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China claims to hold the greenest Olympics. So why has it built a ski resort in the middle of a nature reserve?

But there's just one problem - it was built in the middle of a nature reserve.

According to satellite images and official maps analyzed by CNN, the ski resort tears through the former core area of ​​the Songshan National Nature Reserve, a park founded in 1985 to protect its dense forests, alpine meadows and rich biodiversity.

When Beijing won the bid for the 2022 Winter Games in 2015, the boundaries of the reserve had been redrawn to exclude the area where the ski run is now being built. The new boundaries cover a larger total area, but critics say it will hardly compensate for the loss of wildlife habitat and damage to the site's delicate ecosystem from the construction of the venue.

This apparent conflict with Beijing's green narrative comes amid growing questions about the environmental costs of the Games. Given the city's arid climate, it will depend solely on artificial snow - which experts warn would be a drain on energy and water resources.

And such environmental considerations will not end with the Olympics. As the Chinese government appears to be making Yanqing an international hotspot for skiing and building more ski slopes, conservationists fear it could cause further damage to local ecology.

The nature reserve

For decades, the Songshan National Nature Reserve has been a haven for many protected animal and plant species, including the golden eagle and rare orchids.

Under Chinese law, no one is allowed to enter the core area of ​​the reserve except scientific research with government approval. And a 2007 planning document obtained by CNN made it clear that development within the core area of ​​Songshan was prohibited.

So when Beijing won the offer to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, nature conservationists and nature enthusiasts were shocked to discover that the proposed alpine ski resort fell exactly within the core area of ​​the reserve on Xiao Haituo Mountain, Beijing's second highest peak.

A photo of Xiao Haituo Mountain in 2014 before it was transformed into an alpine ski resort for the Beijing Winter Olympics.
The discovery sparked an outcry on social media, with many internet users questioning why the Olympic venue should be built inside a nature reserve. Censors quickly moved in and deleted viral posts that attracted hundreds of thousands of clicks, but it only added fuel to the anger.
As the pressure increased, Zhang Suzhi, then deputy chief of Yanqing County, told the Beijing Daily State newspaper in 2015 that the boundaries of the Songshan National Nature Reserve had been redrawn and the Winter Olympics did not fall inside the reserve.
That seems to be what Chinese organizers also told the International Olympic Committee. In its evaluation report of Beijing's bid for the 2022 Olympics in June 2015, the IOC said the proposed ski area would be "next to" the reserve.

However, it noted that the proposed site is "part of the same mountain ecosystem" as the reserve, adding: "Development of ski resorts in this area will therefore require extensive ecological studies and mitigation measures to limit the environmental impact."

According to Zhang, the Yanqing official, the revised boundaries expanded the total area of ​​the nature reserve by 31% and added more types of vegetation.

"After the adjustment, the nature reserve is richer in biological resources, more complete in the ecosystem, stronger in water conservation and higher in conservation value," he told the Beijing Daily.

But Zhang brushed aside a crucial fact: the original core zone - including the highest peak, which experts say has the greatest biodiversity significance - was no longer part of the protected areas.

'It really is a great shame'

Chinese experts and environmental activists say an expansion of the reserve does not compensate for the loss of the original core area.

"This is really a big shame, because (the original core zone) is one of the very few places in northern Beijing that has alpine meadows," said a Chinese ecological expert, who asked not to be named for fear of consequences. "Such a unique ecosystem was the reason it was included in the original nature reserve in the first place."

And compared to other parts of the reserve, the core area also had a higher frequency of wildlife sightings, according to a biodiversity monitoring conducted between March 2013 and February 2014 by researchers at the reserve's administration office.

The Chinese ecologist criticized a lack of transparency in government decision-making. "It did not release any environmental impact assessment for public consultation," the ecologist said.

When construction of the National Alpine Ski Center began in 2017, environmentalists tried to seek answers.

Environmental lawyer Shi Dianshuo called on the government to release detailed information on the border change. The government rejected his request on the grounds that the information "involves state secrets," according to a statement issued by the Ministry of Environmental Protection issued by Shi online.

Unconvinced, Shi took the ministry to court to have the decision overturned.

A trial date was originally scheduled for February 2018, but a source with direct knowledge of the case told CNN that the hearing did not continue, nor was it recognized by the government or mentioned anywhere in state media. Shi rejected CNN's request for an interview.

To observe the disruptive impact of the ski slopes' construction on wildlife, researchers at the reserve's management office set up cameras throughout the new reserve in 2017 to monitor their activity.

