Old firing range returned to the wild

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A huge portion of Norway’s scenic and iconic Dovre Mountain plateau has been returned to its natural state, more than 20 years after the Norwegian Parliament decided to shut down a military firing range at the site. Hikers and outdoor enthusiasts still aren’t entirely welcome though, out of consideration to the wild reindeer also returning to the area.

Soldiers resting after another clean-up mission take in the sweeping views over what used to be a firing range in the heart of Norway’s Dovre Mountains. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Kristine Nygård

For more than 80 years, the wide-open mountain plateau was used as an area for military exercises involving bombs and grenades. It was known as Hjerkinn Skytefelt, located over a broad expanse of mountains southwest of Trondheim and far northeast of Oslo, bordered by Dovre National Park, nature preserves and protected landscapes.

The area is known for its iconic mountain peak called Snøhetta, and the southern portion of Dovre was on the centuries-old pilgrims’ trail to Scandinavia’s only cathedral, Nidarosdomen. Dovre itself has a special place in many Norwegian hearts, viewed as a sturdy mountain range that symbolically props up the nation.

All the decades of military activity in one large portion of it, however, left a lot of schrapnel and potentially deadly explosives behind, scattered over an area covering around 165 square kilometers. In 1999, Members of Parliament voted to shut it down, remove all structures built by the military, clean up the area and restore it to the wilderness it was before the army invaded it in 1923.

Soldiers routinely formed long lines to systematically walk through every portion of the former firing range, looking for schrapnel and undetonated explosives that needed to be picked up. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Kristine Nygård

No one realized at the time what a massive job that would be. It ended up taking 14 years to carry out what’s considered the largest natural restoration project in Norwegian history, at a cost of NOK 575 million. The shooting range itself had been the largest in Southern Norway, used by the defense department after World War II as a training grounds with NATO allies.

By 2008 the military had halted all activity and moved out. Buildings and bridges were dismantled and even roads were removed, but thousands of undetonated bombs and grenades remained. That led to as many as 15,000 soldiers being periodically sent to the area, suited up in protective gear and forming long lines to systematically and carefully walk over the entire area looking for even the tiniest bits of metal. Explosives experts followed close behind, ready to dismantle or detonate dangerous material found along the way.

They’re still not competely finished, with some final work scheduled in the spring, but an official opening of Hjerkinn as part of the Dovre National Park was held this fall to mark the turnover of the military area back to the civilian population. It’s now considered safe and open to all, but especially to the wild herds of reindeer and moskus (musk ox) in the area. Norwegian biologists and reseachers hope they’ll soon roam in the area and not be disturbed by too many hikers, campers or other tourists.

After soldiers spent 14 years clearing the former military area, it can now be reopened to wild reindeer herds, moskus, and outdoor enthusiasts. PHOTO: Forsvaret/Kristine Nygård

Raymond Sørensen of the Norwegian Wild Reindeer Center in Hjerkinn told newspaper Aftenposten recently that the reindeer are extremely shy and won’t enter areas where even as few as 30 people may discourage them from passing through. Preservation of the rare wild reindeer herds was a major reason for ending military activity in an area that’s also ringed by roads and railway lines that can cut off natural herd migration.

Sørensen hopes the area, which has few if any trails, can mostly remain open wilderness with as few people as possible. No private vehicles are allowed in the area and cycling is only allowed between June 1 and July 15. A buss, however, carries visitors in to a nearby lodge.

“That’s okay but not optimal,” Sørensen told Aftenposten. “The best thing will be to hinder mountain tourism from ruining things for the wild reindeer. We try to veer people away from the most vulnerable areas. From the top of Snøhetta you can see out over the mountain area, without traipsing into it.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund