TAKE a trip up the Highland west coast and down the east and you’ll see soaring mountains, glittering lochs, stags in glens, eagles on the wing, and dunes and moorland echoing to the cry of the curlew.

But among all the majesty you will also see bitterly fought battlegrounds, where developers trying to set up shop face environmental groups opposing them. From Loch Lomond in the south to the far north, hotels, golf courses, fish farms, energy schemes and other developments have been planned in some of our most sensitive land and seascapes.

Every time, the businesses behind the schemes say they will bring jobs and money to areas stripped of people because of the lack of opportunities, and promise to restore the wild places they impact on.

And every time, defenders of nature say the very beauty people visit these areas for, and the environment we all treasure, is being trashed.

The cynicism of the environmental lobby would seem to have a point: last week saw Scottish Natural Heritage recommend that Donald Trump’s Menie Estate golf course should lose its status as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) because the golf development had done so much damage to the area’s famous dune system. Many of the development’s promised economic benefits have yet to materialise.

So is Bruce Wilson of the Scottish Wildlife Trust right when he says the proper priorities are being “turned on their heads” when it comes to developments?

Or should we instead heed Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, when she warns that outsiders trying to block development risk treating the Highlands “like a museum”?

The proposed Coul Links golf development near Embo in Sutherland has many parallels to Trump’s effort in Aberdeenshire.

Apart from being backed by a wealthy American – Chicagoan Mike Keiser – the Coul dune system is also an SSSI. It has two other levels of protection, through the Ramsar international treaty on wetland habitats, and as a European Natura 200-protected habitat.

It is the very nature of the wild dunes at Menie and now Coul that attracts big-money developers such as Trump and Keiser: the SWT and other groups proposed an alternative version of both golf courses, outside the SSSIs, but developers rejected them. “The whole point is that golfers want to play on the dunes,” Wilson says.

What baffles Wilson is why developers want to move in to Coul Links at all despite their protected status. The area is a fragile network of undisturbed dunes noted for protected birds including terns, geese and waders, and a rich variety of plants.

“It’s the most highly-designated kind of site you could have,” he says. “It should just be that a developer sees that, and just says: ‘It’s not worth our while doing that’.

“But we repeatedly see this, with very special sites being opened up to potential development.”

Not everyone shares his view. The golf firm behind the Coul plan promised to boost the local economy, with 250 new jobs and “more than £60 million gross value-added” in its first 10 years. It will only use part of the protected area and says it will manage the site to help local wildlife and combat invasive species.

The Dornoch Area Community Interest Company, set up by local people to promote the area, says its board “unanimously, fully and enthusiastically supports the Coul Links project”.

“We believe the environmental issues can be constructively addressed and the project will materially strengthen the Dornoch and East Sutherland communities,” it declares.

With such support the plan won approval from Highland Council, and Scottish ministers are expected to make a final decision on it in the next few months.

Wilson says the way such development decisions are swayed by economic arguments is wrong: “The focus on the short-term economic gain really misses out on the long-term economics – the reason that people would go to these areas is being eroded by these short-term economics. Priorities are being turned on their heads.

“And there’s a burden on us to prove the environmental argument while economics are always taken at face value. They say a development will create so many new jobs and bring so many millions to the local economy and those figures are just accepted.”

It is not just tourist developments that impact on our finest natural places.

Glen Etive is in a national scenic area, with much of it officially “wild land”. The narrow road that threads the glen for 14 miles to the sea gives less active tourists the chance to see untamed land up close.

The same easy access and steep tumbling burns that are a tourist draw are what attracted hydro-electricity developer William Dickins.

Campaigners including wild-land charity the John Muir Trust fought hard against Dickins’ plans for seven “micro-hydro” schemes on the major burns flowing into the River Etive.

Eventually the development won approval from Highland Council. There will be a grant to the local community from profits, and there will, of course, be more “green” power going into the national grid.

Davie Black, access and conservation officer at climbers’ and walkers’ organisation Mountaineering Scotland, says under the present planning system developments such as the Etive hydro schemes will go on happening despite opposition: “The protections are there but if you look at the planning policy there is always a caveat that it doesn’t prohibit development entirely ... that’s how the system works and you have to argue otherwise.”

With Scottish Government backing for economic development, and no right of appeal by objectors to planning decisions, the odds, he says, are stacked against opponents.

But Kate Forbes forcibly makes the point that, while the environment is important, the wellbeing of local people should take precedence when it comes to development: “The most pressing issue in the Highlands is depopulation and the deficit of young people.

“Recent statistics ... show that deficit is due to grow, which could be disastrous for public services, local schools and rural communities in the Highlands. My focus is on retaining and attracting people.”

She says environmental quality is vital to the Highland economy, boosting tourism and food exports: “The environment can take years to recover if it is wrecked in the pursuit of quick economic gain.”

However, she adds: “Today, there is a danger that the Highlands are treated like a museum – to be enjoyed at a distance without thought to the needs of the local population, who live here and need jobs, infrastructure and economic opportunities.

“Often it’s those living furthest from the Highlands that have the strongest opinions about what should happen here. That is not local democracy. Those who live here know how important balancing economic opportunities with environmental protections is.”

Coul and Glen Etive – the latter in Forbes’ constituency – are probably the most extreme examples of development allowed in highly protected areas.

But can developments in what seem to be inviolable areas do what they set out to – leave the area undamaged and boost the local economy?

The Kingshouse Hotel sits not far from Dickins’ hydro schemes at the junction of Glen Etive and Glen Coe. It has one of the most photographed views in Scotland, of the huge sentinel of Buachaille Etive Mor and down into Glen Coe itself.

The old hotel was tatty and needed a major upgrade, but the owners demolished almost all of it and replaced it with a three-storey steel-framed structure that brought howls of objection from, among others, the National Trust for Scotland.

The Trust said it was an eyesore but the argument was that it would create jobs, and the hotel company brought in to run said it could only be sustained at a much bigger scale than the original hotel.

The Glencoe and Glen Etive Community Council backed it and the developers where at pains to say they would make the building fit in with the local scenery.

Whether they have succeeded is another matter, but the hotel opened in February and instead of a charming but damp, mouldy and battered building that would have had to close, there is now a modern hotel and bunkhouse in a remote place employing 54 people, and serving walkers and climbers as well as bus tourists.

Environmental groups themselves agree development is necessary if the Highlands is to thrive. So how do they say it should it be done?

The nature of the proposals is key, says Davie Black: “It’s a question of how the development goes ahead. Is it an intensive extractive process or is it some light harvesting or harnessing of resources?”

As well as fighting the Glen Etive plan, the John Muir Trust has opposed several large wind-farm developments. It accepts the argument for renewable energy to cut carbon emissions but Andrew Bachell, its chief executive, says the trust backs “local power for local people” such as schemes on Eigg and in Knoydart, which have their own micro-generation for local consumption.

“When our energy strategy is largely dictated by corporations whose first and foremost priority is to distant shareholders, and by landowners determined to squeeze every penny of profit out of the land they own, it starts to get more complicated,” he says.

His thinking chimes with Wilson’s: locally-run developments, with all the profits returning to the area, are his ideal. SWT itself agreed after much thought to a single wind turbine on land it owns in a national scenic area at Achiltibuie. The turbine is managed by a local community company and profits go to the local community.

“We’re not against development, and that development can take place in such areas where jobs and attractions can boost the economy, as long as it does so without causing damage,” Wilson says.

William Dickins, the developer of Coul Links, and the agent for the owners of the Kingshouse were all approached for this article, but did not provide any comment.