"As the reserve is adjacent to the Yanqing Competition Zone, human activities have increased dramatically, and road transport and construction have affected the population size and behavior of wildlife in the area," the study noted.

The researchers found that nocturnal animals, such as leopard cats and larger badgers, had become much more active during the day - probably to avoid construction work on the ski slopes.

The National Alpine Ski Center is ready to welcome the world's best skiers at the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

In a Pre-Games Sustainability Report released this month, Chinese Olympic officials highlighted the conservation efforts during the construction of the Yanqing Competition Zone.

They included setting up wildlife corridors and installs more than 600 artificial nests in the competition zone, as well as transplantation of 11,027 plants and 24,272 trees to sites at the foot of the mountain.

But experts noted that the Songshan National Nature Reserve was completely unnamed in the 130-page report.

"Nowhere is the word 'nature reserve' mentioned, and nowhere is it said that the core area ... has been declassified and transferred to a new area," said Carmen de Jong, a geographer at the University of Strasbourg.

"If you destroy the upper high-altitude mountain ranges, there is no point in trying to keep an eye on the lower reaches because you have affected the very, very sensitive ecosystem," she added.

The Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment did not respond to CNN's request for comment on the border change.

One of the steepest slopes in the world

It is clear why Xiao Haituo mountain in the reserve was chosen to be the venue for the Winter Olympics - its vertical drop of 900 meters (2,952 feet) made it an almost perfect spot for what is now one of the world's steepest ski slopes.
To host an Olympic downhill run, the proposed ski resort must have a vertical drop of at least 800 meters (2,624 feet) - a requirement that excludes most mountains in Beijing. Across the provincial border in Hebei, however, there is no shortage of places that meet the standards of the Games, according to Chinese experts.
The starting zone of the National Alpine Ski Center has a maximum slope of 68 degrees.

The city of Zhangjiakou, for example, is already well-developed for winter sports and a popular ski destination in China.

"If it's just to hold the Olympics, many ski resorts in Hebei are good enough, there is no reason at all to touch the nature reserve," said the Chinese ecologist.

Instead, he suspects that financial considerations may be at stake. "Beijing does not want future winter sports revenue to be diverted to Hebei," he said.

Beijing's organizing committee did not respond to CNN's request for comment on whether it was aware that the ski resort was built inside the former core area of ​​the nature reserve.

In a response to CNN, the IOC said the development of the Yanqing Zone "transforms the region - a rural suburb of Beijing - into a major four-season tourist destination, improving lives and boosting the local economy."

The IOC - which has promised to make the climate of the Games positive in 2024 - also praised China for keeping its promise to hold a "carbon-neutral" game.

Saves wildlife

Beijing's ambitions for Yanqing are not limited to the Olympics. It has already announced plans to turn around territory to an international ski destination by the end of 2024. The goal is to expand its ski slopes to 100 acres and welcome more than half a million visitors a year.

Conservationists, however, fear that future developments could cause even more damage to the surrounding forests and wildlife.

"The increase in the number of people is what will cause a lot of pressure on the local ecology, which is the biggest concern," said a Chinese expert, who did not want to be named due to fears of consequences.

Luo Shujin, a nature conservation biologist at Peking University, has been studying wildlife around Yanqing for years. She tracked the feces of leopard cats on another mountain in Yanqing in December 2018 when she saw the ski slopes shining in the sun across the valley.

Luo was thrilled: "I was thinking of the famous pictures of a puma walking by the Hollywood sign in LA, and I asked myself: can we get a picture of a leopard cat walking along the alpine ski run at the Winter Olympics in Beijing? "

A leopard cat is caught on camera with the Olympic ski slopes in the background.
A ring-necked pheasant is captured on camera in the Songshan National Nature Reserve in 2019.

Due to the pandemic, Luo could not access the mountain for more than a year. When she finally returned in 2021, she got the shot she wanted.

In the picture, a leopard cat strolls casually into the frame of camera walking on snow, against the backdrop of white ski slopes on Xiao Haituo Mountain.

It ended up going viral. Conservationists saw it as a sign that rare wildlife could still thrive within miles of the ski resort.

But their future remains uncertain. If Yanqing's ski slopes continue to expand, analysts say it could threaten the surrounding ecosystems - including the existing nature reserve.

"A nature reserve should be protected, precisely because it has a fragile ecosystem," said the Chinese expert. "Given how close the ski resort is to the nature reserve, if a large amount of human activity continues for a long time, they are bound to cause great disturbance to the local ecology ... and perhaps even break the balance."

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