Rezoning of national park draws fire

THE CHORUS of critics of a new scheme to redraw protection zones within Slovakia’s oldest national park has been growing in number. They complain that the scheme’s authors have turned a more sympathetic ear to developers than to the preservation of mountains, forests, animals and plants.

THE CHORUS of critics of a new scheme to redraw protection zones within Slovakia’s oldest national park has been growing in number. They complain that the scheme’s authors have turned a more sympathetic ear to developers than to the preservation of mountains, forests, animals and plants.

At the end of March, environmental watchdogs presented the signatures of 8,800 citizens who object to the new zoning scheme for the Tatra National Park (TANAP), which has been drafted by the Environment Ministry. These critics have since been backed by an institute of the Slovak Academy of Science (SAV), along with the High-Mountain Biology Research Institute at the University of Žilina.

The ministry, however, argues that the zoning plan in fact affects territories which lost their wilderness character decades ago.

Environment watchdog Vlk (Wolf) which initiated the petition against the zoning plan, insists that “squeezing the range of areas in TANAP with the strictest protection at the expense of the biotopes of chamois, marmots, woodgrouse, wolves, lynx and bears is unprecedented in Europe”.

The number of signatures – 8,800 – bears a symbolic significance since the ministry is suggesting lifting the highest level of environmental protection, which prohibits human intervention, from 8,800 hectares of forests, said Vlk in a statement.

According to Vlk, no public discussion or professional research of the affected areas preceded the ministry’s decision.

“The only interest groups who will profit from the proposed zoning of TANAP are the forestry and tourism businesses,” said Vlk’s Juraj Lukáč and Erik Baláž on March 30.

On March 29, leading experts in the spheres of ecology, geography, environmental sciences and environmental protection sent an open letter to Prime Minister Robert Fico, Deputy Prime Minister Dušan Čaplovič and Environment Minister Jozef Medveď, and called on the government to scrap the draft scheme. Two days later, the Institute of Botany of the Slovak Academy of Science (SAV) requested that the zoning plan be halted.

The scheme mainly “considers the influence of developers and lobbyists on the region and [is] not a correct professional study with a long-term vision of nature protection and permanent preservation of biodiversity as the heritage of our country in the oldest national park of Slovakia,” said Ivan Jarolímek, director of the institute, as quoted by the SITA newswire.

Relocating the core zone – known as Zone A – to the least accessible areas of TANAP is professionally indefensible, Jarolímek wrote in a letter addressed to the environment minister.

The botanists are calling on the minister to preserve the current range of highest-degree protection in the following areas: Javorová Valley, Bielovodská Valley, Belianske Tatry, Tichá Valley and Kôprová Valley. They demand that these locations be included in the new zero-intervention Zone A, warning that otherwise the park faces the risk that the integrity of the ecosystems in these areas will be irreversibly damaged.

According to the SAV institute, the Environment Ministry should have based the zoning scheme primarily on scientific research and discussion with scientific institutions and experts, only later hearing the demands of developers and businesses.

Meanwhile, more than 900 comments have been made to the draft zoning plan and the Environment Ministry says that it will incorporate these objections and comments in the draft by the end of April.

The new zoning should take effect in June, defining four zones – A, B, C and D – with descending levels of environmental protection. There will also be a subzone, Cr, specifically permitting the development of tourism.

TANAP covers 74,277 hectares; the ministry’s current proposal defines 40,137 hectares as Zone A, 11,613 hectares as zone B, and 20,211 hectares as Zone C. Subzone Cr includes 1,470 hectares and Zone D 846 hectares.

According to its critics, one of the biggest problems with the new zoning plan is that more than 1,200 hectares of forests within the Tichá and Kôprová Valleys have been placed into a zone where forestry management is allowed. The scheme also moves 128 hectares of the same area to Subzone Cr.

Zone D and Subzone Cr are where construction of tourism facilities will be permitted.

Defending the changes earlier this year, Environment Ministry spokeswoman Jana Kaplanová told The Slovak Spectator that as far as Zone D is concerned, its area has remained practically unchanged since 1966, if minor changes in the 1990s are disregarded.

“So today these territories have been without changes for more than 40 years; which with the current demands for the development of the area creates a negative impact in the form of pressures on excessive density in the construction of recreational objects,” Kaplanová said.
The point of zoning national parks is first of all to mark the most valuable territories of the national park and subsequently highlight areas where human impacts should be kept to a minimum, Kaplanová added.

Opening the gates for tourism

The Environment Ministry’s plan means that more than 472 hectares of highland meadows and forests – equal in area to 660 football pitches – would be re-zoned to allow for the development of tourism facilities. Lukáč, of Vlk, said that this area was being re-allocated from areas which until now have enjoyed most-protected status.

“The total increase in land [allocated] for tourism [facilities] will be much larger, altogether around 1,470 hectares,” Lukáč said. This is equal to an area one sixth of New York’s Manhattan Island, or 2,000 football pitches.

The proposed plan for the High Tatras will give investors the opportunity to build facilities with up to 9,000 new beds. In 2008 there were more than 8,500 beds in High Tatras, the town on the slopes of the mountains that shares their name, and 14,480 in the wider Tatras region. The occupancy rate for the existing beds then stood at under 38 percent across the whole region, with 43 percent within TANAP.

While in 2004, 397,000 people stayed at hotels in High Tatras annually, by 2008 the number had climbed to 441,000. Since 2004, the number of tourists accommodated has grown each year. However, the occupancy rate in the region between 2007 and 2008 grew only very slightly, by one tenth of a percentage point.

Kaplanová said that the occupancy rate is one aspect which was considered in the zoning.

The executive director of the High Tatras Tourism Association, Peter Chudý, said that in terms of occupancy rates “there is a will that the existing capacities be used effectively rather than new ones built”. He suggested that existing facilities are used fully only in August, and at Christmas and Easter.

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