Vitosha Nature park - Aleko

Vitosha Nature park - Aleko
Updated information as of 09.07.2012 on the case about the amendment “Vitosha Ski” to the Bulgarian Forestry Act, and the dangers resulting from it, as well as on the civil disobedience and protests that followed the adoption of the amendments

Large public discontent regarding changes in the Forestry Act and fire in Vitosha Mountain - two events that were densely interlaced in the Bulgarian public sphere.

On the 9th day after the beginning of the fire in Vitosha Mountain – Bulgaria, there still are smoldering and smoking places in the biosphere reserve “Bistrishko Branishte”. About 15 hectares of the reserve were under fire. The authorities still have no official hypothesis for the cause of the breakout. They admitted that it was surely not caused by a lightning. The fire started on the 1st of July 2012 on a dank place, which is also extremely steep and inaccessible for tourists as fallen from a storm trees have formed natural barriers. All this makes quite insolvent also the possibility that the fire was started by the negligence of occasional visitors.

Two are the most interesting facts about the biosphere reserve “Bistrishko Branishte”:

The first is that ten years ago it suffered from a big storm. Many trees were fallen and then attacked by woodworms. This natural process was left to proceed without human intervention as this was suggested by a detailed scientific report and was necessary in order to preserve the entity of the biosphere reserve as such – i.e. a place in the wild nature where the natural processes are left to happen with minimum or no anthropogenic impacts. As a result, for years the environmentalists and the ex-director of Vitosha Nature Park have been overtly taunted that the dead wood in the nature reserve was not cleaned out.
The second interesting fact is that a large ski resort was planned to be constructed on the territory of Vitosha Nature Park including “Bistrisho Branishte” nature reserve. To be more precise on the territory of the nature reserve was planned to be built a lake for artificial snow production and other facilities, which would abruptly violate the conservation regimes of the protected territory. Thus, for years there have been discussions among the investor, the authorities and the environmentalists.

The current situation:

On 13, 14 and 15 June 2012 the discussions about Vitosha Mountain escalated to large demonstrations and civil disobedience in the form of flash mobs of thousands of people blocking the main boulevards in the capital Sofia.
The large public discontent was provoked by the adoption by the Parliament (on June 13th ) of changes in the Bulgarian Forestry Act, which would allow large-scale forest felling and construction of ski and golf facilities in the in the forests without Environmental Impact Assessment and without change of the land purpose(land use) and consequently without payment of the state taxes necessary for change of the land purpose. These changes in the Forestry Act were in direct benefit for the investor in the ski zone in Vitosha and the ski zones in Rila Mountain, which partly enter Rila National Park, but on a large scale would also affect the forests out of the park. To a great extent the large civil discontent was personally directed against the investors in the ski resorts in Bulgaria, who has inflicted an economic monopoly over this kind of business in the Bulgaria.

What happened next? A short chronology:

As a result, on the 16th of June 2012, the President of the Republic of Bulgaria imposed veto on the Forestry Act and returned it for a review and public discussions. The veto did not stop the demonstrations which followed day by day while environmentalists were discussing the Forestry Act Changes with representatives of the government and the investors. The fire in Vitosha started on the 1st of July and many of the remonstratives claimed for volunteers to help the firefighters. A large public discussion was appointed for the 3rd of July. On the public discussion a consensus was not reached on the most controversial article regarding change of the forest purpose. Thus on the 5th of July, the Forestry Act was voted again in the Commission for Agriculture and Forestry without the controversial article and was passed for first reading in the Parliament.
Currently the fire in Vitosha is still one of the most discussed topics in the social networks and the Bulgarian media as many of the volunteers claim that the organization of the firefighters in Vitosha was very bad and it seemed as though they purposely did not want to stop the fire fast enough. At the same time, the situation with the fire was used again from certain interested parties to accuse the environmentalists of being indirect causers of the breakout as they insisted that the dead wood be kept into the nature reserve and the territory saved from abrupt human intervention.
The fact that dead wood is most probably less flammable than the living coniferous trees (partly due to the more accessible for the fire amounts of pine resin in the green needles) has been purposely neglected in some publications.

Why the amendments to the Forestry Act are dangerous?
The actions of Forestry Executive Agency, Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Council of Ministers, in relation to changing the Forestry Act, are totally unacceptable, because, on the pretext of ski tourism development in Bulgaria, the state de facto ensures unprecedented state assistance to ski resort investors and breaches general free market and competition rules. The amendments empower private firms unconditionally and without tenders to dispose of protected areas, to destroy them and cover them with ski facilities, and in this way allow the Forestry Act to bypass State Property Act and Concessions Act on construction in protected areas in state property.

