The exasperating discussion about new regulations for the eastern parts of the Spitsbergen archipelago (Svalbard) is continuing. Driving force behind the process is the Norwegian directorate for nature administration (DN), which belongs to the Department of the Environment in Oslo. Previous proposals of a new management plan elaborated by the DN have even been rejected by the Sysselmannen, the highest representative of the Norwegian government in Spitsbergen, as too weakly based on arguments and too far going in its legal consequences. The revised version is soon to be sent to a public hearing process, but the DN has already proven that it is not interested in the opinion of third parties. Observers say that DN is forcing an ideologically motivated legal process without a strong foundation that should be defined as based on knowledge. Far-reaching restrictions to public access to major areas are argued to benefit science and the environment, according to the DN. According to scientists active in the area, current traffic patterns – which are already strictly regulated – do not pose any problems for scientific work. And as far as the environment is concerned, DN admit themselves that traffic as it is at present and as it will be in the future does not pose any environmental problems that would require principal adjustments of the current access scheme.
The current proposal of a future management plan is based on the version worked out by a working group of the Sysselmannen in late 2011, but the DN wants some of its regulations sharper. An enlargement of a future “Lågøya bird reserve” which would be closed for traffic during the breeding season to the whole island of Lågøya is difficult to understand and exasperating. But more interesting is the fact that the DN wants to move important administrative powers from the Sysselmannen to the DN in Oslo. If the DN get as they want to, then this will include the power to “regulate” traffic in the eastern nature reserves (almost all of eastern Svalbard), which means the DN could in fact close areas by decrete, without any further legal process. Additionally, the DN wants the power to decide on applications for access to the “scientific reference areas”. In contrast to earlier proposals, these areas are no longer supposed to be generally closed to all traffic, but open for all who have been granted permission which everybody can apply for – so far the theory. As all relevant areas can only be visited with permission issued by the Sysselmannen anyway, the question for the motivation of the DN for this step is interesting. It will be safe to assume that the DN intends to restrict the permitting practice drastically, if the application process goes through Oslo rather than the Sysselmannen in Longyearbyen, as it has been so far and would be natural to continue. Observers impute a certain degree of practical knowledge of the local reality to the Sysselmannen, something that is more difficult to believe in the case of the DN in Oslo, judging from their proposals.
The current proposal distinguishes several zones for eastern Svalbard:
Zone A: »scientific reference area«, which should theoretically be open to visit after application, but will in practice most likely be a no go area for mere mortals. Zone B: No traffic during the breeding season. Zone C: Site-specific guidelines will apply. Zone D: Local bans on traffic at cultural heritage sites, in force since 2010. Zone E: Kong Karls Land, Kong Karls Land (already off limits). Click here for a larger version of this map.