Wilderness trumps insensitive development of Šumava says study

Šumava, photo: Barbora Kmentová

The Czech Republic’s biggest national park has become a battleground for those fighting over its future development. Academics and green groups this week delivered what they hope will be a decisive rebuttal to what they see as moves to open up the park to developers and loggers.

Šumava,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
For the last two or three years Šumava National Park has not grabbed the headlines for its environmental and touristic merits but for a fight over the policies and priorities that will shape its future for decades to come.

Plans to change the park’s zoning rules have pitted environmentalists and academics on one side against current park management, local and regional politicians, and the Ministry of Environment, on the other.

Last October’s parliamentary elections and moves to create a new government put the battle on hold for a few months, but the gloves are now off again with ANO’s incoming environment minister, Richard Brabec, expected to make a decision on Šumava’s strategy by mid-year.

The minister inherits two proposals to alter the fundamental laws governing the park, which runs down the southern border between Bavaria and the Czech Republic. One stems from the environment ministry itself and the other from the two regions, Pilsen and South Bohemia, which Šumava straddles. Environmental groups generally package them together as one destructive job lot.

The degree to which those proposals weaken protection of Šumava’s most valuable natural sites, currently around 13 percent of the park, against exploitation is disputed. What is not at issue is that the two blueprints seek to pave the way for more construction and development within the park which, backers say, will boost the local economy and jobs. Proposals to build a ski lift within the park, aimed at attracting 130,000 users, and paved cycle paths across it represent some of the more intrusive developments that would follow from the proposed laws, say their opponents.

This week those opponents sought to claim the economic high ground with the release of a study evaluating three options for Šumava’s future. The first of these options is the frequently criticized course of current park management which has included felling trees in the most protected zones to battle bark beetle infestation. Then come the development plans covered by the two new laws and, finally, a new departure which would see a dramatic expansion in the park’s unspoiled wilderness area to cover just over half the park’s almost 70,000 hectares.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
With expansion, it’s argued that endangered species could be encouraged to expand beyond their existing fragmented core sites and the impact of greater number of wilderness seekers could be diluted.

The report is described as the first attempt ever to measure the social and economic benefits of the options facing Šumava. Its flagship finding is that developing and expanding the park’s wilderness features promise much greater long term benefits for wildlife and locals than the alternatives.

Ian Dickie is one of the authors of the report commissioned by the Czech Academy of Science’s Centre for Research into Global Change from British based consultancy company EFTEC. He described some of its main findings following their presentation in Prague on Monday and says wilderness development would mean local people rather than big outside companies benefiting from opportunities.

“We compared the current management of the park to proposals put forward in the draft bill to allow re-zoning and more and bigger development and found that these proposals would damage existing nature tourism so that would reduce the benefits they would have. It would also involve a lot of temporary activity, construction, and part time work that would come primarily from outside the area.

“We also compared the current management to an expanded wilderness zone and an expansion of the existing nature-based tourism. This can be a win-win for the local economy and for wildlife. And it also produces economic activity that is more likely to stay within the local area and produce benefits for local people.”

Looking at the current management of the park, can you comment on how you found their approach?

“Well, the current management faces a lot of different challenges with the bark beetle, economic requirements, and environmental objectives. But they are not making the most of the potential of the site because in the wilderness area they potentially have a unique selling point for visitors which could be expanded and made into a strong selling point which could be the basis for environmental improvements and expanded economic activity.”

Ian Dickie,  photo: CTK
The model that some of the green groups are talking about, this expanded wildlife area, is this working elsewhere in Europe or the world and, if so, where? And what benefits have been seen from this?

“Evidence from the global market in tourism is that tourism based around the quality of the environment is one of the fastest areas of growth. Yes, there are good examples elsewhere in Europe and all over the world of nature based tourism being a successful economic development model. It works usually through a large number of small businesses providing services to people who visit at particular locations because of their quality. But there are good examples over the other side of the border from Šumava in Germany and also examples that I know about in the United Kingdom where wildlife is seen as a real asset to the local population.”

What sort of examples are we talking about in the U.K. and what sort of models of development have they got that differ from the ones you maybe saw in Šumava?

“Well, in the Highlands of Scotland there are environments which are not dissimilar to Šumava. Some of the species are the same and there are large areas of pine forest. We see a wide range of activities for visitors, outdoor recreation activities like biking and canoeing and lots of nature watching. These are really evident in the local economy to the extent that some local villages name themselves after the most iconic local species that attract visitors. ”

Through that model can you have a sustainable local economy that works and are these areas actually prospering?

“I think they are doing a lot better than areas that don’t have that unique selling point of wildlife. You have to compare them to what would be happening otherwise and if you look at other parts of Northern Scotland that don’t have these wildlife resources, then those local economies are worse off. ”

Coming to this debate as an outsider and not a Czech, were you surprised about the discussion here and the direction it seems to have taken with two radically different standpoints and not much love lost between the people taking part?

Šumava,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
“I was not that surprised because I see these sort of challenges all over Europe in the work I do. And also I was not that much surprised because the way that we measure economic benefit has a bias towards single large projects. If you say I will do one thing and that will produce 100 jobs that sounds great. If you say I will do this and it will let 100 small businesses expand a little bit, it does not sound quite as good but actually it might have the same impact and might be more sustainable by not damaging the environment. So, it’s not surprising that you get these divisions in how people might approach economic development in an area like Šumava. But we have to step back and say is it really sustainable and can we meet several objectives at the same time for local wildlife and the local population at the same time.”

How unique is Šumava as it is now in its current form. A lot of economic development has been forestry and a lot of areas perhaps have not been developed properly compared with areas, for example, across the border in Bavaria. Is that how you see it?

“It does have a unique characteristic in the potential size of a large wilderness area that is managed to allow its ecological potential to be realized. If it connects with the German side, the German side is not actually a competitor but a complement, then this large area could be an improved selling point for both sides which have access to the area. ”

What are the growth figures for ecological tourism and who are these ecological tourists?

“Ecotourism has been estimated to have been 6 percent of the global tourism market in 2010 and is estimated to be a quarter of the global tourism market in 2020. And this growth comes from large numbers of middle income people, particularly those who have families or are a bit older. There is now a generation of people who are retired and have disposable income and increased leisure time. And they don’t often want to go to huge tourist resorts with large numbers of people or take part in extreme sports but they want to experience the quality of the environment, some recreation that keeps them healthy and connect with the culture and ecology of the local area.”

Šumava,  photo: Barbora Kmentová
The report does not brim over with figures, its authors argue that it basically sets the scene and in depth studies of how and where wildlife tourism could be developed are needed. One figure puts the total benefits of Šumava’s economic benefits, including such factors as the carbon dioxide retention of the 80 percent forest cover and potential to limit flood damage, at a massive 44 billion crowns a year. Overall, it argues that the frequently changing national park management has failed to foster local businesses which could cash in sensitively from Šumava’s assets and the 2 million visitors a year already drawn to its peat bogs, pine forests and lakes.