but conservation groups say there may be access requirements that would impinge on such plans.
Perhaps of greater concern to Trump is whether even his famous bravado can carry off a $1 billion-plus development at a time of anemic institutional lending. Trump says he has the cash to build it, but he has already seen other ambitious projects crunched by the credit crisis: according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, his company recently announced the postponement of construction of the $300-million Trump Tower Philadelphia. Scottish conservationists may yet take heart: if there's anything more delicate or unstable than their beloved sand dunes, it's the current global economy.