JEONGSEON, South Korea—As hundreds of Olympic spectators flocked to a sparkling white ski slope cutting through the rugged mountains of Jeongseon, the marquee venue of this year’s Winter Games, Cho Myung-hwan stepped back and looked up. He let out a sad chuckle.
“It’s dreadful to watch,” Cho, 62, a landscape photographer from Seoul, said as he examined the steep downhill course one day during the Olympics. “Under all the cheers and fun, there are the screams of buzzed-off trees.”
Cho has visited Mount Gariwang 16 times since 2006, including several trips after 2014 to document the construction of the slope, which was finished in late 2016.
He pointed to a spot near the spectator stands where he said the last tree had stood—a 24-meter (78 foot)-high Manchurian walnut tree with red and yellow ribbons wrapped around its trunk. Locals had come to the tree for generations to pray for good luck, health and childbirth.
“I came here wondering whether there was a slight chance that the sacred tree would still be there,” he said. “But it isn’t.”
With the Pyeongchang Games just concluded, South Korea walks into a future with questions about the long-term environmental consequences of hosting an expensive sports event in one of its poorest, oldest and most underpopulated areas.
One major issue: the future of the scenic Jeongseon Alpine Center, which was built after some 60,000 trees were razed in a forest on the 1,560-meter-high Mount Gariwang. The area had been protected by the government in the past because of its old trees and botanical diversity.
The course was supposed to be demolished after the Olympics and restored to its natural state. Fierce criticism by environmentalists over the venue being built on a pristine forest caused construction delays that nearly forced pre-Olympic test events to be postponed.
But Gangwon provincial officials now say they want to keep the course, or at least a significant part of it, as a future “comprehensive leisure” zone.
They also say it would be difficult for the province to foot the bill for the restoration project, which experts say could cost $90 million over 20 years.
A new hotel has already been built on the site; another is on the way.
Regional officials talk of building mountain-bike courses, sledding parks and concert halls to complement the ski course.
“It’s too late to talk about the environmental damage over Mount Gariwang,” Gangwon Province Gov. Choi Munsun said. “There’s no way to restore the forest 100 percent, and parts of the area should be used for sports facilities.”
Whether Gangwon gets space to develop will be decided by the Korea Forest Service’s central mountain management committee, which will determine the restoration’s scale and method.
The committee rejected a tentative reforestation plan that Gangwon was required to submit, calling for more specifics.
Experts say it would be impossible to restore the forest entirely as it was.