A TRAFFIC BAN WHEN THERE’S LITTLE TRAFFIC? Governor again proposes closing popular snowmobile areas to motorized access; angry locals say reasons and impact are sickening

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Closing some of the most popular snowmobiling areas surrounding Longyearbyen to motorized traffic this year to protect wildlife hunting and breeding areas is again being proposed by The Governor of Svalbard, similar to closures enacted for the past three years.

Except this year there’s an epidemic of protests due to a huge and obvious difference: the amount of traffic is likely to be drastically lower due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has already decimated tour operators for the past year without even more hardships being piled on due to access restrictions.

The affected areas (see maps below) are Billefjorden, Tempelfjorden and Van Mijenfjorden, including Rindersbukta and Fridtjovhamna. The deadline to submit comments to the governor is Tuesday.

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A map shows nearly all of Billefjorden would be closed to motorized traffic, except for one small area (shaded in blue) where crossing the ice to and from Pyramiden would be permissible under a proposed traffic ban for this season. Map by The Governor of Svalbard.

Traffic bans were enacted in parts of west Spitsbergen beginning in 2018 because people were disrupting polar bears and seals in sea ice areas – both due to high traffic and deliberately venturing close to the animals – in violation of the Svalbard Environmental Protection Act. The intrusion worsened what is already a troubling situation in the area due a drastically lower amount of sea ice due to climate change, which bears rely on to hunt and seals to breed.

The proposed closures would ban motorized traffic in nearly all of Billefjorden (except one small strip where a direct crossing on the ice to Pyramiden is allowed), in the inner half of Templefjorden (while the rest could only be crossed as quickly and directly as possible), apply the direct-crossing rule to nearly all of Van Mijenfjorden (while closing off a small portion of one inlet entirely).

The closures remained in place last year despite a near-total dropoff of tourism when the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic in early March. In a letter announcing this year’s proposed closures, the governor stated there are enough unknown factors to consider the traffic ban despite the likelihood of another low-tourism season.

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The inner half of Templefjorden would be banned to motorized traffic, while the outer half would be accessible only for direct crossings, according to a proposed traffic ban for this spring. Map by The Governor of Svalbard.

“The governor naturally does not know at the present time what the coming season will be like in terms of ice conditions, the presence of polar bears on the ice, tourism’s traffic pattern and scope, etc.,” the letter states. “The proposed changes are largely based on experiences from previous years, as well as the current knowledge base. Changes in these premises may lead to adjustments in the proposed rules.”

Input is being sought “on the areas and delimitations that are proposed.”

“We also ask for input on how the consultation parties will use the areas and how the parties will be affected by any traffic restrictions in these areas,” the letter states.

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Nearly all of Van Mijenfjorden will remain open to motorized traffic, but only for direct crossings across the sea ice, under the governor’s proposed traffic ban for this season. Map by The Governor of Svalbard.

But the fact the governor is proposing to close the areas this season based on an “unknown” is angering many locals who argue the lack of data – and high likelihood traffic will again be drastically lower than normal due to the pandemic – means the government is imposing yet more crippling restrictions on both the ability to travel and earn a living.

“Svalbard residents and local companies must be allowed to use the environment in a sensible way without unnecessary rules,” wrote Jason Roberts, a local film and TV producer, in a post on a local Facebook page that generated a proliferation of responses of near-unanimous agreement. “The governor’s abuse of power and arrogance, lack of democracy, and on top of everything a regulation that is not based on professional facts.”

In a separate online interview, Roberts stated his accusations are because “the science and research findings of the so called ‘disturbance’ is not solid enough to necessitate a ban on motorised traffic. At the same time legally they must way the community’s needs (locals and businesses) against the negative effect of traffic on the wilderness. neither of these hold up to the argument for closing.”

Yann Rashid, a local tour guide and logistics experts, stated “if tourism and local usage is well managed it shouldn’t be necessary to close the fjords down on an annual basis. After all it has been encouraged, above anything, to develop tourism to maintain sovereignty.”

But since the proposal isn’t final yet, “this time ’round the door is slightly open so let’s not get it shut. The more people who write in, the better.”