‘Hytte’ dream stirs climate nightmare

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Hundreds of thousands of Norwegians have celebrated the New Year at the family hytte (holiday cabin) in the mountains. Concerns are rising, however, that ongoing construction to fulfill dreams of hytte ownership is chipping away at Norway’s unspoiled nature, and generating more carbon emissions because of all the driving back and forth.

Popular mountain areas all over Norway are vulnerable to more major construction projects as ever-increasing numbers of Norwegians want to fulfill dreams of hytte ownership. Climate- and environmental activists, along with a few politicians, are sounding alarms. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

Hytte-skam (cabin shame) is the latest buzzword aimed at giving Norwegians a guilty conscience. It emerged in the midst of the pre-holiday season, when Norway’s Institute of Transport Economics (Transport-økonomisk institutt, TØI) issued new statistics showing that nine out of 10 hytte owners travel to their cabins in their cars. That resulted in around 865,000 car trips to and from the Oslo area alone in 2018, with guests’ trips coming in addition.

The numbers, reported by newspaper Dagsavisen and quickly picked up by other national media, were based on a survey of 1,200 hytte owners in the Oslo area, conducted by research firm Norstat in October and November last year. Most all of the car trips involved conventional fossil-fueled or hybrid vehicles. Even families who had electric cars were often reluctant to use them, because of concerns over a lack of recharging capability or their performance in cold winter conditions.

That means more gas-guzzling SUVs on the road, with the transport survey coming just after other startling conclusions by researchers at the Trondheim-based Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA). The institute is billed as “an independent foundation for nature research and research on the interaction between human society, natural resources and biodiversity,” and its latest findings can shame hytte owners as well.

Threats to the landscape and wildlife habitats
According to NINA’s studies, ongoing hytte construction doesn’t only alter natural landscapes forever and put open land into more private hands. It also changes the natural habitats for a wide range of species, not least Norway’s remaining herds of wild reindeer.

“Construction of each individual hytte can have little effect alone,” Vegard Gundersen, a senior researcher at NINA, told Dagsavisen. “But collectively, the hytte-building amounts to massive changes in land use, with grave consequences for the nature in the mountains.”

Large developments involving what amount to entirely new hytte communities  have made their mark already. State statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway) counted 467,600 hytter (plural form of hytte) in Norway at the beginning of this year, up more than 10 percent in the past decade.

New hytte developments in Norway will continue to emerge, given the plans of many local municipalities who view them as a source of new jobs and tax revenues. PHOTO: SpareBank1

Given the plans of local politicians in popular hytte areas like Ringsaker, Trysil, Nes in Buskerud and Vinje in Telemark, the numbers will only keep rising. Hytte-building generates needed jobs in rural areas, as do hytte owners’ subsequent needs for goods and services. They often buy their furnishings, food and drink locally, for example, and create new markets for housekeeping, landscaping, snow-plowing and hytte maintenance needs. In several communities, there already are more cabins than homes for local residents.

Ringsaker, which includes the popular skiing area of Sjusjøen just south of Lillehammer, ranks as Norway’s largest hytte kommune (municipality), with around 7,200 hytter, according to Mayor Anita Ihle Steen of the Labour Party. “In our kommune plan there’s an opportunity to build another 2,500 units, both hytter and condominium projects,” Steen told Dagsavisen. That indicates an increase of around 35 percent compared to now.

In Sigdal, on the western slopes of Norefjell, Center Party Mayor Tine Norman also confirms more “considerable development” in the years ahead, while in Gausdal, Mayor Anette Musdalslien (also of the Center Party) told Dagsavisen that “we have large wilderness areas that are well-suited for development.” Another 2,000 hytter are planned in Vinje, 3,000 at Nes in Buskerud, and 1,600 in Trysil.

Important revenue source
Most all the local municipalities also collect property tax from hytte owners, who thus provide a welcome new source of revenues to the kommune’s annual budget even though hytte owners can’t vote in local elections. That’s led to complaints of taxation without representation, but hasn’t seemed to reduce demand for hytter.

The sheer numbers of new cabins and holiday condos planned for the years ahead surprised NINA’s Gundersen, despite all his research over the past 20 years. “Hytte developments have been expanding and new projects are popping up here and there, from year to year,” Gundersen told. “Given all the new roads and infrastructure that go with them, the changes in the landscape are massive.”

He’s worried, not least over the habitats for wild reindeer. “What were earlier two to three large, connected areas for wild reindeer in Southern Norway are today 24 fragmented areas where the herds live isolated from one another,” he told Dagsavisen. “The earlier, spectacular massive wandering of the wild reindeer between summer grazing areas in the west and winter grazing areas in the east is now gone.”

‘Wild West’ for hytte-building
That in turn alarms politicians like Lars Haltbrekken, a Member of Parliament for the Socialist Left party (SV) who earlier led Norway’s chapter of Friends of the Earth (Naturvernforbund).  “It seems like it’s the Wild West for hytte-building,” Haltbrekken told Dagsavisen. He’s urging stricter regulation of hytte developments, also at a national level given the negative effects on wildlife. His party once ruled in the former left-center government with the Center Party, however, which now often supports hytte-building at the local level. That’s where regulation may be needed most.

The Greens Party is also alarmed, and called as early as last summer for a halt to all hytte construction in as-yet undeveloped areas of Norway. “We’re losing our biologic diversity, and it’s not sustainable to be developing the nature in this manner,” Teodor Bruu, spokesman for the Greens’ youth group, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He’s most keen to block large developments that involve hundreds of new hytter.

Demand for new hytter, meanwhile, remains brisk, with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) running 23 pages with advertising of hytter for sale, many at prices in the multi-millions of kroner. The ads ran just before the Christmas- and New Year’s holiday weeks, conveniently timed so that prospective buyers would be aware of showings.

Prices are highest for hytter located at high elevations that are most likely to have the most snow for skiing, and good hiking in the summer. DN reported this week, meanwhile, that while prices for hytter along the coast have declined slightly the past year, they’re still rising in the mountains. That gives all the tens of thousands at their hytter even more to celebrate in the New Year.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund

PS: Residents of the Oslo area don’t need to drive all the way up to the mountains for skiing. A winter wonderland awaits at the end of the metro lines to both Frognerseteren and Sognsvann, along with many bus lines.