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Biodiversity expert heads SK's largest ecological park

Over the past few years, dams were built on large rivers and hundreds of ultrahigh-voltage power lines were erected along villages, despite public outcry over environmental concerns.

The construction affected endangered species' habitats, and drinking water, sitting stagnant, became contaminated.

Biologist Choe Jae-chun strongly believes that such major disruptions in the ecosystem could be prevented if only people knew more about the environment. He vowed to help bring people closer to ecology as the first director of the National Institute of Ecology, the country's largest ecological park, which opens on Jan. 1.

“I like to say, 'You'll love it more when you know more about it,” Choe told The Korea Herald in an interview last week.

Hopes are running high for the 59-year-old biologist's role in promoting and drawing a blueprint of the center for the next three years.

Although there are about 70 ecological centers and arboretums in South Korea, the new park in Seocheon, South Gyeongsang province, is the first of its kind to be firmly based on the study of ecology.

“Other organizations in Korea similar to the park often come up with short-sighted solutions because they lack an ecological foundation and experts,” Choe said.

The director stressed a state-run organization that can provide a clear ecological paradigm is desperately needed in the country, where economic and environmental interests often clash.

The center's role is largely divided into two parts: exhibition and research.

Five interlinked glasshouses, together called the Ecorium, have been designed to create the climate conditions of a desert, tropical area, Mediterranean region, warm temperate zone and polar region.

More than 71 ecology experts — about one-third of the total 204 employees — were carefully chosen to secure the center's foundation.

The 326-billion-won project to build the ecological research and exhibition facilities began in 2007 as a replacement of the 1989 plan to develop the coastal area into the Janghang Industrial Zone.

The center's key mission is to boost public awareness about biodiversity and the environment.

Choe was, in that respect, the right man for the job. The public was already familiar with him through numerous lectures on TV and his avuncular image helped the center to cooperate smoothly with Seocheon residents.

Choe says he may have been destined to be part of the town.

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