Are Mountain Sports Legal in Bulgaria?

For the last 10-15 years some sports that are practiced in a mountain environment gained more and more popularity in Bulgaria. These include off-piste skiing, mountain biking, climbing, QUAD, skidoo and motorbike riding. Growing interest leads to new problems that the authorities and the society as a whole should face. Accidents, possible threads for the nature, violations of the regulations and conflicts between practitioners and other visitors of the mountains are topics that need to be considered and solutions to be found.

In January 2010 only for a couple of days two people lost their life in avalanche accidents in Bansko, the Bulgaria’s most modern ski resort, located in Pirin Mountains. Both happen on a slopes that are accessible from the ski lifts but are not part of the ski area. The large public interest caused a reaction of the authorities, who refer on the restrictions in the Management Plan of Pirin National Park. There it’s written, that no skiers are allowed outside marked tourist routes on the territory of the park. Which simply means that back country skiing is nearly impossible in Pirin Mountains. A few people were charged according to this rule and things settled down. The same sort of restrictions are valid for Rila Mountains, where Rila National Park is located, and the same actions were taken by the authorities in the area of The Seven Lakes, which is a popular off-piste destination – total prohibition of off-piste skiing.

Obviously that sort of actions doesn’t solve the problems that need to be analyzed and discussed counting all the interests – of the skiers, environmentalists and the society as a whole, which doesn’t want to hear about accidents so often. The unsatisfactory measures for the moment suggest that this is an upcoming task, important role in which will play the skiers and snowboarders community that has to cope with the currently existing prejudices in regard to their off-piste activities. Currently there is no official avalanche reports and monitoring in Bulgaria – information that becomes more and more necessary along with the increasing number of skiers who leave the ski runs looking for powder. Reliable avalanche risk reports, strict regulations about terrains which are allowed or not for off-piste skiing counting the real possible negative consequences for the nature, adequate rescue services and not least teaching the skiers how to take care for their own safety in the mountains are some of the most important measures that will make practicing of this nature friendly sport in Bulgaria possible without conflicts in the society and safer.

A step in the right direction is the newly accepted document that regulates the access in some areas of Rila National Park, which are popular for ice and mixed climbing. Only members of the Bulgarian Climbing and Mountaineering Federation and federations members of UIAA are allowed to practice climbing in the areas of The Seven Lakes and Skakavitsa. Presumably the federations will be responsible to keep their members informed about the regulations in the protected areas and will cooperate for preserving these regulations. Some of the best places to practice ice and mixed climbing in Bulgaria are located in the territory of protected areas and actually forbidden.

QUAD (or ATV, All Terrain Vehicle), skidoo and motorbike riding in the mountains become popular for the last decade in Bulgaria. People are more sensitive about these and more negative reactions are attracted because of the pollution, noise and the bad behavior of some of the practitioners that all together thread the nature and disturb the other visitors in the mountains. There is still not effective control on the drivers of these vehicles and new regulations are expected. The newly updated (in February 2011) Bulgarian Forest Law requires that riding sport machines is allowed in forested areas only if following special routes. But setting these routes and chasing the offenders are still ongoing missions. The second is already a problem in the protected areas, such as national and nature parks, where rules exist, but no effective way of performing them.

The last update of the Forest Law contains a part that provoked protests from the side of the mountain bikers. This is the paragraph that equalizes mountain biking to the motor sports, which means that mountain bikers should also use only certain routes to practice their favorite sport in Bulgaria.

Generally, a consistent official policy regarding practice of the adventure sports in the nature is needed, and a clear view how to combine that with the very important mission of protecting the nature. This will lead to synchronization of the existing rules to the real situation and chance to practice these activities legally and safe, which is important for the practitioners and the tourist business. Of course some people get more and more nostalgic for the times when all these sports weren’t that popular and didn’t attract attention, so one could practice them unmolested everywhere in the mountains. Still lack of understanding the problems and extreme opinions from “total ban” to “let the nature to the people” dominate the public. For sure these questions will gain interest and cause discussions in a future, until the balance is found.