Games Monitor

Skip to main content.

Skiers and Associated Press just can't understand the problem with cutting down forests!

It's embarrassing to see how poor mainstream media has been in reporting or rather in failing to report the destruction of forests for the latest Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang2018 and Beijing2022. In the case of Beijing2022 not even one article seems to have been written on the subject. The alarm had been raised on Chinese social media and was followed up by Terry Townshend, a British birder living in Beijing writing on his own birding blog. But apart from a specialist paper like Nature Western media paid no attention to the possible damage to the forest on the site even though there was considerable and sensible discusion about the merits of the Beijing bid. In the case of Pyeongchang2018 there doesn't seem to have been any coverage until the Guardian got round to writing a very good article, but almost a year after the forest had been cut down! In January 2013 Games Monitor featured the work of a South Korean environmmental group, The Good Friends to Nature, who warned of the threat to Mount Gariwang and publicised further warnings and actions, including a one man protest in Seoul by a Korean Environmentalist, through to its destruction in the autumn of 2014.

Now as the first test runs are held at Mount Gariwang the Associated Press has leapt into action with a syndicated article representing the position of the skiers who make out that they are puzzled by the controversy surrounding the mountain and the cutting down of an important part of the forest. The organisers insist the restoration plans are still in play despite the ridicule heaped on them by environmentalists as both our article and the Guardian's article make clear. In the Guardian Green Korea is reported as saying:

“The organising committee will perhaps argue that they will replant around 300 trees, but all of them apart from those 181 bigger trees belong to small species under two metres in height. It is difficult to imagine that they plan to replant trees that represent the ecological properties of Mount Gariwang. We think their attitude is patronising.”

In the Games Monitor article the restoration plan is dismissed in even stronger terms:

Critics of this plan have pointed out that this ‘restoration’ plan was always false because Gariwang mountain is not ‘restorable’ because its forests are delicately interconnected with one another by the configuration of its rocks which make it a vast ‘wind-hole’ zone. Once the construction work shaves off the surface layer of the earth and ‘hardens’ it for building the ski slope this ‘wind-hole’ zone in the construction site is lost forever and this loss will have a fatal impact on the rest of the zone.

The claims of the authorities about the scale of the damage and the restoration plans were simply dismissed as lies:

In reality this ‘transplantation’ plan never amounted to anything. Even when it was first devised it covered only 121 (2.2%) out of 5,315 big trees with a height of over 8m. The government claims the total number of the trees to be felled is about 50,000, civil organisations say it is over 120,000. However, with time even that original very limited transplantation plan had shrunk and Gangwon Province now refuses outright to transplant any trees with a height of over 5m. In other words, they choose not to ‘transplant’ what must be transplanted and restored but only what can easily be moved.

Similar points are made about the destruction of the forest for Beijing2022. Terry Townshend wrote, after receiving a response from the International Olympic Committee (IOC):

In Beijing the government has promised to plant some trees to “offset” those felled to make way for the ski slope. That may sound reasonable to Joe Public but conservationists and experts will know that cutting down a several hundred-year old tree and planting a new sapling is not a “like for like” replacement, especially when the former is part of a complex and biodiverse ecosystem.

In the AP article none of this criticism features. Bizarrely, as if unaware of the controversy, it asserts:

Local organizers are hoping that the attractiveness of a completely new venue — the first of its kind in South Korea — will help shape the debate with environmentalists and pilgrims trekking to sacred trees lining the course.

Instead it concentrates on how the skiers are astonished that Koreans aren't embracing the opportunities for more skiing.

Christof Innerhofer, who won a silver in downhill and a bronze in combined at the 2014 Sochi Olympics is reported as saying:

"I'm sure it's a big opportunity for the Korean people to have more passion for skiing, to have more athletes. That must be the goal to do Olympic Games in new states — to have more countries that follow the sport."

Another skier Bernhard Russi, who designed the course at Pyeongchang, claimed he got what the environmentalists were on about, although not to the point that he understood why they wanted to protect the forest. But then there was the issue of 'holy trees'. AP described his misleading response:

"I understand the environmentalists but it was difficult to explain here why they want to protect it," said course designer Bernhard Russi, the 1972 Olympic champion. "I went up with them and said, 'Tell me now where the trees are, because I can go right or left.'"

When locals explained to Russi that there were more holy trees on the proposed women's course, he scrapped plans for two courses and just cut a single track for both genders.

"We haven't ruined more than three or four special trees," Russi said.

