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Shikahogh State Preserve

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Mtnadzor Canyon in Shikahogh. (c) Arlen Dilsizian and Raffi Kojian.
ՇԻԿԱՀՈՂԻ ՊԵՏԱԿԱՆ ԱՐԳԵԼՈՑ

Ruben Mkrtchyan Director (+285) 6-28-13

A beautiful drive from Kapan is S toward Shikahogh State Preserve and the gorge of the Tsav river. Driving E from downtown Kapan, turn right after the short road tunnel. Cross under the tracks, then up along the brand new highway (set for completion in late 2006). A few km after Srashen the road forks, the left branch descending into the floodplain of the Tsav river at Nerkin Hand (110 p). Here along the river is a grove of plane trees* (Platanus orientalis), sacred to the ancient Armenians, since 1958 the "Platan" State Reservation. Just before reaching Tsav you pass the canyon of Mtnadzor (Dark Canyon), made famous by the prose of Aksel Bakunts. Mtnadzor marks the start of the preserve. Mtnadzor Canyon's days consist of perpetual twilight (the sun doesn't shine due to the N-S orientation of the tall canyon sides, and the thick virgin forest). Tsav (148 p) is located on a picturesque part of the Tsav river. It has a church and, S of the river on a crag upstream from the village, a modest medieval Aghjkaberd, "Maiden Castle." Somewhere nearby is another fortress, Ghazaghan. The mountains on either side of the Tsav and Shikahogh river, with forests of oak and hornbeam, are included in the 100 sq. km. Shikahogh State Preserve. At the end of the road, Shishkert has 17-18th c. churches.

The highway controversy

In 2005 the Armenian Government announced it would reroute the country's major North-South highway right through the nature preserve, in order to avoid a high mountain pass which the main highway at the time used. In May, 2005 a massive coalition campaign was launched by Armenian NGOs in Armenia and the Diaspora to protect one of Armenia's last stands of virgin forest. Late in June, the Armenian government announced that the new road would bypass the preserve, necesitating a slightly longer alternative with a slightly higher pass. This ended the protests, and the coalition disbanded. Later, the government quietly decided to build the road through the preserve anyway, though this time avoiding the most sensitive canyon of Mtnadzor.

Waterfall in Shikahogh. (c) Arlen Dilsizian and Raffi Kojian.

Ecologists, Diaspora Up In Arms Against Planned Iran Highway

New highway under construciton through Shikahogh. (c) Arlen Dilsizian and Raffi Kojian.

By Nane Atshemian, RFE/RL
3, June 2005

Leading environment protection groups are ringing alarm bells over the planned construction of a new highway which they say would wreak havoc on one of Armenia’s last remaining virgin forests.

Tens of thousands of trees in the Shikahogh forest reserve in southeastern Armenia are to be cut down under government plans to build a second, 90-kilometer road leading to the Iranian border. Work on the $16 million project was expected to get underway this spring.

But it was apparently delayed by a growing uproar from local environmentalists who warn of serious irreversible consequences for the country’s ecological system. A joint working group formed by the Armenian ministries of environment and transport is currently assessing the potential environmental impact of the project seen as strategically important by the government.

However, Transport Minister Andranik Manukian indicated last month that the government will make a “political” decision to press ahead with its implementation regardless of the group’s findings. Manukian declined a comment on Friday.

Official says the currently sole highway running from the mountainous Syunik region’s capital Kapan to the Iranian frontier is too narrow and often impassable in winter months, complicating Armenia’s vital commercial ties with Iran.

“Let it be strategic but not cut across the reserve,” said Karen Manvelian, the head of the Yerevan office of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). He said the WWF and other environment groups suggested that the planned road bypass the Shikahogh woods but the government rejected the idea on the grounds that the alternative route would be 20 kilometers longer and run at a higher altitude.

