The 2018 Paralympics is opening on Mar. 9, providing a valuable opportunity to highlight one of the Olympics’ biggest, but often unmentioned, environmental scandals: a series of wide scars running through what was once a protected ancient forest.
Environmentalists reacted with outrage in 2014 when the South Korean government approved the plan to build an alpine skiing and snowboarding venue on the flank of Mt. Gariwang, one of the highest peaks in the area.
The venue, Jeongseon Alpine Center, hosts three Olympic and Paralympic events: downhill skiing, super-G and combined alpine skiing. But in order to build it, protection had to be lifted from 78 hectares of a designated forest reserve, home to highly rare old-growth woodland.
The un-designated area accounts for only 3 percent of the total reserve but contained numerous old and valuable trees, while the consequences of clearing strips through the forest extend beyond the 78 hectares.
Korea Forest Service (KFS), which owned the land, agreed to the un-designation of the woodland as a “forest genetic resources reserve,” on the condition that Gangwon provincial government, the body building the new ski slope, would “restore” the woodland after the Olympics.
But the latest news has not been encouraging.
In a report published on Feb. 21, NGO Green Korea slammed multiple aspects of the ski slope construction and restoration project. Key allegations included unnecessary deforestation by building roads twice as wide as actually needed, and inadequate care for the 272 old trees that had been temporarily transplanted into the forest on either side of the slope, to be returned to their original locations after the Paralympics ends on Mar 18.
“The transplanted trees have nearly all died,” said Seo Jae-chul of Green Korea, who made a recent survey of the mountainside.
A Gangwon government official, requesting anonymity, claimed that many NGO and media reports had overstated the extent of damage on the relocated trees. She said the province was working hard to ensure their survival but admitted that some damage was inevitable due to the transplantation process.
“Access to the mountainside is restricted during the games, and we expect to get there only by late May, once the ski slope facilities have been cleared, to gauge the situation,” she added.
Mt. Gariwang is one of South Korea’s oldest and most ecologically valuable ecosystems.
Responsibility for restoring the slope lies with Gangwon Province. But the local government’s restoration plan has yet to be approved by the Forest Service.
“On Jan. 26 this year we sent Gangwon Province’s restoration plan back for revision,” KFS official Park Du-sik told Korea Exposé, adding that the measures proposed in the plan were “inadequate.”
“Our position is that we want to restore it all,” he said, refuting media reports that the lower part of the cleared slope would be used by resorts after the games, rather than being restored.
The Gangwon official backed up Park’s statement, saying that 100 percent restoration was currently the official aim.
But activists say total restoration may be impossible to achieve.
“Restoring a forest at high altitude is extremely difficult,” said Seo of Green Korea. “The temperature is low, the wind is strong and there’s not a lot of soil.”
The damage at Mt. Gariwang came as a particular shock for many because it bulldozed wide strips through one of South Korea’s oldest and most ecologically valuable ecosystems. Though the country’s mountains are now well-forested, much of this was achieved in through reforestation programs in the late 20th century, making the centuries-old woodland on Mt. Gariwang a valuable rarity.
On the other hand, such environmental destruction is far from a rarity in South Korea. Frequently, systematic problems can be traced back to the environmental impact assessments conducted before development projects, which very rarely conclude that construction should not proceed.
“Until now it’s been customary for the assessment to say ‘no impact,’ even when the project in question will have a serious impact on the environment,” said Seo.
Professor Hong Sang-pyo of Cheongju University, a specialist in South Korean environmental impact assessment law, agreed.
“Private firms contracted to do environmental impact assessments know that if they don’t give the conclusion their clients want, they’ll quickly get a bad reputation in the industry and will get less business,” he said.
Hong advocated the creation of a public body to manage such assessments on behalf of private clients, breaking the problematic client-contractor business relationship.
Until such fundamental problems in the system are addressed, it’s hard to see the Mt. Gariwang deforestation being the last incident of its kind.
Cover image: Part of the strip cleared through ancient woodland on Mt. Gariwang. (Source: Green Korea)