THE FAMOUS Marble Arch Cave system is the main feature of an application to world heritage body Unesco for recognition of a cross-Border "geopark" straddling counties Cavan and Fermanagh.
Local authorities in the two counties have submitted a joint application to extend the existing Marble Arch Caves geopark in Co Fermanagh to include parts of Co Cavan, with a terrain similar to that found in the Burren, in Co Clare.
The two bodies say in their application that the resulting geopark would provide a platform for further social, economic, cultural and environmental benefits, of strategic importance in the Border region.
"Given the recent history of conflict in Ireland, the cross-Border expansion of the geopark will be widely regarded as a symbol of hope for peace by people in other countries where conflict still exists."
A geopark is defined by Unesco as a geographical area where geological heritage sites are used to further development.
Archaeological, cultural and historical sites are also seen as integral parts of the concept.
Fermanagh County Council developed Marble Arch Caves as a geotourism facility in 1985, and the caves have since attracted more than one million visitors.
It was awarded global geopark status by Unesco in 2004.
The proposed extension into Co Cavan would include features such as the Shannon Pot, where the river rises, and the Cuilcagh mountains.
The gateway to this part of the park would be in the Burren Forest, in an extensive area of upland limestone karst.
"This is a unique and largely undiscovered landscape, with a necklace of attractions as well as some remarkable geology," says Cavan county manager Jack Keyes.
"In an area with a long history of population decline, this will be our beacon for going forward."
The extension of the geopark into the Republic would boost its size from 1,600 hectares to 18,000 hectares.
Much of the land is in public ownership, according to the masterplan prepared by environmental consultants.
However, the councils caution that, "unlike most other European countries, the public do not have the right to walk on private land in either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland due to the specific public access and trespass laws.
"The councils must avoid giving the impression that some private land is included in the geopark without the owners' permission, as this would create public resentment against the geopark by including large areas of private land within it."
While the geopark would not necessarily permit public access to natural features on private land, many of them would be interpreted "at a distance", the application states.
Up to €4 million has already been spent on the project on both sides of the Border, and a further application for EU funding is being prepared, according to Mr Keyes.
At present, the only designated geopark in the Republic is the Copper Coast in Co Waterford, from Dungarvan to Tramore.
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