Bansko Ski Zone and Pirin National Park
"On 19 February 2013 the Ecological Council of the Ministry of the Envrironment and Water (MoEW) approved an amendment to the Management Plan of the Pirin National Park so that the restriction regimes for the construction of new ski infrastructure and other associated activities in the park are removed.
Until now, these restrictions, originating from the national Protected Areas Act and available in the management plans of all national parks in Bulgaria, were the main legal instrument for the preservation of ecosystems in those parks and a guarantee for the development of sustainable forms of tourism. The new philosophy of the government is, however, that the relevant restrictions in the Management Plans and the Protected Areas Act should be removed so that development projects in Protected Areas are not explicitly restricted by law but subject to EIA procedures.
Those amendments were proposed by the investor in Bansko ski zone in order to legalize the numerous violations of the environmental law during the construction of the ski zone and to allow its further development. The amendments, however, pose a new threat to the unique landscape of Pirin National Park as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and will make the development of sustainable forms of tourism in Pirin impossible. At the same time, the amendments of the management plan have not been subject to environmental assessments under SEA Directive and Habitats Directive. In fact, the amendments allow activities which will negatively affect a number of habitats and species listed in Annex I and II of the Habitats Directive.
Curiously, the proposals for the amendments are not supported by any tourism development strategy, plan, vision or a cost-benefit analysis. Just the opposite, the proposed amendments are in full contrast with the visions of the Management Plan of the park (2005-2014) and the Strategy for the development of the sustainable tourism in Pirin National Park, which was prepared in 2011 with the financial support of UNESCO.
What we call for is that the Bulgarian government:
• stops the amendments of the Management Plan of Pirin National Park
• annuls the concession contract with Yulen JSC for the Bansko ski zone in Pirin National Park.
• implements the Management plan of the Pirin National Park and the Strategy for the development of sustainable tourism in Pirin NP as part of the European environmental network NATURA 2000 and UNESCO World Natural Heritage site.
Bansko Ski Zone and Pirin National Park
Pirin National Park has unique natural resources such as 120 year old pine forests, including the oldest tree on the Balkan peninsula – Baikushev's pine (approximate age of 1,300 years).
Since Bansko Ski Zone was established 10 years ago, environmentalists have been trying to draw the attention of four successive governments to the destructive management of Pirin National Park.
Early days of the concession contract
In 2000, a public discussion on the report of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Territorial Development Project (TDP) for Bansko Ski Zone was held.
The proposed TDP envisaged a significant enlargement of the existing ski runs and facilities in Pirin National Park. In the beginning of 2001, two days before leaving her post, the then Environment Minister Evdokia Maneva gave a positive written statement on the EIA for Bansko Ski Zone despite protests from environmental NGOs.
The concession contract for the ski zone in Pirin National Park was signed in 2001. The concession rights were given to Yulen JSCo., whose present major shareholders are two offshore companies and Bansko municipality.
The concession gave Yulen the right to build and use a ski zone covering 99.5 ha of exclusive state land. National parks and reserves in Bulgaria represent exclusive state land and are the territories most protected by law. Their entire ownership belongs exclusively to the state and hence to the Bulgarian people.
Behind the scene – Yulen
The concession lets Yulen use the territory of Pirin National Park to build Bansko Ski Zone, while Yulen must pay the state a fee in return. The fee is based on a percentage of the tickets and cards sold for the facilities. The state has not established a way to verify the amount and Yulen pays whatever it claims it has sold.
The ownership of Yulen is shared by two offshore companies and Bansko municipality. It is considered that Yulen is connected to Tseko Minev – shareholder of First Investment Bank and president of the Bulgarian Ski Federation. There is a common member of the boards of Yulen and the company „Vitosha Ski“, which owns most of the lifts in Vitosha Nature Park and wants to build a larger ski zone there.
In breach of the Management Plan for Pirin National Park
In 2004 the government adopted a Management Plan for Pirin National Park as each park must have. The plans are valid for 10 years. The plan stated that Bansko Ski Zone could not be enlarged more than what was envisaged in the 2001 concession contract.
In 2005, Bansko municipality adopted a Territorial Development Plan for Bansko Ski Zone, which did not take into account the Management Plan of Pirin National Park and was actually illegal. The plan provided Yulen with the grounds to build new ski runs and facilities. After 2010, in violation of the Management Plan a biathlon stadium and a roller ski facility were constructed and two lifts were replaced with longer ones.
UNESCO Heritage site
Pirin National Park was included in the List of World Cultural and Natural Heritage Sites of UNESCO in 1983. Because of Bansko Ski Zone and the continuing attempts for its enlargement, UNESCO declared that either Bulgaria should guarantee that the construction of ski resorts in Pirin National Park will be stopped or UNESCO will designate it as a world natural heritage site in danger, which would have consequences for the image of Bulgaria. In 2010-2012, however, UNESCO excluded the Bansko ski-zone from the property and allowed for new ski-facilities in the park which was immediately used by the government to justify new ski-developments in the National park.
The European Commission
In 2007 Bulgaria became a member of the European Union and Pirin National Park became a part of the European environmental network NATURA 2000. The European Commission was approached by Bulgarian environmental organizations on the matter of the illegal construction of new ski runs and facilities in Pirin National Park. There is an ongoing investigation by the EC.
