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Should all roads lead to an Alp?

There's a road leading to almost every Alp Keystone

Switzerland is proud of its idyllic Alpine landscape. Yet, new roads through the Alps continue to be constructed for economic reasons, often leading to the destruction of culturally and ecologically significant tracts of land.

“Today, there is a road leading to almost every Alp,” laments Social Democrat parliamentarian Beat Jans. “This is especially true in dairy cow pasture areas, but it’s often also the case in Alpine regions where beef cattle graze. And more and more they are not just small gravel paths, but larger paved roads.”

According to Jans, roads are being expanded because farmers who work in the Alps are no longer able to spend the whole day on the mountain. Often, they have other responsibilities or jobs to attend to down in the valley.

“When a road leads to a field of sheep or beef cattle, then the farmer maybe checks in on them quickly once per day and leaves them alone the rest of the time,” says Jans. “When sheep aren’t tended to properly, they can destroy valuable ecological areas in the Alps. They love to graze in areas with the largest possible variety of plants.”

Environmental protection group Pro Natura says it has documented proof that unsupervised animals can cause damage to natural areas.

For Jans, the larger problem is that a new road often leads to further development. First comes a small refreshment stand, then a restaurant, and when the street becomes available to private traffic, more parking spaces have to be built as well.

Tourists in cars are one problem, and the other is the changing needs of farms.

“When a good road leads up the Alp, bags of fertiliser and large machines are transported along it, which make it possible to alter the landscape of the mountain, getting rid of bushes or leveling obstacles,” Jans says. He adds that there are photos showing how Alpine landscape has become much more uniform after a road was built in the area.

Jans is especially angered by the fact that these Alpine roads are financed by the public purse.

Economic pressures

“We don’t intervene in every Alp closure,” says Mark Zuber, head of structural improvement and production at the Nature and Agriculture Office in canton Bern. Bern and Graubünden have the most economically developed Alpine areas.

Zuber estimates that canton Bern spends about SFr1 million ($1.06 million) on Alpine roads, and the Swiss government spends about the same amount. In addition to legal mandates having to do with infrastructure improvement, economic, environmental and technical criteria come into play when deciding whether to build a road.

In canton Bern, the Kiental is an example of an economically developed Alp that is still served in some places by small, unpaved paths instead of roads. And in the Saanenland, authorities decided to provide access to Alps through cable cars instead of roads. However, these are isolated examples, according to Zuber.

“We also have to consider the changing familial and economic structures of Alpine farmers,” Zuber says. “There is a shortage of farm hands and so the efficiency of the Alpine farm must increase in order to bring down costs.”

Financial support instead of roads?

We have always said that we should support spending the summer on the Alp and a traditional, nature-bound form of Alpine farming,” says Jans. Instead of building expensive roads, he says that money should be spent on giving more financial support to farmers.

Erich von Siebental, a Swiss People’s Party parliamentarian, is an Alpine farmer in Gstaad in the Bernese Oberland where he watches over a herd of young cattle on an Alp with a colleague.  

“We trade off and each look after the animals on the Alp every other day,” von Siebental says. Each farmer must drive a half hour and walk an hour to get to the herd. “You don’t do this kind of work without idealism. I don’t get any extra money for it.”

According to von Siebental, the reality is that this year, entire pastures or even entire Alps could become very overgrown and wild because Alpine farmers stopped bringing their herds there for economic reasons. Those Alps were mostly the ones that weren’t served by roads, meaning that better roads lead to better-farmed Alps, he says.

“And it is difficult to find people who want to carry on this work,” says von Siebenthal, adding that he thinks Jans’ solution is unrealistic.

“I don’t think that there is enough political will to give the Alpine farmers as much financial support as they need to do this work,” he says.

A weighty problem

Politicians on all sides of the debate do agree on the fact that modern cows and breeding methods pose a big problem for Alpine economies.

“When I see what kinds of massive cows are tromping around on the Alps, cows that can barely move, I conclude that we have the wrong cows up there,” Jans says.

Instead of breeding cows that are built for Alpine life, breeding programmes supported by the government often only look at milk production. These high-yield milk cows are often a reason why road construction becomes necessary.

“When there are cows grazing on a steep Alpine pasture that weigh 700 to 800 kilograms, problems arise,” von Siebenthal says. “It’s not that different for cows than for people. Those that are overweight don’t feel comfortable navigating steep paths.”

The politicians also agree that cows on an Alp are part of a Swiss tradition that must maintained because it’s a sustainable, meaningful form of farming that also contributes to biodiversity.

According to the National Forest Inventory, forests in Switzerland have grown by more than 1200 square kilometres since 1983, almost exclusively in mountainous areas and in large part at the expense of Alpine pasture areas.

For economic reasons, Alpine farmers decided against using this land, so that not just individual pastures but in some cases entire Alps were abandoned.

To slow the loss of culturally significant Alpine land, the Federal Council says that agricultural policy from 2014 to 2017 will focus on maintaining Alpine farms for biodiversity and improving the management of Alpine areas.

In a March 2011 report about the closure of Alpine farms in Switzerland, the nature organisation Pro Natura reported that:

– Building improved road access to the mountains is a priority for those working on Alpine farms.

– Financial support is still lacking for hard-to-reach Alpine areas or for those only accessible through cable cars.

– Economic concerns usually take priority over ecological issues at the cantonal level.

(Translated from German by Veronica DeVore)

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