The next texts in the Forestry Act were moved on by Council of Ministers in extremely short terms – six days, three of which were Christmas holidays. However, the Law on Normative Acts requires a minimum of 14 days period for debates with stakeholders. If Council of Ministers should set an example of abiding by the law, what could we expect from citizens and the business?
The suggested amendment to the Forestry Act will favour not only the major owner of ski facilities at Aleko Center – Vitosha Ski AD, but also all ski resort investors in forest areas of the Balkan Range, Rila, Rodopi and Pirin mountains. Calculations by For the Nature coalition show that the outrageous revocation of the procedure for change of the status of forests in construction of ski resorts will save investors over 50 million leva for cutting down of no less than 10,000 decares of forests and construction of ski facilities there. This represents a scheme for state assistance, which is unacceptable in the European Union and will lead to a new punitive action against Bulgaria.

Additional losses for the state budget and thorough disregard to the public interest transpire from articles of the draft law, which encourage establishment of real right and sale of state property without tender, breaching competition rules. This will lead not only to an additional loss of 20 million leva, but sets the law ridiculously so that long-term rents of forest areas will take place without tender, and the sale and establishment of real right will be conducted without tender.

The outrageous amendments to the Forestry Act also allow for coupling of the rights of use of existing ski runs in the forest areas with the presence of lifts or tow-lifts, with no consideration whether these facilities were built legally or not. In this way, these regulations encourage illegal construction of lifts in forest areas, which is unacceptable.

Together with this draft law, the incumbents are set to make way for a few more lobbyist amendments in relation to extending terms for hunting, export of illegal timber, and construction of privatized forests without site development plan.

How this is to the advantage of Vitosha Ski AD, whose racketeering of the State and the public resulted in amendments to the Forestry Act?
With the approved by Council of Ministers, not yet voted at Parliament, amendments to the Forestry Act, Vitosha Ski AD as well as all current and future ski facilities operators receive the unconditional right to build on public state property in Vitosha Nature Park, which otherwise the law allows only for sites owned by the state of municipalities. The regulation so far has served the purpose the state or municipality to bear the whole responsibility for the management and governance of state property in protected areas, while the amendments will allow in practice hidden privatization of protected areas to the benefit of investors in ski resorts. The requirement that for construction of ski lifts and tow-lifts Vitosha Ski should pay a fee to the state for the change of status of the area is revoked. The revenues of this fee are used for compensatory afforestation of the site of the cut forests.
Vitosha Ski AD is granted the privilege to not participate in tender for acquiring right to construction of ski lifts and tow-lifts, which is required in all other cases as per State Property Act.

Vitosha Ski AD is granted the privilege to not participate in tender for acquiring right to use of forest areas for operating existing ski runs, as is required in all other cases as per State Property Act, including rent contract as per Forestry Act.
Vitosha Ski AD benefits also from this that the price of the right to construction and right of use of ski runs and lifts will not be determined on a market basis, by tender, but through administrative ordinance. In this way state property is not disposed of transparently, which reminds strikingly of former Government’s scheme for illegal state assistance in the form of forest swaps.

On top of it, Vitosha Ski AD wins a competitive advantage over investors in other economic sectors (for example renewable energy sources) on account of lower costs and easier conditions for receiving construction permit in forests.

All of this may result in building-up of the most visited part of Vitosha Nature Park, the oldest nature park on the Balkans, as well as of state forests in Bulgaria at large.

What is permitted to do for skiing in Vitosha Nature Park?
Vitosha has been a nature park since 1934 – the oldest one on the Balkans. The mountain is not a city park, but a nature park – protected nature area. It has more plants protected than can be found in the whole Netherlands or Great Britain. More than 200 species of birds and mammals, for example deer, bear, wolf, inhabit Vitosha mountain. The landmark symbol of Vitosha is the stone rivers, known as moraines.

Like every large protected area in Bulgaria, Vitosha Nature Park has a site development plan. It is endorsed by Council of Ministers as a result of long scientific and public debates, and it is in force until the end of 2014.
According to this plan, construction of new ski runs and lifts is not allowed, but it is allowed that old facilities be replaced with new ones. If that takes place, the conditions for ski sport will approve considerably. However, this has not been done for several years now under the pretext that it is better to build a completely new and bigger ski zone.
All ski facilities are owned by offshore Vitosha Ski AD. The ski runs and places for skiing are wholly in state owned forests, and fees are due for their usage.

