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Thursday, July 25, 2002

OUR PLANET EARTH

MOUNT TAKAO

Drive to halt pork 'n' ride tide


The rivers of Nagano Prefecture still flowing as nature intended may yet survive. If they do, it will be largely due to former (and perhaps soon to be re-elected) Gov. Yasuo Tanaka, whose "no more dams" policy directly challenges pork-barrel politicians who for decades appear to have put construction-industry interests ahead of fiscal and environmental responsibility.

News photo
The ravaged landscape north of Mount Takao (top), where construction work is under way on access ramps for an expressway intersction.
News photo
A protest sign near the site uses the image of a tengu, one of the long-nosed avatars said to inhabit Mount Takao. The slogan says: "This can't be forgiven."

Tokyo's Mount Takao, on the other hand, has no Tanaka as its champion. Instead, it has Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, and as a result that living monument of historical and environmental importance may soon be gutted in an ill-advised and unnecessary public works project.

Located less than an hour west of Shinjuku on the Chuo and Keio lines, Mount Takao has enchanted hikers, naturalists and pilgrims, both Buddhist and Shinto, for hundreds of years. The first temple was erected on its 599-meter summit in 744, and for more than 1,200 years the mountain has been protected, first as a temple forest, then as a burial forest -- and now as a quasi-national park.

Quasi, however, is not enough to protect Mount Takao from the Ken'odo ring road, a major expressway slated to circle Tokyo and carve through the heart of the mountain.

But before you sigh and turn the page, saddened by the loss of another natural wonder, take heart: Mount Takao has not yet been touched; a major lawsuit seeks to halt the plan; and there is something you can do to help.

This Sunday a march will be held in support of conserving the mountain. This annual event has been held every summer for more than 15 years, and has become both a statement of protest and a festival of support for nature conservation. Thousands participate, and, as the organizers are quick to note, it is both legal and peaceful.

Before noon on Sunday, free buses will be running from the North Exit of JR Takao Station to an orchard near the construction site. The site is also accessible by city bus, taxi or on foot. From there, participants will get a close look at the ravaged hills north of Mount Takao, where construction is under way on a cloverleaf junction to link the Ken'odo, from the north, to the Chuo Expressway running east and west.

In fact, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport could easily save Mount Takao by halting construction once the north-east-west sections of the Ken'odo and the Chuo Expressway are connected -- so leaving Mount Takao, to the south, intact, to be enjoyed by generations to come. But then there's no pork in circumspection.

The march itself will begin at 3 p.m. from the construction site, ending in the center of Hachioji City. Before the march sets off, there will be speeches and performances, with food and drink available for those who haven't brought their own -- for more information, e-mail Richard Evanoff at evanoff@sipeb.aoyama.ac.jp.

Mount Takao is a magnet for more than 2 million visitors who every year come to hike its trails, visit its shrines and temples, and cool off under its soaring, sacred cedars. However, few of these people probably realize that the mountain has one of Japan's most diverse ecosystems, with 1,321 varieties of plants, 137 species of birds, 30 different mammals (including fox, wild pig, badger, raccoon and Japanese mink), 12 species of reptiles (including eight kinds of snakes), 10 kinds of frogs and thousands of species of insects, including 88 types of butterfly and 55 types of dragonfly.

This astonishing biological diversity is due to Mount Takao's location at the juncture of the Kanto Plain and the central mountains of Honshu, and where the warm Pacific and northern temperate zones meet. Not surprisingly, the mountain is often mentioned as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If pork-barrel politics prevail over concerns for the environment, however, the Ken'odo will rend this as it circles through four prefectures and western Tokyo. The MLIT plans to blast two tunnels through the mountain, with interchanges on either side requiring numerous access ramps that will further carve into the surrounding hills and forests.

When I first heard about the plan several years ago, I thought it was a joke. I couldn't imagine anyone being serious about destroying such a unique natural and cultural monument. But the joke was on me -- and every Japanese citizen -- because construction had already started on the Ken'odo, even though no comprehensive environmental impact assessment had been done on either the ring road plan or the tunnels.

According to lawyers involved in the lawsuit to save Mount Takao, the only assessments done were merely to rubber-stamp the project.

In addition, when the Ken'odo plan was formulated 20 years ago, Japan had no national environmental assessment law -- the present law came into effect in 1998.

As a result, the impacts of the expressway were considered piecemeal under different laws and guidelines in Tokyo and each of the four prefectures. Incredibly, the Tokyo leg of the project (a 22.7 km section through Ome and Hachioji) was divided into two parts for assessment, and access roads were assessed as separate entities.

This is the logical equivalent of doing an EIA for a ship dock by assessing the impacts of each pile separately. Individually, the piles will have negligible environmental impact, but in combination they become a dock serving ships and people, creating serious environmental degradation. Piecemeal assessments were done on the Ken'odo for exactly this reason: to avoid a damning EIA.

More than 100 lawyers from across Japan who are fighting to save Mount Takao have brought a suit against the Public Highway Construction Corp. and the national government. They hope to save the mountain, as well as highlight several shortcomings in Japan's public works culture. First among these is the lack of citizen participation in formulating public works projects; second is the environmental destructiveness of such projects; and third is the threat posed to endangered species and biodiversity.

According to organizers of Sunday's march, 1,300 plaintiffs have joined the suit and more than 330,000 individuals have signed a petition against the tunnels.

But even if Mount Takao is saved, the Ken'odo construction has already done shocking damage. Just to the north, tunneling has destroyed the hydrology of several mountains, causing wells to run dry and wetlands to disappear. Few doubt that Mount Takao's beautiful streams and waterfalls would suffer the same fate.

For now, bureaucrats continue to ignore taxpayers' calls for an end to the construction -- perhaps at risk of angering a higher authority. In an interview with Shushin Nagashima, deputy abbot of Yakuouin Temple, which sits atop Mount Takao, I was told: "This is a sacred place and its nature should not be touched."

Asked if the construction would offend the spiritual world, he replied: "Yes, that's the biggest problem. Nature itself is the creator."

A lesson yet to be learned by today's politicians and bureaucrats, who view themselves less as public servants, and more as deities.

Stephen Hesse welcomes questions and comments at steve@tamacc.chuo-u.ac.jp


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