Olympus at mercy of illegal construction

THESSALONIKI – An illegal refuge that was recently under construction at Megali Gourna on the western slope of Mount Olympus has enraged environmental organizations in Pieria, which managed to get work stopped. It was the last straw for Friends of the Environment, a nonprofit organization in the northern Greek town of Katerini, and it galvanized them into taking further steps to protect the highest mountain in Greece. Olympus is in danger from many forms of illegal activity, from its foothills to its highest peak, they say. In this case the structure was being built next to an existing refuge at an altitude of 2,500 meters, just 400 meters below Mytika, the highest peak of Olympus. The incident has cast a spotlight on the management and protection of Olympus. Ecological and environmental organizations are fighting on all fronts, they say, to get a presidential decree signed that will put an end to illegal hunting, logging, road building and home construction that exploits loopholes in the law, as well as preventing the introduction of ski lifts, large hotel complexes and ski resorts. How can it be that the legendary mountain of the gods – the cradle of Greek mythology, a place of such historical, ecological, archaeological and cultural significance – is unprotected? «The National Park of Olympus was the first area in Greece to be protected by a decree in 1938,» Pavlos Andredakis, former director of the Pieria forestry service, told Kathimerini. The park covers a 3,850-hectare area that includes part of the summit and the eastern slope. But, as Andredakis explained, «while that area lies entirely within Pieria prefecture, the part of Olympus that belongs administratively to Larissa lies outside the park and is not protected.» Since 1985, various procedures have been set in motion to review and extend the protection, but the studies conducted have never acquired legal force, not even after the establishment of the National Park Management Body six years ago. The latest, a special environmental study, would expand the park to 23,800 hectares, but it has been kept on hold at the Environment Ministry for three years, say climbers and ecologists who held a meeting a few days ago at Litohoro. In July, representatives of Friends of the Environment and school pupils met Greek President Karolos Papoulias and asked him to use his influence to promote the decree. The current demarcation of the national park has often pitted different groups in Larissa and Pieria against each other. «The clash,» says Friends of the Environment member Dimitris Mavroidis, «arises from which Olympus we want: a mythical mountain with its unspoiled landscape, or an Olympus with roads, numerous refuges, hostels and other recreational amenities.»