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ICELAND: Road Threatens Heritage

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, May 9 2008 (IPS) - Environmentalists are concerned that a proposed new road will threaten the ecology of Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland&#39s second largest lake.

Lake Thingvallavatn. Credit: Lowana Veal

Lake Thingvallavatn. Credit: Lowana Veal

Lake Thingvallavatn has many unique features. A part of the lake lies within Thingvellir National Park, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List for its cultural significance, as it was the site of the world&#39s first parliament, established in the year 930 AD.

The site is also special in a geological sense, because it is one of only two places in the world (the other being the Great Rift Valley in East Africa) where the effects of drift of the massive slabs of rock that form the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates can be seen. The plain in between, which comprises most of the national park, is a rift valley.

Icelanders have a special fondness for the place, and the number of privately owned vacation houses is increasing in certain parts of the park and surrounding areas. Thingvellir is only about an hour&#39s drive from capital Reykjavik, so it is easily accessible – at least in summer. The road there can be impassable in winter.

Lake Thingvellir was designated a national park in 1930, but it was only in 2004 that it became listed as a UN World Heritage Site. Officials expect that the place will become more popular with tourists because of its UNESCO designation.

In 2001 the districts that now form the municipality of Blaskogabyggd pushed for a new road that could be used all year round, deal with increased traffic, and tolerate a speed limit of 90 km/h rather than 70 km/h on the present road. The road would link the educational town of Laugarvatn in Blaskogabyggd with Thingvellir, and would bring a 45-80 km shorter return journey for school children in the area who travel daily to Laugarvatn.

"The first road we proposed went through the park itself but was abandoned when the environmental impact assessment was thrown out after an appeal. So we came up with a number of other proposals," says Erna Hreinsdottir from the Icelandic Road Administration.

"The new road, which we are calling Lyngdalsheidarvegur, avoids the national park and is also better from our point of view as it is straighter and has less steep hills. The current road has slopes of up to 20 percent while we prefer roads to have slopes no more than 6 percent for safety reasons. There are four times more accidents on the existing road than on other comparable roads, while the new road lies 100 metres lower than the old one, leading to better road conditions in mid-winter."

But freshwater biologists are unhappy with the proposed new road, saying that it will lead to increased traffic at greater speeds, and will result in increased nitrogen pollution, leading to the lake appearing green rather than crystal clear.

A group of 27 freshwater biologists from Iceland and Scandinavia recently wrote to UNESCO about their concerns. Headed by university professor Gisli Mar Gislason, they point out that the lake is one of few in the world which has nitrogen-limited production, as well as being home to endemic species of fish and some rare crustaceans.

"The new road will lie by the spawning area of Arctic charr," Gislason told IPS. "The road could lead to increased pollution, in the form of nitrogen dioxide and nitrates, which would end up in the lake. Because of this, the main road should lie outside of the catchment area."

Hreinsdottir says that monitoring of nitrogen levels will take place between 2008 and 2012 to check that there are no adverse affects from traffic to the lake. But if there are, what then? "Good point," says Hreinsdottir.

The biologists want the existing road to be maintained and improved. "Completely out of the question," says Hreinsdottir. "Besides, there are many archaeological sites along the existing road that should not be touched. The biologists have no interest in those."

In Iceland, an archaeological relic is anything over 100 years old.

Professor emeritus Petur M. Jonasson from the Freshwater Biological Laboratory at Copenhagen University has conducted extensive research in the lake for the last 34 years, and has been at the forefront of the campaign against the new road. He appealed the decision on the proposed road to the environment minister, but the appeal was rejected.

However, debate has continued. A conservation organisation, Landvernd, has just conducted a survey on the Internet about which road Icelanders themselves want. "Lyngdalsheidarvegur may potentially threaten the status of Thingvellir national park on UNESCO&#39s World Heritage list, and so we take the matter seriously," says Bergur Sigurdsson from Landvernd.

"The beginning of the Act on Thingvellir states &#39Thingvellir and its vicinity shall be protected as a sanctuary for all Icelanders in the form of a national park&#39," he said. "In the last municipal elections there were only 625 on the electoral roll in Blaskogabyggd (Iceland has a population of 312,000). It is unreasonable that such a small municipality can take decisions that affect the interests of everybody. For this reason we consider it important that the nation has an opportunity to express its opinion."

The majority of the pollsters voted for the existing road.

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