Some of the SAR's most ecologically sensitive areas may be rented out for eco-friendly purposes to help in their conservation. The Government has been pressed by green groups and villagers to buy out leading sites such as Sha Lo Tung, Tai Ho, and Luk Keng to better conserve them following the controversy over the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation's spur line across Long Valley. The KCRC will now build a tunnel after environmentalists won a battle to halt the overland line. But with the economic gloom deepening and a large Budget deficit expected, the Government is expected to reject the buy-out option. Instead, officials said the Government might prefer renting the land or entering into some form of agreement with landowners to turn the land into eco-tourism areas or conserve the existing landscape and ecology as much as possible. The sites could be worth tens of billions of dollars, a senior government official said. The Government will need agreements that are sufficiently long-term to ensure protection of the sites. But officials are open as to whether they will be managed by the government, non-governmental or commercial organisations. It is estimated there are more than 500 hectares of ecologically sensitive areas in 15 sites. There are another 500 hectares of fish ponds around Mai Po. Resuming the 1,000 hectares would cost between $17.4 billion and $34.9 billion. Alex Yau Suk-kau, conservation manager of the World Wide Fund for Nature Hong Kong, cast doubt on the long-term practicality of leasing because the issue of ownership would still have to be resolved. 'How long would the lease agreement be? What if the landowner refused to renew the agreement? The issue is still about ownership and the Government should secure the ownership of the land in the long term,' Ms Yau said. She said there could be various incentives offered to land owners to work together to preserve the areas, including tax relief and land swaps. The WWF is the only organisation that manages an ecologically important site - Mai Po nature reserve. It advocates a wetland protection trust to co-ordinate the management of conserved areas.