National Park status panel set up
A panel of experts is to assess which areas of scenic beauty in Northern Ireland could be handed National Park status.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood established the group as he gave the clearest indication yet that popular visitor locations such as the Mourne mountains, the Fermanagh lakes and the Causeway coast could be given the special protection designation.
The controversial issue has been debated for the last decade without resolution.
While environmentalists favour the legislation, many local interests, such as farmers and developers, have opposed it, expressing concern at the accompanying limits on land use.
Mr Attwood, who has also extended a public consultation period on proposals as to how a park would be managed, said he supported the case for introducing the special status.
"In my view Special National Parks would be a boost for Northern Ireland," he said.
"We are fortunate in having not one, two or three but a number of areas that might meet the proposed criteria for such areas of national importance.
"Park status would not only serve to address and enhance their landscape and natural beauty needs, but also deliver long-term benefits through a sustained government commitment."
He said the panel would start the process of selecting possible candidates for National Park status.
The consultation document looks at how a Special National Park might be managed in a way that reconciles both local and national interests, giving proper weighting to social, economic and environmental needs. The original consultation period has been extended and will now finish on October 31.