Bulgaria activists win case to save UNESCO-listed forest

Sofia (AFP) - Environmentalists in Bulgaria scored a victory Wednesday in a long-running court battle to prevent enlargement of a ski resort in the Pirin mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In a ruling that cannot be appealed, Bulgaria's supreme administrative court overturned controversial changes made by the government in December 2017 to the management plan for Pirin National Park.

The changes opened up 48 percent of the park's 40,000 hectares (almost 100,000 acres) of majestic pine forests to potential construction of new ski runs and lifts in the Bansko ski resort -- Bulgaria's biggest.

The court based its ruling on sections from a law on protected areas that "allow only maintenance, not the building of new sports facilities in the national parks".

It also cited a series of other Bulgarian laws and rulings by the EU Court of Justice that oblige the environment ministry to subject its management plans of the park to environmental impact assessments, which the court found it had not done.

"This is an important victory for us, even if we know that investors will continue their attempts to build (in Pirin)," Konstantin Ivanov from the Bulgarian office of conservation group WWF told AFP.

"The court ruling clearly states that no new construction is allowed and that every management plan for the park must have an environmental impact assessment," he added, expressing his hope that the decision would serve as a precedent to prevent future attempts to build in Pirin.

The "For the Nature" coalition of 23 environmentalist organisations also welcomed the ruling, posting on its Facebook page: "Victory for Pirin! Let's celebrate!"

The coalition urged people to gather in front of the government headquarters in the capital Sofia on Wednesday evening to demand the resignation of environment minister Neno Dimov.

Local residents in Bansko have largely favoured expansion as the resort is the largest employer in the region.

Recently Luxembourg skiing legend Marc Girardelli said he was the owner of the Bansko resort, although some MPs and environmentalists expressed doubts given the resort's opaque ownership structure.