GB No. 9, autumn 1992


Walking from KuĽnice down to Hala G±sienicowa, we break our journey at Skupniowy Upłaz. It is clearly seen from this place that Podhale is an extremely tightly developed area, and practically forest less at that. If we encounter a wind less, autumn or winter day, we are bound to see Zakopane covered with a thick coat of smoke and exhaust fumes. Figuratively speaking, the powerful bulldozer of civilization has reached the foot of the mountains, knocking down everything on its way.

The Tatras, being the only Alpine mountains between the Alps and the Caucasus, are no ordinary mountains. They are also the highest in the huge Carpathian curve stretching from Poland through Slovakia, Ukraine, Moldova, to Romania. All manner of natural wonders fills the small, rectangular area the sides of which are 9 by 33 miles (of which merely 1/4 is Polish). Tapering granite crags, formidable, yet gently rounded; a fairy-tale world of limestone rocks: spiral canyons with vertical walls, caves, grottos and underground streams. The Tatras abound with post-glacial, extraordinarily transparent lakes; in Czarny Staw right at the foot of the Rysy peak you can see stones at the bottom through a stretch of water 50 feet deep.

Nature in the Tatras, small though the mountains are, has retained many primeval traits. Bears eat raspberries in sunny windfalls. The lynx, the largest wild cat inhabiting Europe, lurks in the backwoods. Wolves sneak unnoticed through the trees. Many species of animals and plants, unheard-of in the natural environment elsewhere in Poland, are encountered in the Tatras, like the chamois and the marmot, the stone pine and the edelweiss.

The extraordinary character of the mountains has moulded the people of Podhale; their character, customs and manner, set them apart from Polish standards. It has also moulded the unique architecture, marked today by only few huts, which are master pieces of woodwork.

The proximity of the mysterious, wild, formidable and beautiful mountains must have in spired artists pursuing various forms of art. All together, the nature, folk culture, old-time methods of farming implemented by the Tatra mountain people, and the atmosphere created by the people attracted to the mountains, make up the region's natural environment. At the same time, however, the rapid and widespread development of civilization calls into question the existence of such an environment.

Many factors are involved; let us only call attention to some of them, starting from the most hazardous for man and nature.

Poisonous gases and smoke over the Tatras are coming from two sources: from Zakopane and nearby villages, and from faraway industrial centres of Poland and Slovakia. Zbigniew Krzan, head of a research unit of the High Tatra National Park, says that over 50% of the pollution is of local origin. Houses in Podhale are heated using sulphurous coal and coke. Sulphur dioxide, produced by burning sulphur, combines in the air with water particles to produce sulphuric acid. Zakopane itself has been a source of 2,000 tons of sulphur dioxide a year, and this, in turn, produces acid rain and acid fog. The condition of the spruce forests, the most sensitive to pollution, is identical to that of the Karkonosze mountains' forests 8 years before their annihilation. Merely 20% of the beeches, 6% of the spruces, and 2% of the firs inspected in the High Tatra National Park showed no traces of impairment. The forests of the Ko¶cieliska Valley are bound to die first, experts maintain.

A very rapid development of the motor industry has been another source of pollution; exhaust fumes penetrate into the high mountain valleys. It has been noticed already a few years ago that the lead content in the soils of Mała Ł±ka is ten times greater than in the other, less developed regions of Poland.

Dead fish have been observed to keep afloat in the Tatras in over acidified lakes and streams. This happens during the spring thaw and after prolonged rains.

The soil of Krzeptówki near Zakopane has been contaminated down to 70 feet by the leaking tanks holding faecal matters. Water from all springs, streams and wells is undrinkable, to give just one example.

The Tatra ski-lifts and cable railways have been referred to as the "unpolished beauty of steel constructions" at a symposium on that topic held in Zakopane. The skiing lobby in Podhale is powerful indeed, and the railways earn huge profits. The looming threat, then, is that we are going to see the "unpolished beauty" of steel constructions in the place of the unpolished beauty of the mountains.

The local people, influenced throughout the ages by the nature of the mountains, have displayed strong resistance to the outside world's difficulties, and have shown great initiative. The burgeoning urban development of Podhale has its source in this go-ahead attitude. The urban development has contributed not only to the destruction of nature; it has rebounded on its creators as well. The image of a thin and sinewy mountaineer, symbolised by the folk singer and story-teller Sabała, is being replaced by the image of a chubby-cheeked and red-nosed pot belly.

Another paradox has been that nearly all people resist the institution of a national park; at the same time, however, the natural advantages of the Tatras, protected by the park, are crucial for the wealth of the Podhale people, since most of them live off of the tourists coming there. Who is going to come to the Tatras should the trees be withered, the chamois extinct, and the stream nothing but poisonous water?

How to avoid this extremity, then?

Nature has endowed the Podhale region with effective means of defense against the ongoing destruction of the environment. Man's task is merely to set them going. There are reservoirs of water 70 centigrades hot, one and a half miles down in the ground. Jan Nagel, head of the Geosynoptic and Environment Study of the Polish Academy of Sciences, can see no technical obstacles in utilizing the reservoirs for heating houses in Podhale. The first geothermal plant ever in Poland was set to work at Bańska (between Zakopane and Nowy Targ) on November 1st. The hot water flowing from the reservoir has been used for heating a greenhouse and a wood dryer. 40 similar plants have been in operation near Paris in France; they supply heat to the housing estates inhabited all together by 400,000 people.

Another neglected source of energy has been the natural water slope of the streams. The power of 2,500 kW would be gained by a mere reopening of the small water power plants that had been operated in Podhale (except Zakopane) between the two world wars.

Gasification of Zakopane has been started, but is hampered by high costs. The problem of the ever-rising pollution of Podhale by the exhaust fumes, however, has been totally neglected by the local authorities, while there are proven methods like unleaded petrol, catalyctic converters, electric transportation and bicycles.

The problems described so far are merely a rough sketch of the cumulative problems. What is more valid, however, is that it is possible and worth while to save the Tatras from the grinding bulldozer of civilization. For many people, the above-signed included, the Tatras are the most beautiful mountains in the world.

Marek Grocholski
"Han. Magazyn Ekologiczny"
transl. by Sigillum Ltd.

GB No. 9, autumn 1992 | Contents