In 2007 Sofia Municipality sold lifts in Vitosha Nature Park, which were its property, to Vitosha Ski AD. Mayor then was incumbent Prime Minister Boiko Borisov. The facilities were sold for a few million leva, but not the real rights accompanying them, which have obviously been arranged now with the envisaged amendments to the Forestry Act.

Another part of the facilities in Vitosha Nature Park became property of Vitosha Ski after it bought them from firms which had participated in the privatization in the nineties. The provisions in the privatization contracts have to be observed by the next owners of the privatized facilities as well. These contracts are also not publicly accessible.

What Vitosha Ski AD plans to do?
Vitosha Ski AD is owned by an offshore company. One of its directors, Mr. Petar Petrov, is on the managing board of Yulen AD – concessionaire of Bansko ski zone, whose biggest shareholder is also an offshore company. Thus Vitosha Ski and Yulen are connected firms.

In April 2011 a new Forestry Act was adopted. The lifts in Vitosha worked until October 2011, when they were stopped for maintenance. At the beginning of December 2011 Vitosha Ski announced that it would not turn the facilities on because the Forestry Act did not allow that, giving no explanation why in that case the lifts had operated from spring to autumn in 2011?!
Sofia Municipality refuse to make public the privatization contract under which they sold the lifts to the firm Vitosha ski in 2007 (among the candidates was Yulen AD, concessionaire of Bansko ski zone in Pirin National Park.) The official explanation is that the contract contains trade information Vitosha Ski would not like to make public. If the owner does not cope with the maintenance, the Municipality ought to negate the facilities privatization contract and to find a new owner.
See the analysis by “the Green advocates”, on how the contract for the privatization of municipality lifts in Vitosha has been honoured.

The specific detailed development plan of Aleko ski zone, developed by Vitosha Ski AD for a new, bigger ski zone in Vitosha Nature Park has been deliberately kept secret, but the following data is known:
• Its area is 10 thousand decares.
• It is situated wholly in state forests.
• The area of the ski runs will increase sevenfold over its current area, as forests will be cut down and moraines will be removed of a total area equaling 30 football fields.
• The ski zone will be served by 18 ski tow-lifts and lifts.
• A lower station and a new gondola at the site of the library in Dragalevtsi district will be built.
• A new dam for water for artificial snow with a volume equaling 35 Olympic-size pools will be constructed.
• By the watershed zone will be produced artificial snow, for which chemicals will be used as well.
• The State allows an offshore company with unclear capital to manage public property, the land under Aleko being such.
• The new bigger ski zone is in breach of Bulgarian law.

In 2008 Vitosha Ski AD received a license to cut the upper part of 19 stones above Aleko for skiers’ safety. Instead, it cut through a whole new ski path above Vitoshko Lale middle station using explosives and heavy machinery.

After the new ski path had been cut through, using bulldozers, Vitosha Ski dug out over 400 stones from Vitoshko Lale ski run and piled them up on the two sides of the ski run. Again without permission and to the risk of skiers. The State recorded the violation but did not undertake anything else. Vitosha Nature Park Director Toma Belev, who was the only one to stand up against the violators, was even threatened with dismissal.

Minister of Environment and Waters Nona Karadzhova suspended the procedure regarding the project for a new big ski zone Aleko by Vitosha Ski AD. However, the firm appealed her decision before the Supreme Administrative Court and initiated a massive campaign to influence its decision. After the final decision of the Court, in the summer of 2011 Minister of Environment and Water Nona Karadzhova cancelled the procedure on the grounds that the bigger zone does not meet the legal requirements and should be reworked. In a press announcement, it is claimed that Vitosha Ski have applied the same plan to the Regional Environment and Water Department for a new procedure, without any whatsoever modification.

For the Nature in Bulgaria Coalition has many times expressed its stance that the facilities in Vitosha need modernization.
Eventual decisions for improvement of ski zone conditions without excessive losses to the natural landscape of the park are good to be debated, but this has not been done by Vitosha Ski, although required by law. No one has seen the real specific detailed development plan (SDDP) of the ski zone and its explanatory notes. The environment impact assessment of the SDDP was being kept secret in the beginning, and later they refused to comply with the legal requirements for public debate and biodiversity protection.
It is exceptionally naïve to assume that the public can exert control over activities of a firm as Vitosha Ski. The effectiveness of such a control would be close to none because the firms and the people behind it have proved absolutely unreachable for state control bodies.

