Trump golf course partially destroys Site of Special Scientific Interest
On 29 July 2018, ‘The Observer’ newspaper reported that one of Donald Trump’s golf resorts in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, has “partially destroyed” a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It was followed up by the Associated Press and other media. This commentary provides background to the story.
Documents sent to me in response to a request for disclosure under the Environmental Information Regulations indicate that Scottish Natural Heritage has known since August 2016 about the damage to the spectacular sand dune system at Menie Links, inside the protected Foveran Links site, but had been keeping its assessment secret.
On 25 June, I submitted my request for information to Scottish Natural Heritage. I received the response and relevant documents on 27 July 2018, indicating that damage caused by Trump International Golf Links Scotland (TIGLS), near Balmedie, has been so great that the SSSI may soon be stripped of its protected status.
The Trump Organisation, which has been headed by Mr Trump’s sons, Eric and Don Junior, since his inauguration as President of the United States in January 2017, announced plans on 19 July for further development at TIGLS.
The Organisation will later this year apply for planning permission for construction that includes 500 residential homes, 50 hotel cottages, a sports centre, and retail, equestrian and commercial spaces, alongside other resort-related leisure facilities.
It is not yet clear if the new development will cause further damage to the SSSI.
I have been following the extraordinary saga of the TIGLS property since 2011, when I first wrote about the threat to the SSSI.
Foveran Links received its designation in 1984 for both its biological and geological features. Its citation notes: “The site is of exceptional importance for the study of a wide variety of coastal landforms and processes and its value is enhanced by the availability of extensive research results in other disciplines which provide much additional and complementary evidence relevant to solving a broad range of gemorphological [sic] problems”.
Scotland’s 1423 SSSIs are protected by the 2004 Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act which states: “Any person who intentionally or recklessly damages any natural feature specified in an SSSI notification is…guilty of an offence”, except if the act was “the incidental result of a lawful operation” and “that person took such steps as were reasonably practicable in all the circumstances to minimise the damage caused”.
The Trump Organisation, headed by Donald Trump, was first given the go-ahead by the Scottish Government in December 2008 to build the golf on the SSSI following a public local inquiry. The events leading up to permission being granted are described in an article published in the journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists in 2013.
The case put forward by TIGLS to the public inquiry admitted that “the layout of the golf course will have a range of impacts on these geomorphological features and for many areas this is considered to be severe”. However, it also indicated that they would offer an expert witness who would testify that “large parts of the interior dune topography will be unaltered and that the coastal dune and beach-dune interface zone will not be used as part of the golf course”.
Mr Trump submitted a ‘main precognition’ statement to the inquiry in which he insisted: “The bottom line is that if we were refused permission to develop on the southern end of the SSSI, I would withdraw from this development because it would not, and could not, fulfil my vision of doing something outstanding”.
But his submission promised that “I am, however, fully committed to mitigating the effects of the course on the environment”, and that “I want to create a course that plays within the shadows of the dunes”. He stated: “Therefore preserving the sanctity and beauty of the dunes if of great importance to me”.
Mr Trump also outlined how he would “ensure that construction is carried out in an environmentally sensitive manner”. He stated that he had “given instructions that we should set up, at the earliest opportunity, a body to be known as Menie (Links) Environmental Management Advisory Group (MEMAG)”, which would “advise our team on the construction and operation of the golf courses and related facilities”.
He pledged: “MEMAG will also give advice on how to minimize adverse changes and facilitate good management practices”.
The brochure on “Master Plan Development” produced by TIGLS in September 2009 included a brief statement about the Environmental Protection and Management Plan: “Trump International – Scotland takes its stewardship and obligation to protect and enhance the natural environment very seriously. A comprehensive range of ecological surveys (habitat and species) have already been completed throughout the site and the scientific interests of the dunes and links areas are subject to continual monitoring by highly respected and qualified ecologists. Menie Environmental Management and Advisory Group (MEMAG) has been established and funded by Trump International – Scotland to provide independent advice on environmental conditions through the construction and operational phases.”
It also promised that TIGLS has “appointed one of Scotland’s foremost environmental scientists as Ecological Clerk of Works, to provide independent advice to Aberdeenshire Council ensuring that environmental conditions, mitigation and compensation measures are met”.
