Kathy Moran, senior editor at the magazine that has 40 million readers worldwide, in June asked Swedish officials to consider allowing Norwegian photographers Orsolya and Erlend Haarberg to fly into the far northern park with all their equipment.
That does not sit well with the Sami who make their living on the hills, which were classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
“Freelance photographers and filmmakers apply for the right to land all the time, but there is never such a hullabaloo when they are declined, it’s just because it’s National Geographic this time that people are kicking up a fuss,” said Jakob Nygård, chairman of local Sami village council Sirges, whose 500 members together own more than 15,000 reindeer.
IN PICTURES: See views from the Sarek National Park
The Sami were asked their opinion about allowing NatGeo to land in the 1,970 square kilometre park, but have no official power of veto.
“We told them it would disturb the reindeer. Right now, they are down in the forests grazing on mushrooms, but come September they will start moving up towards the feet of the mountains,” Nygård told The Local on the phone from atop a mountain.
“That’s when we decided which ones to slaughter, you have to slaughter them before they go into heat, because then they become inedible. It’s important for us to get them up the mountain.”
The US-based magazine was hoping, however, to get a landing permit as their photographers are lugging heavy equipment.
“In order to both showcase the diversity of landscapes and to access remote areas, the Haarbergs would like permission to land in the Sarek National Park with helicopter,” Senior Editor Kathy Moran wrote in the initial application.
“This would help them to carry all the necessary equipment for a 4-5 weeks long continuous stay in the national park. Travelling by helicopter would also save a great deal of transit time, time better spent on photographing the wild wonders of the area.”
The county administrative board (länsstyrelsen) responded, however, that such a landing would threaten biodiversity, the area’s pristine nature, and violate regulations on noise pollution.
“Our goal is that air traffic within the national park should not disturb reindeer keeping,” the decision added, as Sarek plays host to several thousands of reindeer herded by the indigenous Sami in the area. Some 2,500 people in Sweden make their principal living off reindeer – the meat is a much-appreciated delicacy – and the animals roam over 52 percent of the country.
IN PICTURES: Trekking across Sweden’s Sarek national park
The Haarbergs have now appealed the decision to the Environmental Court (Mark- och miljödomstolen), stating that trekking would add a week to their travel time – “a week we’d put to better use photographing”.
“As we see it, two treks up Sarvesvagge with our packing would disturb the reindeer more than if we are allowed to land at 1,450 metres height on the little plateau between Ryggåsberget and Luottojaure, where we assume there aren’t many reindeer,” the couple wrote in their appeal.
“We are flexible regarding other landing spots if there other alternatives in the area.”
Sirges village chairman Jakob Nygård, however, said the reindeer were the lifeblood of the people in the area – not just financially, but culturally.
“The oldest reindeer herders, they’re in their eighties and nineties,” Nygård told The Local. “They keep at it until they die. If you’ve been herding reindeer since you were ten years old, you don’t stop just because your strength is waning.”