Winter Olympics: Is moving trees a viable solution in making space for new venues?

The National Alpine Ski Centre has been built in the Yanqing area, where thousands of trees have been moved for the games (AFP via Getty Images)
The National Alpine Ski Centre has been built in the Yanqing area, where thousands of trees have been moved for the games (AFP via Getty Images)

The Beijing Winter Olympics - which kicks off next week - has vowed to be a “green” competition, using renewable energy and planting hundreds of thousands of trees in Africa in an attempt to offset carbon emissions.

But organisers have also carried out an initiative involving trees closer to home. More precisely, the ones that once stood where new venues do.

Around 24,000 trees have been dug up and replanted elsewhere since 2017 to make space for the Yanqing Olympic Zone, where international athletes will compete in bobsleigh, luge, skeleton and alpine skiing.

Nearly 91 per cent of these, whose new home is a new base in Shangbanquan Village, had survived as of last summer, according to a pre-games sustainability report.

On top of this, more than 11,000 plants had been moved - or “transplanted” - to areas closer to their original environment in one of the three official Olympic zones.

Two new venues have been built in this mountainous area: the National Sliding Centre and Chinese National Alpine Skiing Centre.

The attempts to preserve nature throughout their construction has left some experts with questions.

Euan Bowditch, a researcher in forestry at the University of the Highlands and Islands, told The Independent: “I’ve heard about trees translocated - a few of them at a time - but 20,000 or entire strips of forest is a huge endeavour, which is going to cause some impact, no matter how carefully someone does it.”

The Winter Olympic organisers enrolled researchers from the Beijing Forestry University to guide them through the process.

“That's probably put some good practice in place, but there's only so much you can do,” Mr Bowditch said. “It's a huge undertaking taking the whole forest down.”

He said removing large trees from their original place could sever connections within the natural environment, such as with fungal and insect communities.

“Another thing on that is trees form these communities - and sometimes codependent relationships - that adapt over time, which helps them share resources and adapt to different events or disturbances if needs be,” Mr Bowitch said.

These “complex relationships” are also “bound to be disturbed” when moving thousands of trees to a new place, he added.

Emily Lines from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Geography told The Independent: “Forests are complex ecosystems made up not only of trees, but other plants, animals, birds and insects, fungi, soils and microbes.

“So moving and replanting trees does not recreate the forest ecosystem in a new location, and there may well be loss of many species, particularly rare or threatened species, as well as a loss of whatever ecosystem is currently occupying the land being planted.”

Organisers say a total of 24,272 trees from 28 species have been moved from the Yanqing Zone to make way for the Olympic venues and are now situated in a conservation area.

Professor John Mackay from the University of Oxford’s Department of Plant Sciences said the initiative was “much better” than the usual approach to what happens when nature and development collide, which was “doing nothing”.

“It is also more forward-looking than trying to offset the woodland lost by simply planting up an area with trees that are sourced from elsewhere,” he said.

The professor in forest science had a different view on what would happen to ecosystems; he said associated organisms, such as fungi and insects, would move with the trees, helping to preserve it.

“My general approach to things is to favour tree planting even if some biodiversity is lost because it can be restored over time through management,” he said.

Mr Bowditch said he had seen this done on a much smaller scale - with a single large oak tree, for example - which was a large undertaking and expense in itself.

“If they are sizable trees, then my mind boggles a little bit of the size of that operation,” he said. “I’d love to see it going on, to be honest, just for that curiosity.”

Species transplanted include the Manchurian walnut, Mongolian elk and Siberian elm, which can all grow up to around 20 metres tall.

Mr Bowditch said while there was uncertainty over how the project will turn out, it was interesting nonetheless. “If successful, there could be a lot of lessons learned from it,” he said.