As hundreds of Olympic spectators flocked to a sparkling white ski slope cutting through the rugged mountains of Jeongseon, the marquee venue of this year’s Winter Games, Cho Myung-hwan stepped back and looked up. He let out a sad chuckle.
“It’s dreadful to watch,” Cho, 62, a landscape photographer from Seoul, said as he examined the steep downhill course one day during the Olympics. “Under all the cheers and fun, there are the screams of buzzed-off trees.”
Cho has visited Mount Gariwang 16 times since 2006, including several trips after 2014 to document the construction of the slope, which was finished in late 2016. He pointed to a spot near the spectator stands where he said the last tree had stood — a 24-meter (78 foot)-high Manchurian walnut tree with red and yellow ribbons wrapped around its trunk. Locals had come to the tree for generations to pray for good luck, health and childbirth.
“I came here wondering whether there was a slight chance that the sacred tree would still be there,” he said. “But it isn’t.”
With the Pyeongchang Games just concluded, South Korea walks into a future with questions about the long-term environmental consequences of hosting an expensive sports event in one of its poorest, oldest and most underpopulated areas.
One major issue: the future of the scenic Jeongseon Alpine Center, which was built after some 60,000 trees were razed in a forest on the 1,560-meter (5,118 foot)-high Mount Gariwang. The area had been protected by the government in the past because of its old trees and botanical diversity.
The course was supposed to be demolished after the Olympics and restored to its natural state. Fierce criticism by environmentalists over the venue being built on a pristine forest caused construction delays that nearly forced pre-Olympic test events to be postponed.
But Gangwon provincial officials now say they want to keep the course, or at least a significant part of it, as a future “comprehensive leisure” zone. They also say it would be difficult for the province to foot the bill for the restoration project, which experts say could cost $90 million over 20 years.
A new hotel has already been built on the site; another is on the way. Regional officials talk of building mountain bike courses, sledding parks and concert halls to complement the ski course.
“It’s too late to talk about the environmental damage over Mount Gariwang,” Gangwon Province Gov. Choi Munsun said. “There’s no way to restore the forest 100 percent, and parts of the area should be used for sports facilities.”
Whether Gangwon gets space to develop will be decided by the Korea Forest Service’s central mountain management committee, which will determine the restoration’s scale and method. The committee rejected a tentative reforestation plan that Gangwon was required to submit, calling for more specifics.
Experts say it would be impossible to restore the forest entirely as it was.
During construction of the skiing course, workers dug out hundreds of trees from the slope and replanted them in nearby hills so that they could be transplanted back to their old spots after the Olympics. But nearly all of these trees are already dead or dying, said Seo Jae-chul, a senior activist from the environmental group Green Korea, who visited the area in December and January.
Video from the inspection trips provided by Seo also shows huge trees uprooted and fallen outside the slope’s boundaries, which he said was likely caused by the trees facing stronger winds in their new location. Construction workers also likely made soil disruption worse by bulldozing huge roads around the slope so they could move construction equipment more easily.
“This had been such a core area for biodiversity,” Seo said. “But it’s destroyed.”
Kim Yong-chul, a Gangwon official, said he couldn’t immediately confirm the state of the trees around the slope.
The 1.8 million square meters (19.8 million square foot) of woodland that was shaved for the Olympics had long been part of one of the country’s best-preserved pieces of nature.
The 16th-century kings of Korea’s Chosun Kingdom barred common people from entering the area because of its abundance of wild ginseng plants, whose roots have long been prized for supposed healing powers. The forest was also left unscathed during the 1950-53 Korean War and the earlier part of South Korea’s postwar industrialization that left the country with severe deforestation.
In 2008, the government designated the forest as a “forest genetic resources reserve,” prohibiting unauthorized entrance into the area.
The national government lifted the protection on the area in June 2012 at the request of Gangwon officials and Olympic organizers, who said they could find no other spot near Pyeongchang to fit an Olympic-size downhill course. The International Ski Federation requires alpine courses to be longer than 3 kilometers (1.86 miles), have an altitude difference of more than 800 meters (2,624 foot) from start to finish, and an average incline of higher than 17 degrees.
Critics say South Korea could have had a better shot at saving the forest had it embraced the International Olympic Committee’s “Agenda 2020” initiative announced in 2014. It called for creating a more compact games and allowing host cities to use existing venues to lower costs.
Then, South Korean officials quickly dismissed calls to move the downhill course away from Mount Gariwang, saying construction had already started and it was difficult to make such a significant change so close to the Olympics.
“If Gangwon Province had focused on (environmental) sustainability and considered future reforestation even as it proceeded with the construction, it might have found a more economic and compact way to build the ski course,” Seo said. “But they didn’t.”
Reviving the forest of Mount Gariwang would require a patient, creative approach. Instead of transplanting trees, workers would have to start from germinating seeds in the patches of soil around the slope that were less damaged, Seo said.
Kim Heung-sook, 57, one of the dozens of residents whose homes were moved to make way for the course, says she can’t wait that long for a forest that might never fully return.
Kim said life was much better in her old home, where she had a yard to grow corn, pepper and other crops. She now lives alone in a smaller house on a hill near the ski area’s entrance, subsisting off the money she received for the relocation.
It was painful to watch neighbors leave and see the destruction of a forest she knew for decades. But like so many in this poor and aging town, she needs to find a way to live.
“I want to see more development here — more hotels, more restaurants, wider roads. Then maybe there will be jobs for people like me,” she said. “If you were going to rebuild the forest, you shouldn’t have made the slope in the first place.”
Tong Hyung-kim, a Seoul correspondent for The Associated Press, spent much of February on assignment at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. Follow him on Twitter at @KimTongHyung.