For comparison sake – it took ten years for the public and nongovernment organizations to convince the State that at Bansko in Pirin National Park the used area of the concession is 60 percent more than the allowed one. The State not only did not undertake any measures to punish the culprits, but directly suggested amendments to the Concession Act in order to legalize the violations.
In 2012, although all state institutions vouch there are not legal impediments facilities in Vitosha Nature Park not to operate, they have been stopped. In this way not only state institutions’ arms are twisted but also are Prime Minister Boiko Borisov’s. And not with some significant public demand, but with a demand for private financial benefits and concessions in violation of European competition law.

Why not build new ski-runs and lifts in the treeless areas in Vitosha, bared by the bark beetle?
There has been a lot of speculation on the topic of bark beetle affected forests in Vitosha Nature Park. To find out that the woods is not dead, it is enough that you go there in the summer. When there is no snow you can see under the dried out trees many spruce saplings, taken roots naturally or planted by the hundreds of volunteers from Sofia. In 30 years these saplings will be a splendid green forest.

Drying out of trees is a natural process. Sometimes the scale is large (for example after a big windthrow or snowfall, as happened in Vitosha), but nature has its ways to overcome the “calamity”. In Vitosha this calamity is already controlled – by the Vitosha Nature Park Directorate and by State Forestry Agency Sofia in northwestern Vitosha, as well as by nature itself in and around Bistrishko Branishte reserve, where it was decided the dead fallen trees to be left untouched. Namely, around Lale ski run the second zone is seen. The forest in the reserve by the ski run has renewed by itself, without human interference. In this region two years ago, a nest of a Black Woodpecker was discovered. Many rare and endangered species in the forests have become so on account of unsystematic cleaning of dead wood. That is why nowadays in forestry, owners are required to leave a certain amount of dead wood. Rare woodpeckers depend wholly on dried standing trees. They, on their part, make hollows for tens of other species of birds and mammals. At the other places tree plantings are conducted in a way which to reduce the risk after years when these saplings become a real old forest.

What can you do?
Sign the petitions in defense of Vitosha Nature Park
Take an active part in the movement against the amendments to the Forestry Act. The protest movement gathered more than 2000 people in the beginning of January.
On January 22 skiers, snowboarders, mountain lovers, and many children rallied for a winter holiday in defense of Vitosha – photos and tales from this Vitosha mountain event.

Translation: Tzvetan Ivanov

History: information actual in 2009

1. What are the plans for Aleko ski area in Vitosha Nature Park:

According to the report on environmental impact assessment, submitted for
public consultation during the period June 18 - July 2, 2009, the project of Specialized detailed master plan (SDMP) of ski area includes:

• Planed area - 914.65 ha;

• All of the above area is state forests;

• Area of ski slopes - from the current 19 ha - an increase up to 142.5 ha;

• Construction of 8 new ski runs and a total of 18 lifts and drags;

• Construction of new open water stream for the making of artificial snow - 70 000 cubic meters;

2. Violated procedures:

• The investor has made a project for SDMP in the spring of 2008 in the Regional Inspectorate of Environment and Water (RIEW) in Sofia, without the assignment being approved by the Sofia Municipality and the State Forestry Agency (SFA);

• RIEW Sofia launched an environmental assessment procedure of the project, although it provides for violations of the Management Plan of Vitosha Nature Park, and although there is no project approved by the Sofia Municipality;

• "Vitosha Ski” AD announces a public consultation on the reports on environmental assessment and evaluation for compatibility with Natura 2000 in October 2008, although there is no approval of the project by the Sofia Municipality. The reports are provided to the public access but without visible expert's signatures and with the absence of experts at site which is required by law. The access is provided at the lower station of Simeonovski lift which is not very easy to get place;

• The assignment for for developing of SDMP Aleko ski area has been submitted in Sofia very late - in January 2009;

• The investor claims that he has received the approval of the project
with a direct order by the chief architect with ref. № RD-09-50-736/2009. It was requested according to the procedure public access of information law but it was not obtained. A law suit has been brought for a silent refusal of access to the information. At the internet site of the Directorate of Architecture and Urban Planning of the Sofia Municipality in the section « Orders » and « Documents » to date there is no such document.