This claim that the course was redesigned to create just one track for both men and women out of concern for the environment or for humanitarian reasons is untrue as environmentalists pointed out in the Games Monitor article:

The Olympic authorities have made much of the fact that they changed the construction plan and chose not to destroy the right hand side of the mountain site by not building the Women’s Course there. However, it turned out even this alteration was made because of the cost of construction and not, as they claimed, because Gangwon Province and the FIS (International Skiing Federation) ‘considered’ the negative impact on the environment.

Of course, as was pointed out above, the ruined 'three or four special trees', or holy trees, should be multiplied by the thousands of big and old trees cut down in a protected 'climax forest'.

Another skier, American racer Andrew Weibrecht, a two-time Olympic medalist in super-G was mystified by the lack of sustainability in the venues:

"It's ridiculous that they're giving these Olympic events to places that aren't going to do it sustainably, that should be part of the criteria for a bid — 'Do you have at least half of the venues or do you have to build them all?'"

Very true! As if the Korean environmentalists, and many others, haven't been trying to make exactly this point to the FIS and the IOC for a few decades! In the case of Pyeongchang2018 environmentalists had pointed out to both sports bodies that there were alternatives already in existence in South Korea, nearby Mount Gariwang. They also tried to argue with the FIS about its rules and about how they could be applied in such a way as to avoid the kind of destruction that has since occurred. AP did not even bother to include one interview with a Korean environmentalist or environmental organisation who might have clarified some of these points. Nor did it make any mention of the IOC's claimed commitment to the environment as its Third Dimension or ask how cutting down a protected forest fitted with this alleged commitment.

Now that the forest has been cut down Pyeongchang organizing committee chief Cho Yang-ho told 'a small group of reporters', including the AP reporter, that he wants to keep the facilities, even if only for hikers. They are now, to borrow a phrase from another context, 'facts on the ground'.

Returning to Beijing2022 AP seems to think its downhill course is still to be decided. Whether this is dishonesty, stupidity or straightforward laziness is hard to know. Mr Townshend was trying to alert the media to the imminent destruction of the Songshan Reserve Forest back in the summer of 2015.

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) replied to him, after he had already pointed out how disastrous the project was for the forest, he was saddened but not surprised to read their reply:

We have received assurances from Beijing 2022 that the principles of the Olympic Charter and of the HCC will be respected in the context of the Games. You might want to contact them directly to better understand their detailed plan and how they will ensure that all principles related to environment and sustainability are duly considered.

The hypocrisy of the IOC was highlighted in its comment:

‘If a Bid City/Host City/OCOG proposes locating a venue, a facility, and/or infrastructure in or in close proximity to a protected natural and/or heritage area, a detailed assessment of environmental(flora, fauna, soil and water) and/or cultural heritage (landscape, amenity, built heritage, archaeology) constraints, potential impacts, risks and mitigation requirements must be undertaken.’

Both these sites were highly protected and had actually had their protections withdrawn or reshaped in order to enable the mountains to be used for these three day skiing events. Any supposed 'detailed assessment' was pointless after such decisions had been made. If it could be argued that the IOC really did care for the environment then its behaviour would simply be cowardly. However, its long running record of supporting environmentally damaging projects, as outlined in our article and most recently at Sochi2014, reveals it to be completely hypocritical. Mount Gariwang was also an historical site of great significance through its association with Korea's most famous king, Sejong the Great.

After finding the IOC was unconcerned about the destruction of the forests for Pyeongchang2018 and Beijing2022 Terry Townshend declared in his comments on the IOC's letter:

In an age when we are losing our biodiversity at an alarming rate (some estimates suggest we have lost more than 50% of the world’s biodiversity in the last 50 years) it seems to me unforgivable to sacrifice highly biodiverse areas for the sake of a few days of sporting events.

The skiers and reporters all seem bemused by the concerns of local environmentalists as if this was the first they, the FIS and the IOC had heard of them. So just to remind them that these are longstanding concerns, raised repeatedly at every Winter Olympics, this is what Green Korea had to say as reported by Games Monitor before the forest at Mount Gariwang was cut down.

“If Mt. Gariwang is destroyed despite the 2RUN provision or 750m exceptional provision in Alpine Skiing games according to FIS Rules, this will be to the shame of the IOC. We already have a track record of beautiful and precious forests being destroyed in the world due to the Winter Olympics. While the IOC boasts the fancy festivity of the Winter Olympics, the local people, the forest, and the wild plants and animals in the forest suffer seriously from damaged ecosystems, environmental contamination and budget waste. This mistake is repeated every 4 years in different countries. The IOC must stop this vicious circle.”

It's all very mystifying for skiers. As Russi said:

"It's strange."

| | | | | | | |