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Wednesday, 1 August, 2001, 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK
Tourist threat to Arctic
Arctic female wolf BBC
Animals like wolves are sharing their habitat with tourists
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Conservationists have issued a new warning about the threat posed by tourism and development in the Arctic.

They say the environment is so sensitive that even a single off road vehicle ride can destroy shrubs and entire meadows.

Some of the most productive landscapes are being slowly nibbled away

Bruce Forbes, University of Lapland
And a walker trampling through grass is capable of changing the face of the landscape.

The scientists, from Finland, Denmark and North America, say the Arctic landscape is being "slowly nibbled away" by human encroachment.

"The small-scale impacts heal very slowly," Bruce Forbes of the University of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland, told BBC News Online.

The growth of ecotourism was affecting all sectors of the Arctic, he said, in addition to large-scale threats associated with oil drilling, mining and military activity.

Reindeer BBC
Over-grazing by domestic reindeer can damage vegetation
The team looked at how well plants recovered from the effects of human activity, including mining, military exercises, heavy reindeer grazing and recreation such as camping, hiking and the use of off-road vehicles.

They found that it took 20-75 years for vegetation to grow back and then only in relatively small areas of destruction.

The driving of vehicles off road in summer caused widespread damage, leading to the death of small shrubs, the draining of meadows and the melting of permafrost.

Arctic wildlife
Large populations of wild caribou
Nesting ground for shore and water birds
Grazing ground for domestic reindeer
Trampling by pedestrians favoured the growth of grasses and willows at the expense of other plants.

The research comes amid controversy over plans by the US to open up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling. Russian and northern European energy companies are already operating in the Arctic.

"We suggest that serious consideration should also be given to the less visible effects of seemingly benign recreational activities that inevitably accompany tourism development," said Dr Forbes in the journal Conservation Biology.

According to a recent report by the conservation group WWF, up to 80% of the Arctic will be affected by mining, oil and gas exploration, ports, roads and other developments by 2050 if industrialisation continues at current rates.

See also:

12 Jun 01 | Americas
Arctic wilderness at risk
30 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Arctic 'getting greener'
09 May 01 | Americas
Clash over Arctic reserves
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