Environmental Minister Nona Karadzhova shocks Bulgaria
In 2009 an analysis of a satellite picture of the Bansko Ski Zone demonstrated that it exceeds the territory designated by the concession twice. „For the Nature“ coalition sent a request to the Ministry of Environment and Water to verify this information.
Nearly two years later, following mounting public pressure, the Minister of Environment and Water Nona Karadzhova admitted that Yulen was using (i.e. had cut down and destroyed) a territory larger – by about 65 ha - than the one designated by the concession of Bansko Ski Zone. This makes around 40% of Bansko Ski Zone illegal.
So far, Nona Karadzova has not yet publicly announced the legal status of the ski-zone Bansko and this is the reason the state is planning an amendment to the Management plan of Pirin National Park and the Protected Areas Act in order to legalize the extra 65 ha.
In 2013, Bulgarian government is urgently processing amendments in the Management of the Pirin National Park in favour of the ski developers while it denies taking any official position on those issues which impede the development of the sustainable tourism in Pirin National Park for more than 10 years:
1. Bulgarian government is yet to provide a reasonable explanation what measures it will take to seek accountability for the numerous violations of the Management plan of the Park, the Concession contract of 2001 and the EIA decision of 2000 for the Bansko ski-zone. All those have resulted in the recent years in the irreversible loss of natural resources, incurable damage on the unique landscape of the Park and to great disproportion between the capacities of the ski facilities and the hotels. The most scandalous violations include:
- the construction or expansion of ski facilities not foreseen in those acts;
- the construction of ski facilities with methods forbidden by the EIA decisions;
- the overexploitation of areas in the park (at least 65 ha acc. to the MoEW and more than
100 ha acc. to NGOs analysis) beyond the area of 99,55 ha allowed by the Concession contract of 2001 and the Management plan of the Park;
- the enhancement of the capacity of the ski-facilities and that of the hotels in the city is in gross breach of the prescription of the EIA decision.
2. The government has not provided yet any explanation why the concession contract is still not terminated on the ground of all the violation of the national law listed above.
What is more, the government supports amendments of the Management Plan of the park which will not only legalize the violations, but will also lead to further unsustainable development of the ski-zones in Pirin National Park and allow for further damages to the unique landscape of Pirin National Park as WHS and the protected habitats and species in the Natura 2000 site "Pirin":
- the amendments of the management plan have not been subject to official public consultations;
- the amendments of the management plan have not been subject to strategic environmental assessments, incl. Art. 6 (3) assessment on Natura 2000. In fact, the amendments allow activities which will negatively affect a number of habitats and species listed in Annex I and II of the Habitats Directive (see Annex 1 for more details);
- the gross misbalance between the capacity of the accommodation in the city of Bansko and the capacity of the ski-facilities in the ski-zone is and will continue to increase uncontrollably with the expressed support of the Minister of Economy.
- the city of Bansko does not have a Master Spatial Plan and the cumulative effect of the massive urbanization in the city has never been subject to any environmental, social or economic assessments.
- the only strategic documents concerning the development of the tourism in the region of Pirin National park are the Management Plan of the Park and the Strategy for the development of the sustainable tourism in the park, however, they are fully ignored by the competent authorities.
3. Instead of enforcing the law in Pirin National Park, Bulgarian government misinterprets the main legal documents which should guarantee the protection of Pirin National Park:
- while Art. 21 of the Protected Areas Act allows only the reconstruction of existing sport facilities in the National parks, the government argues that the ski facilities are not sport facilities but should be treated as tourist infrastructure like the tourist trails, information boards and tourist shelters.
- while the Concession contract, the preceding decisions of the Council of Ministers and the Management Plan of Pirin NP explicitly fix the built-up area of the ski-zone with all ski runs and facilities at 99,55 ha, the government argues that the concession area should include the whole tourist zone of the Park above the city of Bansko, having an area of 1,000 ha;
- while the Concession contract clearly needs to be terminated, the Minister of environment supports the opinion that there are no violations.
4. Bulgarian government makes selective use of the considerations of the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO (WHC) to the problems with the protection of Pirin National Park and the sustainable development of the tourism in the Park:
- on the one hand, the government doesn't take into consideration all the recommendations of the WHC in its last decisions and the findings of the WHC that "The tourism development within and around the property has not been effectively controlled in the past including some areas that were developed within the property and caused significant damage";
- on the other hand, the government immediately abuses the soft position adopted by the WHC and its retreat with respect to the protection of the world heritage site demonstrated in its last decision. We should remind that Bansko ski zone was excluded from the property in 2010 and included in a buffer zone on the basis of the WHC’s conclusion that "the Outstanding Universal Value of the property has been repeatedly and significantly impacted by the development of ski facilities and ski runs".
This fact seems already well concealed and forgotten by the government, but more worryingly by the WHC. Thus the further deterioration of the property, facilitated in 2012 when the WHC decided that new ski developments could be allowed in the buffer zone of the property, materially contradicts the previous one. Nevertheless, the decision of WHC is now the main argument of the government to justify the amendments concerned.