Everest conqueror Dawson Stelfox has warned that Northern Ireland's most popular walking trails are at risk after the Department of the Environment slashed funding used to encourage outdoor recreation.
The DoE has withdrawn 100% of the funding to Outdoor Recreation NI (ORNI), which is responsible for developing, managing and promoting outdoor activities across Northern Ireland. That amounts to £120,000 a year.
The strategic group has helped develop popular mountain bike trails in Rostrevor and Castlewellan in Co Down, and Davagh Forest in Co Tyrone; the award-winning canoe trail on Lough Erne; walking and cycling trails at Beech Hill in Co Londonderry, and walking trails on Rathlin Island.
Dawson Stelfox MBE, the first Irishman to scale the summit of Mount Everest and chairman of ORNI, said: "This cut puts into jeopardy many of the walking paths throughout Northern Ireland as well as some of our iconic walks such as the Causeway Coast Way and the Ulster Way."
A range of environmental organisations has been hit by funding cuts after Environment Minister Mark H Durkan was told to cut his budget by £12.4m - almost 11% - in the coming financial year. A number of smaller environmental groups may fold due to the cuts. Mr Durkan is set to face tough questioning when he appears before his Stormont scrutiny committee today.
ORNI said it provided insurance for all walking trails in Northern Ireland, and the 100% withdrawal of DoE funding puts public access to walking trails at risk.
In the last six years ORNI has generated an additional £7.5m. It says the ability to attract further funding will be at risk with the funding cuts.
Mr Stelfox said: "Outdoor recreation generates huge economic benefits, particularly for rural economies.
"In addition, there is indisputable evidence that taking part in physical activities in an outdoor environment has huge potential to enhance mental wellbeing and physical health.
"The Northern Ireland Environment Committee is meeting today to discuss the cuts.
"We urge the people of Northern Ireland to encourage them to challenge these cuts for their own health and wellbeing as well as the economic benefits that outdoor recreation can bring."
The group says the walking, cycle and mountain bike paths it creates, as well as the programme it runs to train people to start walking, all have an impact on increasing participation in physical activity.
The Ulster Way
The Ulster Way is one of the longest waymarked walking routes in Britain and Ireland, totalling 625 miles (1,000km). The route which dates back to 1946 was relaunched in 2009 and is divided into Quality and Link sections. The circular route passes through all six counties of Northern Ireland and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty such as the Mourne Mountains, Fermanagh Lakelands, Sperrin Mountains and the Causeway Coast Way, which takes in some of the most iconic coastal walking in Europe.