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GROUPS WITH CONFLICTING BUSINESS AND ENVIRONMENTAL AGENDAS BUTT HEADS IN THE DISASTER'S AFTERMATH

Bickering plagues Tatras regrowth

ONE WEEK after unprecedented windstorms in Slovakia damaged and destroyed large areas of spruce forest in the High Tatras, top officials are bickering over how revitalisation efforts should proceed. Some favour modernising the country's alpine region. Others worry commercialisation would threaten Slovakia's biodiversity and damage the national symbol.
Immediately after the November 20 catastrophe, the Slovak cabinet hoped to unite opposing voices by establishing a bipartisan committee to oversee the revitalisation and development of the High Tatras.

ONE WEEK after unprecedented windstorms in Slovakia damaged and destroyed large areas of spruce forest in the High Tatras, top officials are bickering over how revitalisation efforts should proceed. Some favour modernising the country's alpine region. Others worry commercialisation would threaten Slovakia's biodiversity and damage the national symbol.

Immediately after the November 20 catastrophe, the Slovak cabinet hoped to unite opposing voices by establishing a bipartisan committee to oversee the revitalisation and development of the High Tatras. It nominated Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda as chairman, and indicated that the committee would consist of several cabinet ministers and politicians, including the mayor of Vysoké Tatry and the district head in Poprad.

According to Dzurinda, the primary purpose of the committee would be to immediately renew tourist activities in the High Tatras and kick-start revitalisation efforts.

It soon became clear, however, that the committee would have a difficult time balancing the conflicting visions for the region coming from the various interest groups.

While almost all officials agree that preserving the damaged ecosystem is a priority, some business enthusiasts want to extend revitalisation efforts to transform the Tatras into a competitive tourist destination. They propose constructing new tourist centres, developing more ski runs, and building tourist infrastructure and services in Slovakia's highest mountains.

"Concrete is not man's enemy as long as it is used effectively," said Dzurinda.

The Prime Minister contends that existing land plans for the Tatras should be changed to support Slovakia's emergence as a modern European country and a tourist destination. However, Dzurinda acknowledged that a consensus among officials and environmental experts would be necessary to determine which areas would be open for development and which would remain closed.

Economy Minister Pavol Rusko supported the idea of growth in the Tatras, arguing that it was time Slovakia's alpine resorts improved their services to be competitive with their western European counterparts.

"In the Tatras, time stopped 30 years ago. Now it is up to us to figure out how to preserve nature while securing new development," Rusko

The Economy Minister dismissed fears that commercialisation would ruin the High Tatras. "I don't think that the Austrians are liquidating The Alps, yet still they are able to make their winter ski areas more accessible to tourism," he said.

Rusko supports the construction of three well-equipped tourist centres in Štrbské pleso, Smokovec and Tatranská Lomnica. These centres would be open from December to May for skiing, and May to September for hiking. Rusko also promotes extending the local ski slopes in those areas as well.

Environment Minister Lászlo Miklós blasted the idea of reclaiming Tatras forestland for commercial use, calling plans to turn the damaged forest areas into sites for new hotels and ski slopes "absurd".

According to Miklós, the Environment Ministry has revitalisation plans for the damaged areas that do not involve giving up the Tatras special protection under law.

Tatras national park director Tomáš Vančura said he was not surprised that revitalisation and environmental protection efforts are facing business pressures.

"I am surprised, however, that this emotionally charged situation is being used as a platform to further business interests," he said.

In addition to providing its own financial support, the Slovak cabinet plans to ask the EU for assistance from the European Solidarity Fund.

According to the criteria applied by the European Solidarity Fund, an EU member country may apply for financial assistance in case a natural catastrophe causes damage exceeding €3 billion or 0.6 percent of GDP of the affected country.

Diplomats in the European Parliament want to know more details about the disaster, its consequences and possible remedial actions.

Agriculture Minister Zsolt Simon said the Slovak cabinet would send a detailed report to Brussels by December 10.

The Agriculture Minister appears focussed on the 3 million cubic metres of timber levelled by the November 19 windstorm. Simon thinks the timber is worth around Sk3 billion (€75 million).

Removing the damaged and felled trees from the Tatra would further harm the stressed ecosystem by robbing the soil of nutrients and increasing the risk of erosion. Environmentalists are adamantly opposed to clearing the region for this reason.

Nevertheless, Agriculture Minister Simon said the wood should be sold on the global market to the highest bidder, and that revenues should be used to revitalise the area.

Also ignoring the necessity of keeping the damaged trees intact to support future forest health, Economy Minister Rusko insisted that local wood processing companies should be given preference in any Tatras timber sales.

"Maximising domestic capacities and creating 500 to 600 jobs here is a priority," Rusko said.

Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) MP Miroslav Maxon joined the debate.

"The wood should be sold to those who can pay the most for it, but I wouldn't object if local wood processing companies came up with the highest bids."

To avoid inevitable conflicts between environmentalists and business interests, Maxon proposed that the state should impose legal boundaries on the revitalization and development plans in the High Tatras.

"Special legislation is necessary to indicate how far investors can legally go with revitalisation.

"It would be unfortunate if, because of this calamity, the Tatras are commercially developed to the detriment of the environment," he said.

In response to Maxon's idea of special legislation, Minister Rusko said he supported the idea then added, "We would like to modernise the Tatras and develop it as a region."

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