MEMAG met for the first time on 7 December 2009, but was unilaterally dissolved by Mr Trump in 2013. Its website no longer exists, but a copy of its home page states: “Menie Environmental Management Group (MEMAG) exists as an independent body to provide impartial environmental advice to Aberdeenshire Council and to the owner and operators of the Trump International Golf Course and Resort development at Menie Links (TIGLS) and adjacent areas. The core area is the beach, dunes and links areas within the site boundary of the development. The advice to be offered relates to the construction and operation of the golf courses and related facilities and is confined to the environmental impact of the development.”
It also states: “The advice provided by MEMAG is designed to help to minimize adverse environmental changes and to facilitate good management practices”.
The report of the public local inquiry concluded: “The development would have a significant adverse impact on the southern third of the Foveran Links SSSI. Here the dynamism that underpins the designation of the SSSI would, for the majority of the holes in the back 9 of the championship course, be halted. Much, though not all, of the geomorphological interest in that affected part of the SSSI would be compromised alongside a major adverse effect on the coherence of the ecological structure and function of the impacted areas compromising the objectives of both designation and overall integrity.”
Nevertheless, the report recommended that “the economic and social advantages of this prospective development at national, regional and local level are such as to justify, uniquely, the adverse environmental consequences caused by a development on this scale and in this location”.
However, the documents released by Scottish Natural Heritage reveal that the commitments by Mr Trump and TIGLS have not been honoured.
They show that a Site Condition Monitoring visit to Foveran Links in August 2016 by staff from Scottish Natural Heritage concluded that the SSSI has been partially destroyed by the TIGLS development over 25 hectares.
The documents include a briefing note prepared for Nick Halfhide, Director of Operations at Scottish Natural Heritage, before he visited the Foveran Links SSSI with staff from TIGLS in November 2017.
It stated: “The area of natural habitat within the Menie section of the SSSI has dropped from 92% to 42%”. It indicated that the SSSI had been assessed as “partially destroyed”, and that its boundary may be changed to exclude the section covered by the golf course.
The briefing note also highlighted that the public local inquiry had “required mitigation as a condition of consent” for the TIGLS development, but that neither Scottish Natural Heritage nor Aberdeenshire Council “have received the monitoring reports that were due to be submitted from years 1-10 once the course was completed”.
In addition, it acknowledged that MEMAG had not met since 2013 and that Scottish Natural Heritage has “advised the council to establish what monitoring has taken place so far and ensure that there is suitable monitoring for 10 years as originally agreed”. It added: “To date, this has not been forthcoming”.
A note of a meeting on 7 March 2018 indicates that staff from Scottish Natural Heritage informed TIGLS that the Site Condition Monitoring visits had been completed, noting: “Result is ‘Partially destroyed’, which as advised in prior meeting, is standard wording where part of a site has no prospect of recovery”.
It also indicated that the status of the SSSI was being reviewed: “There are three main options for the SSSI: do nothing, partial change, or remove the Menie section; subject to practical considerations of where to draw the boundary”.
On 26 July 2018, the day before I received the documents, Scottish Natural Heritage updated the web page for Foveran Links to show that its “latest assessed condition” is “partially destroyed”, based on a site visit in August 2016. Previously it was listed as being “favourably maintained”, based on visits in 1999 and 2001.
Rumours had been circulating for some time that the SSSI had been at least partially destroyed. Media reports in November 2017 suggested that its status was being reviewed, but Scottish Natural Heritage did not made public any details. The documents that have been released to me provide confirmation of those rumours.
On 5 July 2018, I wrote to Roseanna Cunningham MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform in The Scottish Government, asking her to “investigate whether Trump International Golf Links Scotland in Balmedie has broken the law by causing environmental damage to the Site of Special Scientific Interest at Foveran Links in Aberdeenshire”.
My letter stated: “I believe there is strong evidence that Mr Trump has not abided by his commitment to minimise the adverse impacts of the golf course development at Balmedie, and that this may have resulted in greater damage to the Foveran Links SSSI than was absolutely necessary”.
I also suggested to the Cabinet Secretary that she should take advantage of Mr Trump’s visit to Scotland in July “to find out if Trump International Golf Links Scotland has taken sufficient care to minimise environmental damage to the Foveran Links SSSI”.
I am still waiting for a response.
Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.