PYEONGCHANG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The last ski racers have schussed down the slopes of the Jeongseon Alpine Center on Mount Gariwang in South Korea but for environmentalists concerned about the future of its sacred forest the real competition is just beginning.
After February’s Winter Olympics and March’s Paralympic Games, the $190-million investment to build an alpine race course to international standards for 16 days of competition is about to turn to a much more lengthy task: restoration.
Under pressure from green groups, and after deciding it was economically unviable to turn the area into a permanent ski resort, Gangwon province - the local government host of the Olympics - is set to tear down the gondola and replant trees.
All that is in an effort to return the 1,560-meter (5,118-foot) mountain to its original state - including replanting tens of thousands of trees - and at a cost, a provincial spokesman said, of 47.7 billion KRW ($44 million).
The problem is the province is prepared to pay just a fraction of what is needed, and national government will not provide any funding, the spokesman said.
That has sparked fears that the Pyeongchang Games will leave a sordid environmental legacy.
Mount Gariwang has a storied history. In the 16th century, wild ginseng - which is revered in Korea for its healing properties - grew abundantly on its slopes, leading the Chosun Dynasty to declare the mountain off-limits to commoners.
That designation gave Gariwang the aura of a “sacred forest”, said Jeong Gyu-seok of Green Korea United, an environmental group that opposed felling trees for the ski run, and which reckons about 100,000 were chopped down for the event.
The rounded mountain’s three summit humps, with thick tree cover, are also a biodiversity hotspot.
Its upper slopes survived Japanese occupation, the Korean War and industrialization, and are one of the few remaining old-growth forests where rare 300-year-old yew trees can be found.
Its geology means a cool breeze blows in summer and a warm wind in winter, keeping the soil temperature steady year-round.
“It’s a natural seed bank,” Jeong said.
All of which led the government in 2006 to declare the upper third of the mountain a “protected area for forest genetic resource conservation”.
But after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded the 2018 Winter Games to Pyeongchang, local organizers decided Mount Gariwang was the only place within a reasonable distance of the host city suitable for alpine ski racing events.
The key issue, reportedly, was that organizers were hamstrung by the International Ski Federation’s requirement that courses have a vertical drop of at least 800 meters.
None of the resorts around Pyeongchang met that requirement, said Pyeongchang Organizing Committee spokeswoman Nancy Park.
Once organizers chose Mount Gariwang in June 2012, Park said, the forestry service lifted its conservation designation to allow 58,000 trees to be felled for the Olympic ski run.
Park said the organizing committee had followed the proper procedures, and had even - for the first time - agreed to combine the men’s and women’s courses for environmental reasons.
It also redesigned the course to avoid seven major habitats, reduced the total area by about a third, and moved the starting line off the summit to a lower ridgeline.
The IOC’s press office said via email concern for the environment “stands alongside sport and culture as the third ‘pillar’ of Olympism ... to ensure a sustainable environmental legacy for tomorrow’s athletes and fans”.
Yet the Mount Gariwang saga is not the first environmental controversy to hit the Olympics. In 2016, at Rio, golfers putted on the banks of the fragile Marapendi Lagoon, for instance.
Construction for the 2014 Sochi Games polluted waterways used by endangered Atlantic salmon, which spawn in the Black Sea.
And to ferry spectators faster between Vancouver and the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, the 2010 Olympic organizers expanded a highway through rare coastal bluffs.
“The loss of sacred forest in Korea is just the latest iteration of a decades-long cycle of lip-service to sustainability followed by massively negative consequences,” said sports events author Christopher Gaffney.
The key unresolved issue is who will foot the bill. The provincial government has yet to finalize its plan to restore the sacred mountain, and has set aside 961 million KRW for the job. That will cover 2 percent of the cost.
“The restoration of Gariwan is connected with the Pyeongchang Olympic Winter Games 2018, so we hope the Gangwon provincial administration and Korean government will share the expenses,” provincial spokesman Kim Munki said via a translator.
“(There is) no more national budget for the restoration project from (the) central government in 2018.”
The Korean Forest Service did not return multiple requests for comment.
The unapproved plan and limited allocation of funds leaves observers like Youn Yeo-Chang, a forest sciences professor at Seoul National University, pessimistic.
“I interpret this as an indication of weak commitment of Pyeongchang Organizing Committee (under supervision of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism) and the Gangwon province,” Youn said via email.
Youn doubts full restoration is even possible.
“The vegetation in the skiing slope site has been severely damaged and there is little hope for complete restoration even with the restoration project,” Youn said.
“First the top-soils containing humus accumulated over time were completely removed and the original conditions of soils can not be restored.”
Some trees were moved off-site with the goal of replanting them after the Games, but Youn doubted they would survive.
The slow pace of progress has frustrated Green Korea United, which said a proper restoration plan would have seen seedlings planted years ago to ensure they were ready in time.
Jeong fears restoration has become a political “ping-pong game” between the local authorities and Seoul, and warned of the consequences of implementing a “lazy plan”.
“We would like the government and Korean citizens to learn something after the tragic artificial disaster: a budget should be allocated to repair the destruction of nature,” he said, adding that what happened on Mount Gariwang is a warning.
“The legacy of the Pyeongchang Olympics is to not repeat destroying Gariwang mountain in any other place,” Jeong said.