Communities living in Bulgaria’s nature-rich Kresna Gorge have appealed to the European Commission to put the brakes on the Bulgarian government’s plans to run a section of an EU-funded motorway through the area.

Kresna Gorge is part of the EU’s ‘Natura 2000’ network of protected sites where nature-damaging activities are supposed to be restricted. If the motorway project goes ahead this means EU taxpayers’ money will be used to break the EU’s own environmental rules.

Last week in Sofia Bulgarian citizens and nature campaigners met Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella to hand over petitions from 800 local residents and over 140,000 European citizens that call for the Commission to protect Kresna Gorge as the body responsible for enforcing EU nature rules.

16km-long Kresna Gorge is home to 35 protected habitats and 92 species protected under EU rules including brown bears, tortoises, rare bats, griffon, and butterflies. Experts estimate that twice as many butterfly species live in Kresna Gorge than in all of the UK.

Desislava Stoyanova from Friends of the Earth Bulgaria said:

“The Bulgarian government is determined to destroy one of Bulgaria’s most precious natural jewels, and ruin local communities and sustainable tourism, by cutting a motorway directly through it. European law is the Kresna Gorge’s last chance and as custodian of these laws we urgently need the European Commission to act, before the constructors move in.”

€781 million of EU taxpayer funds are earmarked for the project.

Europe-wide civil society organisations have also written to Commissioner Vella to call on him not to use European taxpayers’ money to pay for a motorway project that would be a breach of EU and international legislation. In July last year NGOs from the ‘Save Kresna Coalition’ filed a legal complaint to the European Commission, in which they said the Bulgarian government’s plans were in breach of EU nature protection rules.

NGOs say the motorway can take an alternative route that would avoid damaging the gorge. The planned motorway section is the last remaining section of the European E79 highway that runs from Bulgaria to Greece and is part of the EU-funded trans-European motorway network.

Joerg Rohwedder, Senior Campaigner at WeMove.eu said:

“This nature jewel will be lost forever if the EU allows this motorway to be built. Thousands of citizens across Europe are calling for Commissioner Vella to step in and stop this destructive plan.”

Just one year ago the Commission published its ‘Action Plan’ to better protect nature, following a huge public #NatureAlert campaign to save EU nature laws. Commission First Vice-President Timmermans promised at the time that the Commission “will have to start infringement procedures if some member states do not want to abide by the regulations they themselves jointly adopted”.

The World Rafting Federation stated that there “is no other river on the Balkan Peninsula so suitable for practicing sport and commercial rafting as Struma [in Kresna Gorge]”. They say that thousands of people come to “enjoy the unique nature, because the Kresna Gorge is one of the richest [places in Bulgaria] in wild plants and animals.”