A possible closure of most parts of eastern Svalbard has been discussed on these pages on several occasions (see for example June 2009). The Norwegian Directorate for Nature administration (Direktoratet for naturforvaltning, (DN)) had made a proposal to close most of eastern Svalbard for tourists. The Sysselmannen disagreed with the proposal, which would normally lead to major changes or discarding. The proposal has, however, been forwarded to further bodies of the law-giving process without making any significant changes, a very unusual step.
The main reason for the proposal was that the areas should be kept as »untouched scientific reference areas«. This rather vague reasoning could not be explained any further, other than claiming a »precautionary principle«. After this has met strong criticism, nature protection was added.
The proposal is strongly criticised, including:
- Aims not well defined and reasons not well explained. For example, during a meeting in Longyearbyen in October 2008, leading scientists of the Norwegian Polar Institute said they did not see any principal problems with (controlled) tourism in the areas in question, considering both scientific and environmental aspects.
- It is doubted that by excluding tourists from these areas, they can be kept as (or turned into) »untouched« (reference) areas, as scientific activities take place on a comparable, possible major, scale anyway: significant numbers of scientific and support staff visit the areas – including its remotest parts, which are hardly ever visited by tourists regularly, spending much more time in the field, using large, stationary camps (tourists sleep on ships) and using helicopters for transport on a large scale (completely banned within tourism).
- More pressure on locations that remain accessible can be expected to lead to several problems, such as erosion. Another problem is that flexibility has, so far, been an integral part of the safety of passenger landings: if weather/sea conditions at a given site is not favorable or a polar bear is seen nearby, it is – so far – common to turn to another area within reach. Should such alternative sites not be available anymore, it can be expected that the pressure to land at a given site will increase, even under unfavorable conditions.
- Part of the reasoning is continuous increase of touristic traffic. The fact that cruise ship tourism in the last 2 years actually decreased is not considered. The reason for the decrease is not only the economical crisis, but also the (lasting) effects of new regulations, such as a ban on heavy oil as ship fuel which effectively keeps some ships completely away, and new safety demands, which will lead to another couple of ships not returning, including some that have been operating in Svalbard still in 2009.
- Intransparent discussion process behind closed doors, excluding the public and those involved, ignoring the Sysselmannen who is obviously a major official authority with considerable knowledge of the actual regional situation.
Despite being rejected by the Sysselmannen, the proposal has been forwarded by DN to the higher Ministry of the environment, where decisions on further steps have to be taken.
A result of the process could be a loss of public confidence into science and administration, if »science« is (ab)used as an argument by political decision makers without solid scientific argumentative basis, similar to Japanese »scientific« whaling.
Eastern Svalbard: Protected areas or exclusive playground for scientists?
Source: Svalbardposten and other (including verbal discussions)