An endangered national park?? Kind of an oxymoron isn’t it? Certainly the very act of naming wilderness as National Park is a commitment to uphold standards towards its preservation. It is easy to see why Serbia’s mountains were given such status. Kopaonik is one of the countries most important bio diverse hotspots for endemic flora. (That is, plants found in only one location on the planet!) It’s also home to many animal species, such as the Peregrin Falcon, Tawny owl, and wildcat. The landscape is diverse and magnificent, ranging from wildflower meadows to coniferous forests, to slopes covered in berries and grasslands.
But despite this enormous wealth of beauty, Kopaonik national park is being severely mistreated.
While visiting, there were a few things that lead me to suspect all was not so peachy. First sign. Where are all the trails?? There were a few meandering paths, but none were marked, and many dissolved into open grasslands. Fine for the adventurous hiker, but what about safety for endemic flora? Second sign. On the unmarked paths closest to the ski resort, the ground was littered with rubbish. Along the river bank, many plastic bags found final resting ground on branches. Third sign. A huge amount of construction filled the air with noise. Loads of debris and unfinished structures sat in mounds along side roads. Yet, many small cabins simultaneously posted For Sale signs. Locals say they’ve been sitting for a long time and no one is buying. Hmmmm….. very curious. Keep going.
I noticed huge contrasts in extreme poor, living along side extreme rich. A dairy farmer living with his wife and son grew up in these hills. In his tiny home, he crossed himself, offered homemade rakija (local hard brew), and smiled a toothless grin. Our neighbor, a diplomat on vacation at his second home, also offered us rakija and spoke of local mushrooms and worldly affairs.
My partner and I hitched a ride twice while there. The first time we were picked up by a black mercedez, and the owner of the vehicle was also the owner of one of the big spa hotels in town. They inquired kindly and talked to us about the special deals offered at their hotel.The second time we were picked up by a white van, owned by a gypsy man and his wife. We squeezed into the front seat- Four adults practically on top of one another. I took his wife’s hand in mine and we smiled. Traditional gypsy music filled the little space left.
Young people hang out at a local bar, listening to western popular music. They wear sunglasses and stylish clothing. But I only ran into one group of older folk while hiking.
…This is unlike any National Park I have been to! So, I decided to do a bit of research. What I found out was…. well, dear reader, I’ll let you draw your own conclusion.
At present, Kopaonik has two sources of dominant revenue: wood products and charges for commercial activities (2). Also at present, it is these two industries that threaten conservation the most.
In national parks among Balkan regions, under the guise of fire prevention, 10 times more trees are felled illegally than legally, according to the national statistics institute. No one has so far been tried or convicted for this crime (1). Without the enforcement of penalties, deforestation continues at an alarming rate. According to some estimates, capacities for wood processing are twice as large as what Balkan forests can sustainably provide (2). The environmental group WWF addresses the issue in relation to climate change. They write,
“Forests have a critical role to play in the fight against global climate change. Forest loss accounts for up to 20% of global carbon emissions– more than all the cars, trucks, trains, planes, and ships in the world. By reducing forest loss, we can reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. It’s that simple”(4).
Let us remember the critical role forests play in our own lives, and act accordingly. No matter where you live, do research and purchase only sustainably harvested wood.
The following issues within Kopaonik national park are a result of tourism. The Minister of Environment and Spacial Planning, Oliver Dulic, estimated that “Kopaonik has never been dirtier and that it may lose the status of a national park as a result”(3).
Trash dumped throughout the park is a real issue. In an informative article titled, “The Most Prominent Management Problems in the National Park Kopaonik” experts Sumarac Predrag and Sakovic Biljana write, “In the winter, during the most frequent tourist activity, collection and removal of waste is on a very unsatisfactory level. Discharge cycles of garbage cans are irregular causing garbage deposition. Waste problems are additionally exacerbated by irresponsible visitors who dispose garbage along ski tracts. When the season is over and snow is gone, an unpleasant picture of tourist activity is revealed”(2).
Kopaonik also faces serious threat through illegal construction. The majority of homes are built illegally without permits. And without regulation, population levels, plus generated waste, greatly outweighs the mountains carrying capacity. Additionally, many hotels have exceeded the number of beds they are allowed, resulting in tourist overpopulation. And for the cherry on top!- Construction waste is simply dumped, just below the mountains highest peak or left to sit along roadways bordering fragile ecosystems (2).
But the dirtiest problem I’ve saved for last. According to the aforementioned Mr. Dulic, the capacity of public waste water treatment became “insufficient a long time ago” Sewage treatment capacity, he says, is 40% smaller than the existing connections built over the last 20 years and as a result, “feces water flows down the mountain” (3). Predrage and Biljana add, “Thanks to high altitude and cold winters Kopaonik’s sewage treatment facility hasn’t fulfilled its function and has been abandoned. Today, all sewage from Suvo Rudiste tourist center goes without any treatment directly into streams and forests below the sewage treatment facility. The environmental impact and related consequence on nature, especially on the national park river system is enormous”(2).
The Endemit environment group cried out in protest when part of Kopaonik national park had been cleared to create ski sports grounds (1). Tourist generated income can be beneficial for local economies, but not when it comes at a higher cost- the exploitation and destruction of the very wilderness that attracts visitors in the first place. Serbia must be persuaded that a future in tourism needs to work with what nature has provided.
But because Kopaonik national park is seriously understaffed and receives very little economic support from governing systems, it is disempowered to correct the problems it faces. If financial support was offered from the state, it would relieve pressure to rely on wood harvesting and overpopulation of tourism. But until that happens it needs to find alternate sources of funding. Before anything else, it must correct it’s sewage treatment system. After that, it could focus on generating money from eco-tourism activities. For example, if trails were better maintained and properly marked, more people would come to experience the profound beauty of the summer and autumn season. Guided tours focusing on the rich diversity of the region could also be a huge source of revenue. A museum of local human and geologic history is another possibility. Additionally, steep fines for littering and illegal commercial activity should be strictly enforced. Posted warnings would strongly dissuade any such events from occurring in the first place. Ultimately, Kopaonik needs to get more creative and do whatever it takes to live up to its title as a National Park. Otherwise, it just might become extinct.