Swiss "tundra" sparks tug of war

Only a few hikers are to be seen in the heart of the Greina.

An eerily beautiful Swiss natural landscape being eyed by federal authorities for possible hydropower development has conservationists up in arms.

This content was published on July 29, 2011 minutes
Gerhard Lob in Greina,

Located between cantons Ticino and Graubünden in southeastern Switzerland, the Greina high plateau was approved for a power plant in 1962.

But strong resistance from conservationists during the 1970s and 1980s, coupled with inefficiencies, scuttled the project in 1986.

It lay dormant until recently, when the decision of the government to phase out nuclear energy spurred renewed interest in the modest expansion of hydropower.

Swiss Tibet

An untouched, tundra-like landscape of outstanding beauty, the Greina has been variously described as “a piece of Tibet“ and “a desert of grass and stone“.

Home to a plethora of fauna and rare species, its extensive water meadow is dotted with springs and brooks, including a source of the River Rhine.

Conservationists consider the Greina a pristine wilderness of national significance.

Unlike elsewhere in the Alps, it is reachable by foot only. It has no houses, cable railways, or even trees – only the occasional hiker navigating its mountain paths.

Thus, its striking landscape has remained untouched by people, in contrast to virtually everywhere else in the Alps.

The Swiss Federal Energy Office, in the context of the cabinet discussion on abandoning nuclear power, floated the idea of possible hydropower utilisation in protected regions, for example in the Greina plateau.

Objections were fast and swift, with Pro Natura going so far as to speak of “an abandonment of nature and landscape conservation”.

The Energy Office, for its part, responded that any development would be ecologically sustainable.

There can be no question of “flooding the Greina plateau”, said spokeswoman Marianne Zünd in the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper.

New national park

Further complicating matters is that the Greina is a central element of a prospective new Swiss national park, the Adula.

It would be Switzerland’s second national park, and the first established under new federal legislation stipulating regional approval and participation in such parks.

Thus, five communities straddling Graubunden and Ticino, speaking variously German, Romansh, and Italian, will have the final word at the ballot box.

Regardless, the Federal Environment Office has granted financial assistance of  SFr700,000 ($874,000) to Graubunden and Ticino for 2010-2011 for the establishment of a park in the area around the Rheinwaldhorn, the highest pinnacle in the region, and in canton Ticino.

Local communities have not had to do without federal funding in the years since the original power plant was scrapped. 

They have received financial compensation from the federal government for the never-built plant - a first in Switzerland.

But all the funds received have been earmarked for landscape preservation measures.

The fledging  new national park is also not entirely without controversy among nature lovers.

Some alpine associations are sceptical about rigorous regulations that will preclude walking anywhere but on the marked trails.

Raum Greina

Five photographers published “Raum Greina”, a coffee table book that depicts the landscape from many angles and in all seasons (see gallery above)

There are four huts in the Greina region: the Terri Hut, plus the Capanna Scaletta, the Capanna Motteraiscio and the Medelser, which are occupied in summer only.

A hiker who reaches the huts is almost at the pinnacle of the Greina. The heart of the border of the two cantons is the Crap la Crusch (2,259 metres high).

The Greina pass, which connects Graubunden to Ticino and Italy,  has been in use since Roman times. Unlike other Swiss passes, it served primarily as a trading route.

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