Manvelian countered that this will not make much difference as the main highway linking Yerevan to Kapan is much longer and already runs through three tortuous mountain passes. He claimed that the authorities are opposed to the road bypass also because senior government officials stand to financially gain from massive logging that would accompany the road construction.

Adding its voice to the environmentalists’ concerns was the Armenian Assembly of America, an influential Washington-based organization. In an extraordinary move, its chairman Hirair Hovnanian wrote to President Robert Kocharian on May 25, calling for the project to be scrapped.

“The construction of the proposed road through the preserve will introduce pollution from passing vehicles into this almost pristine forest, destroy the habitat for rare wildlife and migratory paths, and attract illegal logging, depriving future generations of Armenians of a non-renewable resource,” the letter read.

Hovnanian also warned that the Armenian government’s international reputation would also suffer as a result. “The national and international communities will perceive the Armenian government as having no respect for its own environmental laws or the international conventions and treaties it has ratified,” he said. “Moreover, if Armenia does not demonstrate responsible management of its natural and historical heritage, it weakens its ability to protect Armenia from the impact of destructive policies in neighboring countries.”

Shikahogh is Armenia’s second largest forest reserve, occupying some 10,000 hectares of land. According to Manvelian, it has been largely unaffected by Armenia’s massive post-Soviet deforestation due to its remote location and care shown by residents of nearby villages.

Only 11 percent of the country’s mountainous territory was covered with forests in 1991. That proportion now stands at below 8 percent, mainly due to commercial and mostly illegal logging. The process has been greatly facilitated by lax government controls and corruption. Some environmentalists warn that if the current trends continue Armenia could be left without any major forests by 2024.

Government Reroutes Planned Iran Road To Placate Ecologists

By Emil Danielyan, RFE/RL
27, June 2005

Responding to growing protests from environment protection groups, the government has decided to reroute a planned new highway to Iran which would pass through one of Armenia’s last remaining virgin forests.

Transport and Communications Minister Andranik Manukian announced at the weekend that changes to what the government sees as a strategically important project have been approved by President Robert Kocharian. He said the 96-kilometer-long road will bypass the Shikahogh forest reserve in the southeastern Syunik region bordering Iran.

Its initial route would cut across the wooded area and result in the cutting of tens of thousands of trees. Environmentalists have warned that the damage to the forest and wildlife would be immense. They have for weeks lobbied the authorities to opt for a bypass.

Their demands were backed by some prominent members of the Armenian Diaspora in the United States, notably Hirair Hovnanian, chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America. “The construction of the proposed road through the preserve will introduce pollution from passing vehicles into this almost pristine forest, destroy the habitat for rare wildlife and migratory paths, and attract illegal logging, depriving future generations of Armenians of a non-renewable resource,” Hovnanian said in May 25 letter to Kocharian.

The government first reacted to the protests by setting up an ad hoc group of experts from the ministries of transport and environment that was tasked with assessing the project’s environmental impact. The Environment Ministry is thought to have shared critics’ concerns. The latter did not immediately comment on the announced changes.

According to Manukian, the new highway will be 7 kilometers longer than was originally planned. A bypass route suggested by some ecological organizations would mean an extra 20 kilometers and was rejected by officials as too costly. It is therefore not clear how significant the change in plans is.

Manukian told reporters that work on the road is now estimated to cost 9.3 billion drams ($21 million). Officials earlier spoke of $16 million. The construction will be financed from the Armenian state budget and is due for completion by the summer of 2006.

Shikahogh is Armenia’s second largest forest reserve, covering some 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of land. Environmentalists say it has been largely unaffected by Armenia’s massive post-Soviet deforestation due to its remote location and care shown by residents of nearby villages.

At present there is only road running from Syunik’s capital Kapan to the Iranian border. It runs through Armenia’s highest mountain pass which is often impassable in winter, complicating the country’s important communication with the Islamic Republic. Officials say the second highway will run at a lower altitude and be able to carry heavier commercial trucks.




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