Friday, May 30, 1997

LebEnv #29


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

My last LebEnv article dealt with the introduction of the Hummer four-wheel-drive vehicle to Lebanon, and I speculated on the damage that might be done to the land by these go-anywhere monsters. I received a letter from a reader in Sydney, Australia, who had gone to Lebanon and gotten a rude surprise. Here is an excerpt from his letter (with minor changes).

"I'm one person who would be very much concerned that a 'truck' like the Hummer would be allowed to drive on our roads in Lebanon.

To make it short, back in Oct. of 1992 I went hiking with a group of friends to Cornet al-Sawda. After a few hours of trekking in that beautiful 'highland' area of Lebanon, we finally made it to the spot where there is a small steel mast indicating that this is the highest point in Lebanon.

To my great disappointment (!!!) There was a Land Rover parked next to it!

Upon befriending the driver and his mate, it turned out that there is a four-wheel-drive road from Ehden all the way up!

I can not begin to describe to you my disgust at how something like that could be allowable ...

Anyway, if the hummer were to get up there, it would not be limited to the summit, but would go all over that beautiful part of our country destroying things in its path as you rightly mentioned.

Unfortunately I think the almighty dollar and Mr. Abou-Show-Off rule Lebanon..."

Arizona is a U.S. state about 28 times the size of Lebanon, with a population a little greater than Lebanon's. The state is riddled with tens of thousands of miles of roads, ranging from freeways to Jeep trails, and very little of the state are more than a few miles from the nearest road. Many of these roads were originally built for the benefit of logging, ranching, and mining. Although many of these dirt roads no longer serve their original purpo se, nearly all remain open and are maintained at taxpayer expense. Despite Arizona's sparse population, it is easy to see the impact of these dirt roads on the environment. Where there's a road, there is likely to be vandalized trees or saguaro cactuses, fires, graffiti and trash left by car-campers, four-wheelers, target shooters (using guns), and others. In addition, irresponsible four-wheelers drive off the roads and damage meadows. Soil erosion from the road surface and nearby damaged areas is rampant. Government rangers are spread thin and find it impossible to monitor all the land all the time.

The public agencies that manage the land have closed off some of these roads to protect the environment, but in most cases, the government has been challenged by a powerful four-wheel-drive lobby. These people simply want to be able to drive anywhere.

Many areas that were lucky enough never to be roaded or were liberated of old roads have been designated as "roadless" Wilderness Areas where natural processes are allowed to continue unimpaired, where people can go hiking and backpacking in a remote, natural, car-free setting. These areas are priceless treasures. Yet even some of those areas are crowded with people trying to get away from it all, showing that many people don't want to be in other areas where roads and cars are present. Thus, more such areas are needed.

Lebanon, with 3.2 million people living on about 10,000 square kilometers is very densely populated. Open space is being devoured by poorly planned development. What remains is very little, especially by American standards. Much of this open space is accessible by road, even at high elevations, as I found out on my hikes in 1995. And, as indicated earlier, a road reaches all the way to the highest point of Lebanon.

Just as in Arizona, dirt roads in remote areas of Lebanon invite land abuse and littering. The road surface itself, made of barren dirt, can be considered lost habitat for plants and animals (especially in such a tiny country) and is prone to soil erosion. Many of these roads (including the one to Qornet el-Sawda, I suspect) were built for military purposes during the war and have outlived their usefulness.

The Lebanese Ministry of the Environment is up to its ears in problems plaguing Lebanon. Yet, this is a problem that needs to be addressed. Remote areas of the country, especially the higher elevations that are the source of Lebanon's drinking water, need to be inventoried for roads. All roads that do not serve a useful purpose need to be eliminated. Some can be simply closed off with a pile of rocks; others might have to be recontoured by bulldozer and revegetated to blend with the landscape. Still others might need to remain but be made accessible to a limited number or people, such as local farmers, government tree planters, or water-department employees. A few might be made narrower and converted to foot and bicycle trails. Needless to say, off-road driving (where a vehicle does not follow any kind of road) needs to be banned.

Closing superfluous roads will render a larger area of Lebanon as "roadless". These roadless areas would be the psychological "lungs" of Lebanon; areas where people can go on foot and enjoy Nature away from the maddening crowds and traffic of Beirut and other urban areas. Mountaintops such as Qornet el-Sawda, Mount Sannine (where presently there is some kind of communications tower and. presumably, a road), and others are special spots that are almost sacred. They should not be under the mercy of hordes of people in four-wheel-drive trucks; they should be treated with reverence like some of the ancient religious sanctuaries in remote valley bottoms of Lebanon.

Lebanon has always liked to imitate American trends. The Hummer's availability in Lebanon is testimony to that. I do not know if ATVs (go-anywhere All-Terrain Vehicles that are like motorcycles on three or four wheels) are available in Lebanon. Lebanon, with its tiny area and fragile environment, simply would be ruined if many people were to take up a pastime that Arizona, despite its huge size, is barely able to handle.

The Lebanese need to wake up, smell the fumes of the traffic jams they are stuck in, and curb their California-style love affair with the automobile. There are many other ways to spend free time that are more in tune with the environment and Lebanon's historical roots. Lebanon is 5000-plus years old; we have been driving cars for less than 100 years! You might need a car to go from your house to reach the general vicinity of these wild places, but once there, park it, slam the door, and get out! Hike! Sit down under a pine tree and contemplate! Nap next to a gurgling river! Watch your cares evaporate into the clear, blue sky.



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