The fortunes of the wolves, bears and lynx that roam the hills around Turin may the best indicator of how green the 2006 Winter Olympics are.
Environmental issues haven't created the buzz in Turin that they have at past Olympics, largely because assessing the Games is left to the host nation's environmental groups, and only two have really weighed in: the Italian and European Alpine chapters of the World Wildlife Fund.
The nation's Greenpeace chapter has been too busy trying to stop Japanese whaling to make an assessment, said Gabriela Solari, a Greenpeace organizer in Italy. "We're working more globally than locally," he said.
The Italian WWF issued a report just two days before the Games. Overall, it gave the organizers a C, but the guts of the report expressed concern about:
- New ski jumps and a bobsled run that required clearing forests when existing courses in neighboring France could have been used.
- Reliance on artificial snow which, the report said, weighs as much as five times more than real snow and damages the ground, in addition to requiring millions of gallons of water.
- “Exceptions to environmental, landscape and urban planning” laws.
But Michele Candotti, the secretary general of WWF Italy, said "the balance for the environment can be considered positive. ... Turin 2006 is a starting point, a model by which the interests of sports and those of the environment can at last be reconciled.”
He cited the Olympic Village, which was built to environmental code, and most of the sports sites, which are in urban areas and will have uses after the Olympics.
Sergio Savoia, head of the WWF European Alpine chapter, said he might have been tougher than the Italian chapter on the concerns about the bobsled and ski jump areas eating up forests.
“I tend to issue stronger statements, but then I get chastised,” he told MSNBC.com.
He added, though, that he accepted Italian chapter's position that it can make more progress by collaborating with the Games' organizers rather than simply criticizing them.
He said his group's main concern was damage to animal habitat.
Will wolves adapt?
Hunters killed off the region's wolves in 1921, but they were reintroduced a few years ago. A protected species in much of Europe, some 250 wolves are thought to roam all of Italy.
Francesca Marucco, a researcher leading a European Union study on the wolves, believes one pack that had been near the new ski jump hills has moved on.
“There are two big problems — the fragmentation of habitat and the destruction of habitat. Of course, the wolves will adapt somewhat to the changes. But there will be a loss of habitat which will affect all the species,” including bears and lynx, Marucco told Reuters recently.
Promise to be greenest
The organizers of the Turin Games say this year's competition is the greenest ever.
The organizing committee said it planted trees, and used energy-efficient technology and renewable energy to offset fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide, which are tied to global warming.
“This is the first time that an Olympic event will be able to offset all the carbon emissions produced during the event,” Ugo Pretato, the committee’s environmental director, said in November.
The organizers also cited these green strategies:
- Increased public transportation options to get to Olympic events.
- Snow-making machines that use less water, easing strains on local supplies.
- Trucking tons of sewage to urban treatment facilities so it doesn’t pollute small mountain areas.
The U.N. Environment Program and the European Union praised the measures.
Environmentalists were much more focused on the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia, and the 2006 Summer Games in Athens. Underscoring the inconsistency in assessing the environmental effects of the Games, Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund issued in-depth reports on both events.
Salt Lake experience
The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City also didn’t get much scrutiny from environmentalists, but Lisa Smith, a Utah activist, says she looks back and sees a "significant" lasting impact from the Games.
Smith said that in the rush to get ready for the Games, environmental rules were bent when hotels and ski resorts sought to clear forests for various events. The prime example, she said, was the expansion of the Snowbasin ski area, the only Olympic venue that was within a national forest. In that case, the developer won an exemption from a federal environmental review.
Savoia, of the WWF European Alpine program, said the Olympics are not "the enemy” — what needs to change is how the Olympics are staged.
He said there should be a fixed set of host cities so that new infrastructure isn’t always being built, especially in pristine areas.
“It’s the system itself that needs to be discussed,” he said. “We don’t need it to be a traveling show.”