• The most probable reason for this command to be hidden, is the real date on which it was issued.

On May 29, 2009 at a meeting of the Council of Experts in Architecture and Urban Planning the project for the development of SDMP was discussed, and on June 18, 2009 “Vitosha ski" AD announced the public consultations on the environmental assessment reports. That shows that from May 29 to June 18 (for 20 days) happened the following:

• The project is adjusted to develop a structure plan;

• A structural plan itself was developed;

• Reports for environmental assessment and evaluation of the compatibility of the plan were developed;

• A law suit has been initiated against the decision of RIEW-Sofia to;start the procedure for environmental impact assessment. Issuing an official opinion on the environmental assessment and any advance of the procedure would be illegal during an opened case;

3. Already carried out violations of ''Vitosha ski" AD without penalty being taken:

• On the entire stretch of track ''Vitoshko lale'' and in the area of the ''Stone River'', at the foot of the peak ''Malak rezen'', above the lift station "Vitoshko lale", with the use of explosives, a total of 400 stones with dimensions between 0.5 and 3.5 cubic meters are removed and transferred;

• There is a new ski route practically already built at the foot of the ''Malak rezen'' peak;

• Using heavy construction equipment and explosions, stone rivers and grass vegetation in an area of about 18 ha are destroyed. Habitats from the Natura 2000 and non-renewable rock formations (the so called ''Moreni'') are destroyed;

• In October 2008 a warning was submitted to Sofia City Prosecutor's Office.In November 2008 new detailed additional evidence were handed over to them;

• On July 20, 2009, eight months later, when checking in the registry of the Sofia City Prosecutor's Office, it became clear that no decision on the prosecutor's case had been made;

4. How the Bulgarian State supports ''Vitosha Ski'' AD:

• Absolute lack of adequate action and reactions by the prosecution;

• Ministry of Environment and Water of Bulgaria (MoEW) does not express any opinion on the violations in Vitosha Nature Park from last fall and did not stop the procedure in environmental assessment, despite of the strong controversy with the plan for management of Vitosha Nature Park;

• The previous leadership of State Forestry Agency has not sought for the charges owed by ”Vitosha ski” AD for the use of state forests. By a letter from the Regional Department of State Forestry Agency - Sofia, it is clear that the fees for 2008 were paid for use of state forest fund.These payments are for the period January - April 15, and are amounted to BGN 5005;

• Fees for use of state and municipal land on which the facilities are have not been paid. Under the Tariff of fees in the SFA, Forestry Act (adopted by Decree № 202 of 11.08.2008), the ''Vitosha Ski'' AD should pay an additional "Fee for placement of temporary facilities and facilities for doing business in the forests and lands from state forests, falling within the resorts and nature parks in the amount of BGN 1.20 per sq.m/day;

• Ski lift "Zaeka" is given for free use by the State Agency for Youth and Sports to the Bulgarian Ski Federation, but it is included in the price of the common Aleko ski card.

• Chairman of the Board of Directors of “Vitosha ski” AD Georgi Bobev is Vice Chairman of Bulgarian Ski Federation. In 2008-09 years the federation has received public funds from the State Agency for Youth and Sports training children in skiing;

This good idea was vitiated because the Bulgarian Ski Federation assigned “Vitosha Ski” AD for the training without the obligatory procedures under the Public Procurement Act.

5. Conclusions and demands:

• The project “Aleko Ski Area” is made by “Vitosha Ski” AD, which is owned by offshore company with unclear ownership and origin of capital;

• The project “Aleko Ski Area” has never been publicly presented, regardless of the requirements of the Law on Environmental Protection;

• Illegal construction has begun "in pieces" in the autumn of 2008 with the plow of the track “Laleto” and building a new ski route between “Laleto” and the so called “Sinya pista”;

• All this reminds very much the case with the Bansko ski zone in Pirin National Park built several years ago in a similar way with many violations of procedures and laws. There is a link connecting between the concessionaire of the ski zone Bansko "Ulen” AD and “Vitosha Ski” AD – a common person in the management of both companies;

• The previous government's actions and inactions assisted and tolerated the violations of laws in Vitosha Nature Park. We turn to the new government with a request to terminate the procedures related to the Aleko ski area which is presented by “Vitosha Ski” AD. We count on the new government to demonstrate their will to meet their intentions to end the abuses of public resources and to to enhance the collection of state debts, and to enforce the laws.

Translated by: Yavor Naydenov