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|Making changes to stay the same
Long-term policy plan sees challenges in keeping Svalbard pristine
Norway's government likes what Svalbard has become, but has serious concerns about where it may be going.
Those conclusions are in a long-term policy outline for the archipelago released Friday. The 121-page "white paper" states coal mining should continue and will likely remain the region's dominant economic base for some time, but the growth of tourism, education and research are helping ensure long-term economic and social development.
"Svalbard policy is successful, with a broad political consensus over time," the report states (translation of the document and statements by officials in this article are by computer, with editing for clarity by Icepeople). "In the last decade Longyearbyen has become a modern family society and they have managed to preserve the unique wilderness nature."
Issues such as global warming and resource development present significant challenges to maintaining Svalbard's pristine environment, according to the report. While those issues will require constant attention and action, overall governing objectives outlined in white papers issued in 1985-86 and 1999-2000 "provide sufficient flexibility and robustness, both in terms of trade-offs of different considerations and in relation to development in general on the archipelago."
The overall goals in the government's Svalbard policy are:
• Consistent and firm enforcement of sovereignty.
"The government sees the northern areas (of Norway) as their most important strategic priority area," said Knut Storberget, Norway's justice minister, in a prepared statement. He added, "Svalbard has unique qualities that the government feels a responsibility to take care of."
Norwegians officials considered and rejected changing Svalbard's sovereignty policy that allows any nationality to visit and work openly. They also rejected limiting the number of residents allowed.
The biggest news for local officials is a recommendation mining operations continue, within tight environmental limits and using existing infrastructure as much as possible. The report estimates Longyearbyen's population, now about 2,000, would decrease 40 percent without mining.
"The most pleasure that we have is a final clarification of continued coal operations, which has been the most important issue for us," said Longyearbyen Mayor Kjell Mork in an interview with the NTB news agency. "If the government had come to the opposite conclusion, it would raze a well-functioning society."
At the same time, the report notes coal is a non-renewable resource and subject to variables such as price fluctuations. Also, the lifespan of current coal plants is expected to last only until 2020, necessitating new facilities for coal, diesel, oil or natural gas. It supports plans by Longyearbyen officials to study the area's long-term power supply, as well as efforts to continue diversifying the economic base.
"Unforeseen events can have major consequences for business," the report states. "In light of this opinion, the government should work to facilitate research, education and tourism in a way that will ensure a robust basis for the town of Longyearbyen."
A key factor in economic activity is how global warming affects the region, since Arctic temperatures are expected to increase at twice the worldwide average.
"This could lead to major changes in the physical environmental conditions, and have serious consequences for species and ecosystems on Svalbard," the report states. "Projected reductions in sea ice expansion will also affect the environment in that vulnerable areas are easily accessible to traffic and other activities."
Efforts to support a growing international presence of researchers and students should continue, according to the report.
"Svalbard will be increasingly important as a source of knowledge on climate processes and consequences of climate change," Storberget said. "This is also an important part of our northern strategy, that we should be in the forefront internationally in the development of knowledge about, for and in northern areas."
Further development of tourism is also encouraged, with an emphasis on ecotourism and expanding year-round activities so more full-time employment is possible.
"At the same time, it is a goal that Svalbard will be one of the best-managed wilderness areas and the best-preserved high Arctic destination in the world," the report states. "The tourism industry also spreads knowledge of the fragile environment and the environmental challenges in the Arctic."
Protection of natural areas expanded significantly between 2002 and 2005, according to the report, with 65 percent of land and 87 percent of territorial waters now classified as nature reserves and national parks. But efforts to control traffic will be necessary, such as one banning cruise ships with more than 200 passengers from the nature reserves of East Svalbard, and more visitors may also create security concerns.
Global warming also presents opportunities in the fishing and shipping industries as previously frozen waters thaw, as well as allowing Svalbard to serve as a base for emergency operations in the northern seas. That may mean efforts to develop areas outside of existing settlements
"The increasing traffic must first and foremost meet with preventive measures that reduce the likelihood of accidents, and that limits the consequences if accidents occur," the report notes.
Resource development is also a political hotbed issue as the five countries bordering the Arctic Ocean – Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Norway, Russia and the United States – are disputing sovereignty over parts of the region. Norway recently received United Nations backing for extending its continental shelf by 235,000 square kilometers, gaining exploration rights for nearly 2 million square kilometers offshore, but remains in a dispute with Russia about the rights to potentially oil-rich areas of the Barents Sea.
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