The first visitor access facilities at 'Wild Nephin', an 11,000-hectare wilderness area, have officially opened in Mayo.
The venture, a joint project between Coillte and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), is described as "one of the few truly wild places remaining in Europe."
It encompasses 11,000 hectares of wilderness on Coillte and Ballycroy National Park state-owned lands around the Nephin Beg range in Co. Mayo.
The new visitor facilities include a viewing platform, three looped trails, a car park and picnic tables, which are located at the site of the historic Brogan Carroll bothy in Letterkeen.
'Wild Nephin' is a long-term project that will take decades to come to full fruition, and hopes to build on the momentum of other local recreation developments such as the Bangor Trail and the Great Western Greenway.
Future visits in the "re-wilded" area could range from a gentle hour or two to "a full wilderness experience lasting several days" according to Coillte's project brochure.
To facilitate this, the area has been broken into a developed natural zone (to include a stacked looped trail system) and semi-primitive and primitive zones, where it is envisaged visitors could undertake remote hikes.
Although the concept of a dedicated wilderness area is relatively new to Ireland, Coillte and the NWPS believe they can sustain an area "where it is truly possible to make a complete break with 21st century development."
The Nephin Beg range was once described as "the loneliest place in Ireland" by the naturalist, Robert Lloyd Praeger.
"The new facilities will prove a great boost to visitor access and will enhance visitor numbers to the area," says Minister Michael Ring TD, Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Tourism and Sport.
In the future, a number of overnight campsites will be provided, "with the provision of primitive shelters, tent platforms, fire rungs and privies," according to the Coillte brochure.
'Wild Nephin' has already been twinned with Baxter State Park, an 800km2 wilderness area preserved in north-central Maine.
As well as attracting and educating visitors, the wilderness area will help to conserve and enhance the ecological value of natural and semi-natural habitats in the project area, said Gerard Murphy, Managing Director of Coillte Forest.
"It will also maintain the conservation status of natural ecosystems, flora and fauna, and protect the wilderness value of this remote landscape.”
Conversion of the forest area to a full wilderness is expected to take 15 years.
Directions to the 'Wild Nephin' wilderness area:
Leaving Newport on the Achill Road, take the right turn after 1km signposted Furnace Lough. Follow the road for 12km. The sign for Letterkeen carp park is on your left after a small bridge.