* President opposes mining in park, conservationist says
* Hope to cover operating costs with carbon offset
LALEHUN, Sierra Leone, Dec 4 (Reuters) - Sierra Leone has conferred protected national park status on a remote tract of forest that has attracted attention for its iron ore mining potential.
The creation of the 71,000-hectare (29,000 acre) Gola Forest National Park near the border with Liberia is aimed at preserving the largest remaining fragment of the Upper Guinea rainforest in Sierra Leone. It is the second such park in the West African country.
The area is home to 300 species of bird, 600 butterfly species and 45 species of mammals, including some 300 chimpanzees. Around 140,000 people live in the area, whose park status was confirmed in a ceremony on Saturday with President Ernest Bai Koroma.
Iron ore production was restarted in Sierra Leone last month and shipments next year could start transforming the local economy. The International Monetary Fund expects gross domestic product to leap by around 50 percent in 2012 as a result of iron.
“The mining threat still exists; but the president has been absolutely resolute that mining will not come into the park,” said Tim Stowe of Britain’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, one of the project backers.
Local people also search for diamonds and gold in the Gola Forest. Koroma said illegal miners would face consequences -- a prospect which dismays some of the area’s inhabitants.
“This is the place we used to go to get our money to carry on our lives,” Musa Taimeh, a 40-year-old from Tunkia chiefdom, told Reuters. “We cannot go to farm there, we cannot go to log, we cannot go to mine diamonds.”
Sierra Leone receives very few tourists, with many foreigners still put off by associations with a bloody civil war that ended nine years ago.
Supporters of the park admit they expect few visitors initially but hope soon to cover running costs by using the value of the forest’s ability to cleanse the atmosphere of carbon dioxide as an off offset for emissions of greenhouse gases elsewhere.
The opening of the park coincides with a major scandal over allegations of corruption in the use of local natural resources.
A documentary film alleged two men in the office of Sierra Leone’s Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana accepted bribes from undercover reporters in return for a promise that the vice president would back an illegal logging project.
The government has said it is investigating the allegations, which have been denied by Sam Sumana’s office. (Reporting by Simon Akam; Editing by Mark John and Michael Roddy)