Europe's finest forest put at risk by road 'disaster'

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The Independent Online

One of Europe's last areas of unspoilt forest is facing an unprecedented threat from the construction of a road through some of Romania's most precious and diverse countryside.

Environmentalists have warned the route could prove catastrophic for endangered species of animals and plants living in the southern Carpathians.

"This road will be the beginning of the end," said Gabriel Paun, programme campaigner for Greenpeace. "It is a disaster."

The region through which the national road, Route 66a, is being built is some of the most pristine in Europe. Stretching for more than 100,000 hectares through the west of Romania near the Retezat and Domogled national parks, the forest is home to thousands of species of flora and fauna, including 1,200 plant species, as well as bears, wolves and golden eagles.

It is also the only forest in central, southern and western Europe to be considered truly unspoilt - or "intact" - meaning it is one of the world's most important landscapes.

The road, which is supposed to connect the towns of Petrosani and Baile Herculane, is the subject of fierce debate in Romania.

Personally endorsed by the Romanian President, Traian Basescu, its construction was given a kick-start this summer when he visited the area and declared he wanted it built, "and that was that".

His support has given him a fresh boost in popularity among the population in Petrosani, a depressed former mining town which has borne the brunt of economic restructuring. The Jiu Valley was the focus of the former Communist leader Nikolai Ceausescu's intensive industrial growth programme, but now the area lies forgotten.

Unemployment levels are soaring, and supporters of the road point out that not only will it bring more jobs, but the accessibility could make the region more attractive to investment.

But environmentalists say it is too high a price to pay. "The road will mean the loss of about 10,000 hectares of intact forest, much of which is virgin forest with significant populations of large mammals and geologically diversity," Mr Paun said. "There are so many areas of forest in Europe that are already fragmented and damaged but here it is different. There are bears, foxes, lynx, wolves living truly in the wild in undisturbed nature. There are beech trees and pine forests that have stood here for hundreds of years."

While the construction is already having a negative impact on the local environment, it is the long-term effects of the route that campaigners fear the most.

Luminita Tanasie, of WWF Romania, said she was afraid the area would be transformed into a target for the tourist industry. "With this kind of road comes other kinds of development, mass tourism for example," she said, emphasising the potential effect on local wildlife. "A busy road will halve the number of species in the area. There will be no corridor for wildlife in the area."

The controversy comes at a sensitive time for Romania as it prepares to enter the European Union in January. While there is pressure from Brussels to improve the country's infrastructure to bring it into line with existing members, Romania's ecosystem means it has a duty to preserve its environmental heritage.

A response from both the environment and transport ministries was requested but none has been issued.