Niklas Gerhardsson at Better Moments AS said he's feeling abandoned. The company, whose operations include guided tours on snowmobiles, has for two years had a camp out in the field that has been used as a staging and dining space. This year the company applied to exchange the Sami tent they are now using for a small cabin on skids, which would removed from the site in late April. But the governor rejected the application for the temporary installation.
"It gets a little bit hopeless," Gerhardsson said. "At the annual meeting, the governor stated to Visit Svalbard that to a greater degree than previously there should be dialogue with the industry. What we have experienced so far is the lack of dialogue, long processing times and little flexibility."
Better Moments applied to place the temporary installation mounted on a sled out in Bromdalen, with an alternate location in Bødalen. Both positions – one inside and the other outside Nordenskjold Land National Park – were denied.
The first argument made by the governor is the building is "highly unconventional architecturally in the context of Svalbard." The governor's environmental protection department refers to it as a barbecue hut and asserts it will, to a greater extent than a Sami tent, "break up the continuous and essentially untouched landscape."
The company argues there is a cabin at Kapp Lee on Edgeøya, set up in 1904, which has the same shape as the building they want to use.
The environment department also expressed concerns about setting a precedent by allowing the non-traditional and mobile structure.
Polar bear protection
Better Moments stated in its application the Sami tent is difficult to use as gathering and dining spots because of practical issues. A Sami tent is much more vulnerable to wind and weather, and therefore require more attention. Also, a Sami tent is easy for inquisitive polar bears to enter. Offering guests better protection against polar bears is one of the main reasons why the company states it wants to use a sold mobile building. The governor's office was not persuaded by argument.
"Based on what is described in the application, it may appear that the current routines for polar bear protection have changed since last year, and that polar bear safety is now not being properly taken care of according to camping regulations."
Gerhardsson said he believes the governor's environmental department is turning the company's argument upside-down.
"The fact that we want to have even better protection against polar bears does not mean that we have failed to be safe in a proper manner before," he said.
Better Moments has filed a complaint about the refusal to the Norwegian Environment Agency, with one aspect of the appeal claiming discrimination. Svalbard Wildlife Expeditions AS has had permission to put a lightweight cabin on skids in Fulmardalen since 2000. But the governor's office, in its response to the appeal, notes in 2014 it was emphasized the permit should not be considered a precedent for subsequent cases.
Spitsbergen Travel also received permission to set up a sauna at its cabin in Brentskaret despite the fact there was already the maximum allowable square meters of construction there, again with the stipulation it was not a benchmark. The governor argues the sauna is considered a secondary building to the cabin and the case therefore cannot be compared with that of Better Moments.
The complaint by Better Moments and Gerhardsson should be rejected primarily because the cabin appearance would "stand out," according to the governor's response. But Gerhardsson said he believes that claim is based on guesswork.
"The environment protection department writes that they will not deny that there may be granted licenses for deployment of temporary structures in the field, but they need a clarification on the type of facilities that are allowed," he said. "That means it is the environmental protection department's taste being expressed and not something that is written in the law. It would perhaps have been better if we had applied to use a square building."
Gerhardsson said he doesn't think the case bodes well for investment in tourism in the future.
"When it presents so much difficulty for a small company to take a small action that does not disturb the natural values in any way it becomes difficult to imagine that it will be possible to invest properly in the future," he said.
Not a fiber glass igloo either
Svalbard Villmarkssenter AS (SVS) is involved with so-called ecotourism operations focusing on, for example. guided dogsledding tours. The company applied to put two small fiberglass structures, dubbed igloos, which have a floor space of seven square meters each on its property. Tour operator Better Moments was hoping to use the igloos as rest areas during the season and remove them when the winter season is over.
These small «igloos» are not acceptable either. FOTO: Christopher Engås
But The Governor of Svalbard's environmental protection department denied the application, prompting a complaint from SVS. In it, Karl Våtvik refers to several legal texts suggesting efforts to support ecotourism are to be encouraged.
"Svalbard, with its unique but vulnerable nature, should and must be at the forefront of non-motorized traffic in accordance with the Svalbard Environment Act Svalbard and Parliament's white paper no. 22/2008-2009," he wrote.
The rejection of SVS' application is based on the visual impact to nature as well as the traffic generated by such tourists. Våtvik notes in the complaint the traffic the governor believes is harmful is actually the type of traffic desired in the white paper because it involves dogsledding.
But even if the traffic is a desired type of traffic, it is not okay to have temporary rest stops for this traffic in the form of small fiberglass huts, according to the governor's office.
"The design, color and material means that fiberglass huts will emerge as a foreign element in the landscape," the environmental protection department wrote in its rejection. "Fiberglass cabins are not designed as something that's a traditional building on Svalbard, but a structure many will associate with urban areas."
Offering a branch to Better Moments, the governor's office declared there is a need for a "further clarification on the type of temporary installations that best safeguard the wilderness character and landscape."
But until that is done, the answer a flat-out no.
Attempts by Svalbardposten to reach Knut Fossum, the governor's chief environmental officer, were unsuccessful as of presstime. Among the answers sought is who decides what constitutes if something has Svalbard "character" and if that is required by law for temporary installations in the field.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini