Three Bulgarian national parks to permit construction, NGOs warn

The company ‘Rila Lake Resort’ plans to build houses on the shores of the Panichishte lake in Rila park.

Bulgaria’s construction business has always had its eye on buidling hotels, ski slopes and recreational villages in protected areas – but now NGOs have warned that draft management plans could see three national parks open the door to the bulldozers.

Various NGOs have sent complaints to the European Commission about violations of obligations undertaken by Bulgaria under the EU’s ‘Natura 2000’ directives, since its accession to the Union in 2007. A significant number of petitions have also been sent to the European Parliament.

>> Read: ‘Wild capitalism’ destroying habitats in Bulgaria

Now a coalition of NGOs and civil groups under the umbrella group”For the Nature in Bulgaria” – including the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) – has warned that the draft management plans for Pirin National Park, Rila National Park and Vitosha Nature Park open the door to construction, and in some areas logging and hunting, comparable to that in unprotected areas.

Rila, Pirin and Vitosha are three of the biggest mountains in Bulgaria, the latter overlooking the capital Sofia.

The draft plans cite outdated legislation, have no environmental impact assessments and are based on contradictory, inconsistent data, the NGOs warn. They claim that if approved, the plans will be valid for the next 10 years and seriously harm the environment. The plans also fail to meet public tender requirements, while being supported by €4 million of EU funds, NGOs said.

The NGO coalition “For the Nature in Bulgaria” has insisted on a complete overhaul of the plans and new public consultations, claiming that the ones organised so far were difficult to attend, with some held in remote areas where many could not participate.

Pirin National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site

Pirin National Park was declared a World Heritage site in 1983. But in 2010, UNESCO excluded the ski areas above the resort cities of Bansko and Dobrinishte from the World Heritage list because it found their situation irrevocably damaged and urbanised by ski development.

In July 2015, the Bulgarian ministries of tourism and sports asked UNESCO to exclude an additional 10% of the park from the World Heritage list in order to allow for further ski development. In his response, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, Kishore Rao, said Bulgaria could develop tourism anywhere outside the UNESCO site. He also called the new draft management plan for Pirin unacceptable: it included no adequate environmental assessments and lacked crucial data.

The ministries of tourism and sports have long lobbied for the expansion of the Bansko ski zone to other parts of Pirin National Park. At the moment, that is still prohibited by the Protected Areas Act and the park’s current management plan.

The draft plan for Pirin was developed by the same company which developed the plan for Vitosha Nature Park. It envisages increasing the area of construction by a factor of 120 – from 219 hectares to 26,558 hectares. This is 65% of the park’s territory.

In July 2015, the “For the Nature in Bulgaria” coalition publicly denounced the draft plan.

Besides allowing construction, the plan does not meet public tender requirements and is seriously unprofessional, they claim. For example, it quotes terminology found in regulations already revoked in the 1990s; it neglects modern biodiversity protection developments; its conclusions are not based on the latest scientific information; there are a series of inconsistencies in its data; there is no logical connection between the results of field surveys and the planned future activities; it conceals legal violations within the Bansko ski zone concession and proposes zoning regimes and activities in favour of new ski investments.

Vitosha Nature Park

Founded 80 years ago, Vitosha Nature Park is the oldest such park on the Balkan Peninsula. But its new draft management plan opens the door to developments, logging and hunting identical to those outside a protected area. It removes existing protection regimes and guarantees protection for only 7% of its territory. The construction area would increase under the new plan from 300 to over 4,000 hectares.

Moreover, according to the NGOs, the plan does not offer solutions to any of the park’s problems – logging, lack of adequate public transport to the mountain, damaged tourist infrastructure and water pollution. Instead, its main goal is to develop new ski areas – even though an opinion poll the plan itself cites shows that 82% of the park’s visitors go there in the summer and only 17% want it to develop as a ski area. The plan also ignores the conclusions of the environmental experts it quotes and envisages further developments that will harm the environment.

The plan is developed by a limited liability company that is also preparing the plan for UNESCO’s Pirin National Park. The Pirin plan has so far received over 300 negative assessments during its public consultation.

At the end of September, representatives of several political parties said they were categorically against new construction in Vitosha Nature Park.

Rila National Park

Rila National Park is the largest of three national parks in Bulgaria. It spans 81,000 hectares in the Rila Mountain.

According to the NGOs, the plan fails to offer a way to limit the large number of tourists that leads to eutrophication (organic matter pollution) in the Seven Rila Lakes. On one of the busiest summer days, 3,300 people visited the sensitive lake ecosystem.

Limiting the tourist flow would also chime with people’s concerns. In an opinion poll quoted in the plan, 75% of the respondents said tourism development should not come if it brought environmental, social or cultural risks. 

Additionally, the freshwater of more than two million people depends on the new draft management plan. However, it fails to address this issue and doesn’t include crucial information like water use, sanitary water zones and even a zoning map. It also does not provide the required information on infrastructure, socio-economic characteristics, abiotic factors, forests, medicinal plants, wood, berries and herbs, etc.

Most importantly, there is no construction ban for the entire national park, the NGOs stressed. As required by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a ban should prohibit interference on 75% of the territory of national parks. There can only be construction of freshwater-intake facilities, sewage-treatment facilities, national park administrative buildings, recreation areas, tent camps, as well as repairs of existing buildings, roads, sports and other facilities, etc.

EURACTIV asked the Commission to comment on the €4 million of EU funds allegedly so far spent on the plans. Spokesperson Jakub Adamowicz said that the management plans for the Rila, Pirin and Central Balkan national parks had not been finalised yet. “In this ongoing process, the national Managing Authority already had discussions with NGO’s and with beneficiaries to address the concerns and to safeguard the use of EU funds. This means that no EU funds have been used so far. EU payments would only be transferred to the Managing Authority upon project completion and of course if no breach of EU law would occur,” Adamowicz said.

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