Access to the natural park of As Fragas do Eume by private vehicles is restricted during times of high influx such as Easter or summer. A guard from the Xunta controls arrivals to prevent visitors from entering this protected territory with their cars, but on the weekend of August 20 and 21, the guard was on leave and no one went in his place. The main access to the area, although not the only one, is in the parish of Ombre, in the Coruña municipality of Pontedeume. The neighbors who saw cars pass without any restriction ended up installing the fences themselves that are used to cut off the passage and give instructions to visitors to leave the cars and use the bus that leads to the Caaveiro monastery or make the route to foot.
Renting land from the Xunta to protect it: the entities that take care of the natural heritage abandoned by the administration
The episode has once again put the focus on a space that has concentrated criticism from neighbors, city councils – its surface extends over five municipalities – and environmentalists for years. Declared a natural park a quarter of a century ago, it still does not have a governing plan for use and management (PRUX, for the acronym in Galician). The former president of the Xunta Alberto Núñez Feijóo promised in 2021 that the document would be ready this year, a decade after a great fire that devastated, in the very dry spring of 2012, some 750 hectares deep in As Fragas do Eume , a good part of them of autochthonous species. Although the park, a triangle of more than 9,000 hectares along the steep canyon of the Eume River, contains some of the most valuable Atlantic forests, its own species are not the only ones that live in the area. Environmental associations such as Verdegaia have repeatedly denounced the increase in the presence of eucalyptus trees and the deterioration of the environment.
After what happened last Saturday and Sunday, the mayor of Pontedeume, Bernardo Fernández Piñeiro, protests: “It rains on wet”. He considers the idea of a protected natural space to be “little compatible” with a place “full of cars”. The president of the Coruña environmental association Arco Iris, Francisco Lueiro, describes the situation as “surreal”. There are no physical barriers that impede the passage. In fact, access is not restricted to vehicles outside of peak periods. “This is not just any orchard. If there is a discharge guard there must be another one available”, criticizes Lueiro.
The Ministry of the Environment, Territory and Housing assures that the lack of guards last weekend was “something completely punctual” and reduces the problem to “a few hours and in a specific entrance”, although it does not mention that it is the most used. The surveillance work, he says, is assumed “voluntarily” by the Xunta with personnel from the environment area in some times of greater arrival of visitors “and given the need to regulate the road traffic in the accesses as a factor that can alter the environment” . The security guard is entrusted with these tasks despite the fact that they are “beyond the functions that he has competence assigned”, he adds. Faced with these arguments, the mayor of Pontedeume emphasizes that, according to his estimates, between 70% and 80% of visitors arrive through this entrance and criticizes that, beyond the absence of the weekend, there is no greater limitation for vehicles in a space of high environmental value.
It is not possible to know how many visitors coincided last weekend in the park. The Xunta does not have a precise measurement of the number of visitors who pass through As Fragas, something that it justifies because it is free and unlimited access. The Galician Government makes an annual estimate based on the data of those who stop at the interpretation center, but does not have intermediate calculations for 2022.
Daily limits and dissuasive parking
To avoid crowds and the negative effects of cars on the environment, the Arco Iris association proposes establishing a 24-hour surveillance system with guards or access with permits, as is the case in other natural parks, such as O Invernadeiro. “The Ministry does not take it seriously. And it’s going to get worse, “says Francisco Lueiro. The environmentalist accuses the Xunta of “neglect” and denies that what happened over the weekend was something specific. “It’s not the first time,” he insists, drawing attention to the difficulties in maneuvering on a narrow road. He also fears that another fire may break out. The investigation into the 2012 one concluded that the origin had been a cigarette butt, but it was closed without culprits.
Over the weekend, the notices from the mayors to the Government Subdelegation ended with the mobilization of a Civil Guard patrol that at that time was in A Capela, one of the five municipalities through which the park extends. Despite the neighbors’ attempts, some cars reached the Caaveiro monastery. The mayor of Pontedeume insists on the need to dissuade visitors from accessing the interior of the park with their vehicles. He points out that the City Council has just bought 3,000 square meters in the parish of Ombre to make a car park and suggests that the Xunta should do the same. The Diputación de A Coruña, he says, has stated that there are no inconveniences for the public bus that currently leaves the interpretation center, already inside the park, to do so from a parking lot. But the Galician Government “still shows no interest.”
The alderman is surprised by the position of the Xunta. Enabling a car park involves a small outlay, he maintains. And the point where traffic is now cut off, at the interpretation center, is already “complicated for cars to turn around.” The road, owned by the autonomous community, which starts from there to the Caaveiro monastery is “totally destroyed”, with potholes “in which a person can lie down”, but it has not been repaired for years, he criticizes.
Another of the open fronts in As Fragas do Eume is that of the owners. The park is made up of parcels that are mostly privately owned. The owners have limited uses, so they demand an alternative to the Galician Government. The mayor of Pontedeume believes that the Xunta should either buy the land and make the park a territory in public hands or compensate the owners.
“The worst preserved natural park in Atlantic Europe”
The Verdegaia environmental association, one of the entities with which the Xunta is negotiating the governing plan for use and management, considers that since it was declared a Natural Park, the space “has undergone a process of continuous degradation”. The “absence of measures” to reverse the deterioration makes the association consider it “the worst preserved natural park in Atlantic Europe”.
He also criticizes that the Xunta offers, through its tourism department, an “idealized” vision of the park that has turned it into what he considers “a tourist trap”: “They hope to find a well-preserved forest in a spectacular landscape, but then they find an environment degraded by the intense eucalyptization of the Eume valley”. Verdegaia assures that the director of Natural Heritage, Belén do Campo, recognized in a meeting last May that a good part of the eucalyptus plantations are illegal.
The association highlights that the importance of As Fragas do Eume is that there are still “small samples” of thermophilic Atlantic forest in its territory, which is a “very scarce” type. It has greater relevance, he adds, in an area like Galicia, where there are hardly any mature forests “because of the intense exploitation” of the mountain. The situation of the park is, for Verdegaia, “depressing” not only because of the foreign species, but also because in the Eume river the ecological flow and the quality of the water have not been respected -the Xunta demands Endesa, which operates a reservoir in the river, two million euros for a pollution episode in 2020-. Adding to the host of circumstances, according to Verdegaia, is that the Galician government “hinders” the initiatives of some land-custody entities to restore habitats in the area.