Bulgarian environmental organisations unanimously consider the country's participation in the 'Natura 2000' network of protected sites to be the greatest benefit of EU accession.
Thanks to pressure from Bulgarian environmentalists, supported by Brussels, the area covered by 'Natura 2000' is the second largest in the EU in proportion to the country's total territory.
Stephan Avramov of the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation, one of the active NGOs in the country, recalls that government authorities and members of the parliament had initially planned to have a much smaller area covered by 'Natura 2000'.
"In 2007 we already had enough scientific data showing that about 34% of the national territory should be included in 'Natura'. However, in spite of the European directives, the government was pushing for a proportion of 15%, which is the average for Europe," Avramov says.
Ultimately, it was decided that a third of Bulgaria's territory would be covered by Natura, with only Slovakia holding a larger share of protected territory in the EU. However, about half of the zones under Natura have not yet been declared as such in national legislation.
Compared to other countries, Bulgaria has a much richer natural habitat, points out Andrei Kovachev from the Balkan Wildlife Society.
The European Commission had to intervene when the government decided to remove from the network all localities identified for urban development. However, this contradicted EU legislation, as well as logic, since for rare bird species themselves it is of no consequence whether their habitat is officially classed as a reserve or residence area.
Threat of sanctions
As a result of EU infringement procedures, the government proposed a temporary ban on new projects for renewable energy, such as wind farms. Companies and business associations reacted strongly against the measure, claiming that it would drive investors away from the country. Yet, according to the Environment Ministry, the government had no other option if it were to avoid court proceedings and sanctions over the lack of proper environmental assessments for developing renewable energy on sites covered by Natura.
It turned out that many such projects had been granted permission without any kind of ecological assessments. One example is the Black Sea site of Kaliakra, where a large wind farm project was launched in November 2008.
"If all the initial plans in Kaliakra had been carried out, 60 to 70% of the site would have been covered by wind farms, which is unacceptable," said the Bulgarian Biodiversity Foundation's Avramov.
As the Balkan Wildlife Society's Kovachev puts it, if Bulgaria was not a part of EU, companies would build without restrictions on protected areas. He cites for example a ski-resort project planned at the Stara Planina mountain range, below Kom peak.
"Ski slopes were planned through two forest reserves here and perhaps one of the main reasons why they are still not developed is the threat of European penalties," he says.
Two months ago, activists managed to block an amendment of hunting laws concerning wild birds. The bill, presented by parliamentarians from the ruling GERB party, sought to extend the hunting season by another month for 11 species of birds, until the end of February instead of January. Had the bill come into force, hunters would have been granted the right to hunt for birds in their nesting season, which would seriously threaten their population, the activists said.
So environmentalists initiated a petition and staged protests in front of parliament in Sofia. Put under pressure, lawmakers withdrew the bill.
However, negative examples are more frequent. EU legislation did not stop construction firms from building hotel resorts at Irakli beach, a unique wildlife 'oasis' on the Black Sea coast, nor in the Strandja national reserve, despite the fact that the courts had declared construction illegal at first.
Illegal construction projects also continue to pop up in the national mountain reserves Rila and Pirin, green activists said.