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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on March 2)

All News 07:01 March 02, 2023

Keep Mount Seorak
No more ugly cable cars in national parks, please

Mount Seorak is the most scenic mountain in South Korea, renowned for its rugged and natural beauty.

The national park is preserved by five protective layers, including the state-designated natural reserve and a UNESCO-designated biosphere reserve. Five specialized organizations, including the state-run Korea Environment Institute, recently presented negative opinions on installing cable cars on the mountain, citing potential damage to its ecosystem.

All this shows why the central government could resist the locality's four-decade-long attempt to build more artificial facilities to bolster tourism.

On Monday, however, the Ministry of Environment granted a conditional nod to the cable car project. The reason: The tourism boost program was a campaign pledge of both President Yoon Suk Yeol and Gangwon Province Governor Kim Jin-tae.

The ministry must reconsider its decision and live up to its name.

If the project goes as planned, steel towers will blight the magnificent vistas. Besides, the 3.3-kilometer section from the starting point to the peak is the habitat of endangered animals, including mountain goats and rare plants. These animals can't stand the noise from construction and the operation of cable cars, which will carry more than 800 passengers per hour. Such fragile ecosystems, once destroyed, can hardly recover.

Proponents of the project say cable cars will create some 14 billion won ($10.7 million) in additional tourism revenue a year. That will be too small and short-lived a benefit compared to the permanent damage to the priceless natural environment. Contrary to residents' expectations, cable cars will unlikely prolong but instead shorten tourists' stay in the area. The influx of short-staying visitors will require vast parking spaces, destroying forests.

Instead, residents can consider introducing ecological tour programs, currently in vogue among national parks overseas, including the Milford Track in New Zealand and Japan's Alpen Route. Proponents also cite the case of Switzerland, with some 2,400 cable cars dotting the Swiss Alps. The president also said, "Why can't we turn Mount Seorak into the Jungfrau of Korea?" However, even the tiny European country does not operate a cable car in the Swiss National Park. Japan runs some 20 cable cars in national parks, but has not installed one since the early 1970s.

These developers should see how Zion National Park in Utah endeavored to save the desert bighorn sheep from near extinction by banning restaurants and stores there. Yellowstone National Park has raised its entrance fee to 80,000 won during five peak months to restrict visits. A similar move in Korea will trigger a revolt among mountaineers. The user density of Mount Seorak is 20 times higher than Yellowstone's. Developers here even call for running cable cars in Mount Bukhan on the outskirts of Seoul, the most crowded national park worldwide, which has a peak that is reminiscent of subway stations during weekends.

Proponents even stress the need to give opportunities to the elderly and physically challenged to enjoy views from the peak. One cannot help but laugh. Cable cars will make little difference for these disabled people when barrier-free trails account for only 2 percent of the total. They need not stand on mountaintops, but move freely on flat land daily. These politicians are not even allowing people in wheelchairs to use subways a little more conveniently.

Suppose the government allows cable cars on Mount Seorak. In that case, it will have few excuses to prevent at least four national parks from following its example. Almost all scenic places in this country are already filled with artificial facilities, including swinging bridges and skywalks. If national parks are added to such an ugly list, the present-day Koreans must feel sorry for their descendants.

Contemporary people do not own this planet and nature, but borrow them for a while from future generations. They must return it as intact as possible. National parks are for preservation, not development.

The environment ministry must set conditions that are almost impossible to meet in order to minimize environmental harm to avoid being called the "ministry of environmental destruction."

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