Thor Larsen is a well-known polar bear biologist. He was research director at the Norwegian Polar Institute and is now professor emeritus. With a large number of expeditions over more than half a century, he is one of the veterans of Norwegian polar research.
Recently, Thor Larsen has expressed substantial criticism about the latest proposal of a management plan for east Svalbard, which includes large so-called scientific reference areas. It can be expected that public access to these areas will be significantly more difficult, if not impossible. Larsen critizises that the plan is kept upright although several working groups of the Sysselmannen have concluded that conflicts between tourism and science can not be identified at the time being and are not expected in the future either. The actual environmental impact of organized tourism is described as minimal by these working groups. For example, it was feared that tourist visits to walrus haulout sites might lead to disturbance. Monitoring with automatic cameras over several years has, however, not yielded any evidence to support this. According to Larsen, remaining problems such as local erosion can be solved with the implementation of site-specific guidelines wherever needed. A need for closing large areas is not seen, neither from a scientific nor from an environmental perspective, writes Larsen, also pointing out that the areas in question are all inside the nature reserves, which are already enjoying strict protection. The current regulations are well capable of protecting scientific and environmental needs, according to Larsen.
Larsen critizises that higher administrative levels keep the proposal to reserve large areas as “scientific reference areas” upright despite of this obvious lack of data which might support such a drastic step. He also points out that the scientific quality of the papers that suggest the proposal is not meeting any standards. Larsen supposes that relevant institutions now insist on their proposal because of a feared “loss of face” and reminds of a common-sense rule for mountaineering that is well-known in Norway: it is never too late to turn around.
Thor Larsen’s complete letter was published last Friday in Svalbardposten (02/2012) in Norwegian. An English translation can be downloaded here.
Northeastern Nordaustland is mostly very rocky. Nobody really knows why this area should become an exclusive playground for “science relevant to administration”.