Is clearing part of an old-growth, South Korean mountain forest too high of a price to pay in exchange for the economic gains hosting the Olympics can bring? ©eimoberg, flickr

Most of us see the benefits of the world’s Olympic Games: they are some of the very few times nations come together to showcase their most beautiful landscapes and best athletes. For the hosting cities and countries, the hope is that the events will result in economic gains through tourism, marketing and other means.

But a darker side to the Olympics is emerging, especially as South Korea prepares for the 2018 Winter Games. Right now, a 500-year old forest is being cleared to make room for new ski facilities that will be used for only three days of competitions. Not only are trees half a millennia old being lost but several threatened animal and plant species.

Especially in a year when the organizing committee issued a report stating that the 2018 Winter Games will be a green, carbon responsible event, is cutting down part of a forest an acceptable price to pay in exchange for improving local economies?

The Winter Olympics showcase beautiful, outdoor environments. ©Kai Hendry, flickr

Clearing a sacred mountain

Mount Gariwang, located in northeast South Korea, will be the site of three days of Alpine skiing during the games in the host city of PyeongChang. It will mark only the third Winter Games held in Asia, after the 1972 games in Sapporo, Japan, and the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan.

Mount Gariwang was selected because it is the only site that fit the international ski slope criteria for Alpine skiing competitions: a vertical drop of 800 to 1,100 meters (2,624 to 3,608 feet) above sea level.

Unfortunately, the mountain also qualifies as one of the very few virgin forests left in South Korea. It is home to protected and endangered animal and plant species, such as the Asian badger (Meles leucurus), leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), Siberian flying squirrel (Pteromys volans), yellow-throated marten (Martes flavigula), endemic Mongolian oak (Quercus mongolica) and native wangsasre trees (a hybrid aspen-birch)—unique to the Korean peninsula.

South Korea’s mountain forests are home to many endangered animal and plant species. ©Hee_Hun Park, flickr

Some South Koreans consider Mount Gariwang sacred and thus of huge historical significance. It is connected with the Choson Dynasty, the last and longest-lived imperial dynasty (1392–1910) of Korea. Some of the land here was used to grow ginseng exclusively for the king’s use; ginseng was a medicine that was thought to ensure longevity.

Mount Gariwang was officially designated a nationally protected forest in 2008. Of the 6,115 acres given that special status, 192 acres were removed from that category in 2013 to facilitate Olympic venue developments. Environmental groups say the recent cutting down of tens of thousands of trees to build the ski run is nothing short of an ecological disaster.

Possible to put back?

Olympic Committee organizers have made some concessions to environmentalists’ concerns. For the first time in the history of the Winter Games, the men’s and women’s ski courses have been combined into one run, reducing the tree-clearance area by 30 percent. In addition, the design agreed upon avoids some sensitive, major vegetation habitats, including an area that contains climate-change vulnerable, coniferous trees, such as the Korean arborvitae (Thuja koraiensis) and Khinghan fir (Abies nephrolepis). The Gangwon provincial government further promises that more than 1,200 trees uprooted from the site have been transplanted and will be returned as part of a forest restoration plan that will be instituted once the 2018 Olympics conclude.

Yellow-throated martens, the largest marten species in the Eastern Hemisphere, live in Mount Gariwang’s forests. The tail of this muscular and flexible animal makes up more than half of its length. ©tontantravel, flickr

That assurance, however, rings hollow to some. Green Korea United claims that more than 58,000 trees were bulldozed on the mountain during the ski course construction. Of the 1,200 trees that the government says will be replanted, all but 181 of them are less than seven feet in height.

Other voiced concerns are that the chemicals used to treat the soil and create snow for the ski course will leave the area permanently scarred. Parts of the course will likely be paved with cement or asphalt to create ideal racing conditions. Restoring natural habitats then will be almost impossible. Environmentalists worry, too, that faced with rising costs, authorities will not be able to afford to replant the trees and instead will turn the site into a permanent tourist attraction to recoup some of their investment. Indeed, according to a February 2015 article in The Hankyoreh, an independent Korean newspaper, the lower section of the slope is slated to be advertised to investors as the site of a future ski resort.

The Winter Olympics plays to a huge worldwide audience and encourages viewers to appreciate natural landscapes and participate in outdoor activities. That can create more advocates for our most beautiful places. But is destruction of sensitive habitats too high of a price to pay? Can disturbed areas ever be truly restored?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,