The overwhelming support for the Environmental Protection Department's (EPD) decision to protect Long Valley might yet persuade the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation (KCRC) to scrap its plan to lodge an appeal. But yesterday KCRC chairman Yeung Kai-yin was sticking to his guns, arguing that its plan to build a railway right through the valley was the best option. It appears Mr Yeung fails to appreciate that Monday's decision was more than a stay of execution for the wetland; it signals the end of public apathy on environmental issues. Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, public opinion has clearly swung in favour of enhanced efforts to protect what is left of Hong Kong's few remaining patches of environmentally sensitive land. That should make the fight to protect such areas in future easier to achieve. But supposing the KCRC does concede defeat at this juncture, the future for Long Valley remains uncertain. It is private land and its fate is in the hands of its owners. Villagers were enthusiastic about the rail link, because it spelled development for the region and a rise in the value of their property. Naturally, those are immense benefits for a rural community. Agricultural work is round-the-clock toil for very poor return and farmers are being squeezed out as the population increases. After the struggle to save it, it would be tragic if Long Valley was lost by default and that remains a danger unless it is speedily zoned as a conservation area. Ways do exist to satisfy local community aspirations while safeguarding the natural habitat and the accent now should be on finding a solution that suits all sides. A blueprint already exists in Mai Po, which is such a successful blend of traditional husbandry and wildlife conservation that it runs training courses for foreign farmers and conservation agencies. The protected marshland is now the only place in the SAR where the old method of shrimp farming is carried on. Schoolchildren can go there to learn how their ancestors made a living and farmers from Vietnam enrol to learn the skills forgotten in their own country. Mai Po is a prototype of perfect co-existence between man and nature, as well as a living museum. Long Valley could easily echo this success if the Government declares the area a nature park and offers incentives to landowners to continue farming or hiring others to work the fields. Solutions which have worked elsewhere include land swapping, which would enable owners to move to areas where there is scope for development. Win or lose, from now on all planning strategies which aim to go through the legislative process unhindered will have to be developed along conservation lines or they can count on setbacks. In the past, controversial schemes which impinged on unspoiled countryside or natural habitat skirted regulations by being held back for 'fast track' processing, allowing the excuse that any changes would then be too late and would increase costs. It is quite easy to see the KCRC route was predicated on ease of access and construction costs. But the disappearing natural world is infinitely more valuable. Once gone, it cannot be restored. This fight has set a vital precedent: Hong Kong is now an environmentally aware city, proud of its countryside and determined to preserve it.