At its last meeting for 2017 on December 28, the government adopted the amendments proposed by the Minister of Ecology Nino Dimov to the current Pirin National Park Management Plan that will allow extension of Bansko ski area concession. As expected, nature conservation organizations and citizens reacted and begun protests against the decision, which are expected to continue this year as well. The same intention, but in support of the extension of Bansko ski area, was indicated by the residents of Bansko and other municipalities in the area. The case has been raised multiple times over the past few years without being resolved and it is unclear whether this will happen with the amendments adopted by the government. Here are some of the more important issues involved.
Why does the topic of the second lift above Bansko cause such powerful reactions
The topic polarizes the opinions not because ski tourism is harmful or lift facilities create an irreversible environmental problem. In this case a number of irregularities have been accumulating on one and the same place over the past 15 years.
First of all - the inspection of Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MoEW) revealed that Yulen – the concessioner of the skiing zone, used more land than allowed by the contract. The findings remained unaddressed by the state control authorities. The feeling for uncontrolled behavior on the part of the concessionaire is also fueled by the controversial behavior of the government. Since Nona Karadzhova, in her capacity as an Minister of Environment in the first GERB government, acknowledged the violation, recently at a round table at the MoEW she backed out of her position with, to put it mildly, with a frivolous argument that at that time they had not read all the addenda to the contract.
The behavior of the executive authorities and the legislature - invariably in favor of the concessionaire - does not incite public confidence that rules are respected. Moreover, the ownership of the company concessionaire itself is not transparent. It is associated with Tseko Minev and the bank he owns - First Investment Bank, which is believed to circumvent the law for related party-funding through the offshore Cypriot company Marengo Trading. At the same time, the people behind Yulen are the owners of Vitosha Ski and the lifts in the Vitosha Mountain, most of which are already stopped, and Vitosha Ski refuses to repair them. This fact adds to the suspicions that the expansion of the ski area in Bansko is actually an attempt to revive the real estate market in the town.
Why does Bansko want a second lift
Officials in the face of Mayor Georgi Ikonomov, are among the most active supporters of the project to utilize larger parts of the mountain, the national park status of which also involves legislative restrictions on the activities carried out there. The tourist and restaurant industry organizations in the town also support the expansion of the ski area, since the current situation will drive tourists away and make the resort uncompetitive. Actually Bansko has a relatively small problem with queues at certain times during winter, but the bigger image problem is related to the overdevelopment prior to the crisis. The real problem of the local business is the competition of big hotels, offering cheaper packages including more services, thus pressuring small hotel owners. In addition, large hotels use migrant personnel, working on sites along the Black Sea coast during the summer. As a result the residents of Bansko gain nothing. The "people living under Todorka" will derive most profits if new construction starts on undeveloped terrains. The development plan approved before 2016 clearly indicates that the municipality plans and the Environmental Ministry has approved the development of 2,600 decares near Bansko with eight new neighborhoods and a total capacity of 40 000 new beds.
And why are the "green" supporters fighting it
Nature conservation organizations are well aware of the environmental standards and know when state institutions are trying to circumvent them. Pirin National Park falls under the provisions of UNESCO, the European and the national environmental legislation. Following the government's decision of 28 December, the Greens threatened to refer to the European Commission for violation of two European directives. One of the topics the authorities are trying to neglect, is the compatibility of the decisions with UNESCO’s provisions. This is evidenced by the desire of Bansko and Razlog municipalities to exclude one of the oldest reserves in Pirin from the organization’s scope of protection.
What did the government allow
On December 28, the government adopted changes to the 2004 Pirin Management Plan, significantly expanding the investment zones, but according to the environmental minister Neno Dimov, most of the construction works will consist of water catchment systems. Only the construction of sports facilities - lifts and tracks will be permitted in the Bansko and Dobrinishte ski areas and "nothing else". Thus, following the submission of an investment plan by the concessionaire and conduction of an EIA procedure, the construction of a second cabin lift will be made possible. Practically, the construction of new tracks and lifts in the skiing area (the so-called buffer zone) is allowed, while until now only repairs of the existing facilities and ski tracks could be carried out. So far this was only allowed around buildings and facilities. In addition, a change is introduced in the management plan for the area, according to which "construction, repair and reconstruction activities" in the forest ecosystem protection and recreation area have the same tolerance as in the area of the facilities. Thus the building bans in an area, where human activity is allowed only in exceptional cases, are circumvented. According to Dimov, the table was not indicative and had only illustration purposes. The concessionaire Yulen has not been hiding its intentions of providing the ski area with more tracks, in addition to the second lift, and now it has the freedom to start a procedure for the implementation of such concept.
The main question is why this plan is being changed now and why doesn’t the government wait for the completion of the procedure for adoption of the new plan. Minister Dimov's explanation is that since it is still in court, it is unknown when the procedure will be completed exactly. Environmentalists, however, claim that no environmental assessment has been made, despite the fact that the plan of 2004 had such prior to last week's changes.
The question of the territory of the concession is also unclear - 99 hectares under the contract or the subsequently utilized 60% more. MoEW accepts the larger area without giving any clarifications. The argument of Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Simeonov that the concession fee will be doubled is no longer valid - calculations showed only a 30% increase. On Wednesday in Facebook Minister Dimov stated that the analysis of the concession contract will be carried out according to the provisions of the new Concessions Act, which came into force on January, 1. MPs, including from among the majority, believe that the revised plan for Pirin is the reason for announcing a tender procedure for a new concession.
Is there an environmental issue with the construction of a second lift
Part of the forests in the park will probably be affected by the construction and centuries-old trees may be cut down. According to the investor Yulen, five new trees will be planted for each cut tree, which is irrelevant to UNESCO’s protection. Neno Dimov said that the exact volume of compensatory mechanisms will be determined after an ecological assessment. He did not exclude damages to venerable trees, but shifted the responsibility to the expert committee which will assess the EIA. Surely, the lift represents a more environmentally friendly means of transporting skiers and tourists than the cars driving to Shiligarnika. However, the largest environmental threat comes from allowing construction - both in Bansko and the new tracks, which will require new lifts.
How many percent of the park will be constructed
According to Neno Dimov, sports facilities will be allowed on 2% of the territory of the park above Bansko and 0.6% above Dobrinishte. The other permitted zones will accommodate only water intakes for drinking purposes. However, the wording of the plan does not indicate "for drinking purposes". It remains unclear whether it would be allowed to form ponds, the water of which will be used for the production of artificial snow. (Besides, there has been no information that the Pirin settlements have had an urgent need for new water catchments.) It is common practice to use the building of the ski station (especially if it is bigger, like the one of a cabin lift) for restaurants and cafeterias.
What is the difference between Pirin and the Alps
At the time when the ski resorts in Austria or Switzerland were built, the conditions were completely different. The current legislative framework at a European level did not exist 50 or 100 years ago, so no comparison can be made to the constructions carried out half a century ago and the requirements to the utilization of mountains nowadays. Another issue is that as a territory the mountains in these countries are incomparably larger and it is only natural that the mileage of the tracks there is much higher. Looking to the future, the key issue is global warming, pushing the snow belt in the mountains to higher places, shortening of the season, and the need to properly determine whether ski resorts below 2000 m above sea level have any future.
Are only the Greens protesting
No. The problem is also public, since it concerns the preservation of our national wealth, therefore, the protests are attended not only by representatives of the green organizations. This was also the case in 2012 when the amendments to the Forest Act were again adopted with significant doubts that they would benefit the same investors in ski resorts. The protests at the time gave birth to the informal Eagle Bridge community, united a much wider range of participants because of the perception that the state is violating the rules to serve individual interests.