Organizers of the 2018 Winter Olympics are clear-cutting part of an ancient forest that includes 500-year-old trees on a protected mountain near Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Activists are calling on the International Olympic Committee and the government of South Korea to stop the felling of trees at the site and are urging Olympic organizers to find another venue for the four-day downhill skiing event.
"When it's a choice between tearing down 500-year-old trees and looking for an alternative venue, you should look for an alternative venue," said Dalia Hashad, campaign director of the international advocacy group Avaaz.
Clearing of the ski slope on South Korea's Mount Gariwang was probably completed last week, but additional clearing for the venue may be continuing, the activists say. Precise information about current conditions have been difficult to confirm.
"I was trying to send people there to get a sense of what still could be saved, but they've blocked it off," Hashad said. "We are trying to get aerial photographs now to get a sense of what there is left. We don't have an exact sense of what there still is. It's a situation that is changing, and it's changing fast."
The difficulty in obtaining basic information highlights the challenges environmental organizations face when fighting plans set in place by powerful organizations like the IOC and national organizing committees.
The Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games said in an email Sunday that tree-cutting on the ski slope has been completed over an area of 57 acres. The Forest Service of Korea previously lifted the protected status of an additional 136 acres for use during the Olympics, suggesting more clearing may still occur.
The entire area that could be cleared makes up 3 percent of the mountain's protected area, according to a 2014 article for the website Games Monitor, by Rebecca Kim, a researcher at the Democracy & Social Movement Institute at SungKongHoe University in Seoul.
According to the IOC, the Jeongseon Alpine Centre on Mount Gariwang, one of several venues for alpine skiing at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics, has undergone a number of adaptations to address environmental concerns.
"Principally, it has had the number and size of its slopes reduced from two to one with the environment in mind," an IOC media relations spokesperson said in an email. "In addition, it has been granted environmental permission by the Korea Forest Service, and the Pyeongchang 2018 organizers are paying close attention that the associated conditions of that permission are respected."
Any clear-cutting of an ancient forest violates the IOC's commitment to conservation, said Hashad, whose organization is leading an online petition urging the IOC and the South Korean government to immediately stop the deforestation.
"There is something about the IOC willfully disregarding their own stated commitment to environmental sustainability and protection and allowing it to happen," Hashad said. "They certainly do have the type of influence that could have stopped this. This just flies in the face of everything they say they want to do."
The environmental degradation in Pyeongchang is similar to what occurred in Sochi, Russia, before the 2014 Olympics, said Martin Müller, a professor of geography at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.
Müller published a study in 2014 in the journal European Urban and Regional Studies that focused on environmental damage to the Mzymta River, near the alpine skiing venues.
Construction alongside and in the riverbed destroyed the ecology and hydrology of the river, the study found. The construction waste included toxic fluids that caused "the concentration of arsenic, hydrocarbons and phenol to exceed the critical permissible threshold up to several dozen times, making the water undrinkable for thousands of residents," according to the study.
"In many ways, I found Sochi quite representative in regard to what happens with the environment, not only with the Olympic Games but mega events in general," Müller said. "There is a very consistent dynamic of overpromising and under delivering."
The wasteful building and massive cost overruns involved in hosting the Olympics and the World Cup has drawn widespread criticism—and is highlighted in several photo essays of abandoned facilities like this one from Reuters—and the IOC has struggled recently to find cities interested in bidding.
Environmental degradation stems from a lack of accountability for event organizers and a "deadline effect" driven by the need to complete construction in time, Müller said. The time pressure allows organizers to sidestep impact assessments and other measures that would help protect the environment, he said.
The ecological damage from clearing a small portion of a single forest may be insignificant when compared with deforestation occurring on a much larger scale elsewhere on the planet, but the message it sends is troubling, Müller said.
"We are at a really critical moment in history," Hashad said, "where we need to make some decisions about how do we treat our resources, where we put our resources, and what we as a global community do to save the planet and save ourselves."