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Bacolod City, Philippines Monday, February 29, 2016
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with ERROL A. GATUMBATO
OPINIONS

Closing a mountain for mountaineering
1st of two parts

I was reminded of the closure for mountaineering of the Mount Kanlaon Natural Park in Negros Island, two decades ago, after I recently learned that authorities at the Mount Pulag National Park are considering similar action, too.

It was in 1996 when I, as the then Protected Area Superintendent of the MKNP, recommended to the Protected Area Management Board the closing of the mountain from trekking, due to a number of pressing issues and concerns. There were oppositions from several mountaineering groups, but the PAMB stood firm to impose the closure. It was a decision worth sharing again and again, so that other protected areas, particularly those sites with similar features to MKNP, may be able to learn some lessons and insights from it.

The prime consideration for the possible closure of Mount Pulag in Luzon is reportedly due to damages created by the influx of visitors during the past years. The peak of Mount Pulag, towering at 2,922 meters above sea level, is the highest in the entire Luzon and 3 rd highest all over the Philippines, making it one of the favorite mountain destinations not only of local trekkers, but foreigners, too. Thousands are flocking to the area every year.

Mount Pulag straddles several municipalities covering the provinces of Benguet, Nueva Vizcaya, and Ifugao. It is famous for its deep ravines, steep terrain and the so-called “cloud forest”. A trek to Mount Pulag is popularly known as an adventure above clouds, because there is a point where one is actually above the hovering clouds. Aside from mountaineering attractions, Mount Pulag is similarly identified as one of the Key Biodiversity Areas of the Philippines, since it harbors numerous species of flora and fauna in various habitat types.

In August 1996, the Kanlaon Volcano exploded without prior indication, and at that time, there were 18 trekkers at the summit. The phreatic explosion took the lives of three trekkers, while several others were wounded. The incident reminded us that the four-kilometer radius from the crater is actually a permanent danger zone, as classified by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, and, therefore, it is supposedly close to all human activities.

The Phivolcs recommended the implementation of strict safety measures and standards if we will continue to allow trekking at the summit of the MKNP. While we were planning what safety measures shall be carried out, we saw the need to close the MKNP from trekking.

We conducted assessment on the impacts of mountaineering at the park, and our findings showed there were numerous trails leading to the summit, and they were expanding, to the extent of degrading the natural vegetation. Some areas were also cleared of vegetation to serve as campsites. Numerous hikers, especially those from surrounding communities, were engaged in cutting natural growing trees for their camping tents and firewood. We noticed several graffiti that were engraved in big stones near the crater, and even in some giant trees. Solid wastes were cluttered in trails and campsites.

During the Holy Week in 1996, we found out the unregulated entry, not only of mountaineers, but thousands of faith healers who were in pilgrimage at the crater of the volcano during the Good Friday. These healers started trekking on Holy Thursday and camped overnight near a cave at the Margaha Valley, a dormant crater just below the present and active crater of the Kanla-on Volcano. At the campsite of these healers, we found out clearing and cutting of high elevation growing trees and gathering of plants believed to have medicinal values. However, we were not able to make immediate actions, because our team was outnumbered, and several unknown persons holding bladed weapons were surrounding us. ( To be continued ) *


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