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Highest bridge in the world provokes environmentalist ire

Photo montage showing what bridge over Trient Valley Gorge could look like. Granitpark website

In five years' time a little corner of canton Valais could find itself in the record books. But environmental groups say construction of the world's highest suspension bridge will ruin the unique, and largely untouched, Trient Valley gorge.

The concept, known as Granitpark, is the brainchild of Roland Delez, a former Swiss handgliding champion and a native of Salvan, the village closest to the proposed site of the bridge.

“I got the original idea when I was flying over the canyon,” Delez told swissinfo. “For a number of years I was trying to think of something to attract people to see it, because it is so special – very narrow and deep.”

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the highest bridge in the world is the Royal Gorge Bridge in Colorado, built in 1929, which stands 321 metres above the Arkansas River.

The Granitpark bridge, which could open as early as 2005, if it gets the necessary approval, would be at least 50 metres higher.

At around 600 metres, the Swiss bridge would also be the longest pedestrian bridge in the world, easily beating the current record-holder, the Aya-Teruha bridge, in the Japanese town of Miyazaki.

Because it will be for pedestrians, the Granitpark bridge will be relatively light, and probably made of steel, with polyester decking. This will enable the engineers to concentrate more on how it looks.

“It will be a thin line in the sky, and certainly very aesthetic,” says Delez.

But that does not mean it will be flimsy. Steel cables will be attached to the top to support it, and on the sides, to stop it swaying in the wind. The passageways along which visitors will walk will be triangular, and the whole structure will be enclosed by wire grilles.

The construction firm, Dauner, says the bridge will be able to hold 500 people at any one time.

“The aim is to create a new walking destination. But we’re competing with powerful resorts like Verbier and Chamonix, and so we need something really special to persuade people to come, and they’ll only come if it’s the highest in the world,” Delez says.

“Once they’re here, they’ll see how beautiful this region is.”

Salvan may be a quiet village, but it has always relied heavily on tourism. At the turn of the last century, it had 30 hotels and was bigger than resorts like Zermatt.

Now despite its outstanding scenery and some excellent hiking trails, as well as the proximity of Martigny, with its extensive Roman ruins and internationally famous art museum, people are no longer coming in any great numbers. Economically, the region, like several in Valais, is dying.

The project has the backing of the three communes affected – Salvan, Martigny and Vernayaz – as well as that of the cantonal authorities. Delez is also confident of winning the support of the federal authorities, given that the Economics Minister, Pascal Couchepin, is a local.

But the Granitpark project has not met with universal approval.

The site of the bridge has had to be moved after residents in the village of Gueuroz, which would have been directly under the bridge, complained. The inhabitants of Salvan will be asked to vote on the new project in the autumn.

The most vocal opposition has come from the environmentalist lobby – in particular the Swiss group, Pro Natura.

“This project is aimed purely at helping the leisure industry, and in the Valais we are already surrounded by the leisure industry, which has done a lot of damage to our wilderness,” says Guy Borgeat, president of Pro Natura in the Valais.

“This bridge is garbage. Places that are wild must remain wild. I can’t understand how people can come up with this kind of a project in such a sensitive area,” he told swissinfo.

Borgeat rejects the argument that the Trient Valley and other regions in the Valais need economic stimulation: “They are always saying we need more growth. But it’s always at the expense of nature.”

“This project is located in the middle of a protected site. People have already stolen enough wilderness in this part of Switzerland for leisure and industry. It has to stop,” Borgeat says.

The Granitpark organisers say they are doing everything they can to limit the impact on the environment, and that they will keep building work to a minimum. But Pro Natura is concerned about the amenities which inevitably spring up around every tourist attraction.

“It’s always the same with a project like this. At first they say they only need a few square metres. But then, as more and more people visit, they want to buy souvenirs and drinks, or they need toilets. Then there’s pressure for new roads. There’s always this escalation,” Borgeat says.

The cost of the Granitpark project has been put at SFr7.5 million ($4.4 million). Three million will be lent by banks and one million will come from a government fund for boosting mountain economies. The rest will come from the private sector.

“The political contacts we have had have been very positive. We’ve also had quite a bit of interest from investors,” Delez says.

He hopes that the bridge will eventually become one of the trademarks of tourism in the Valais, perhaps even rivalling the Matterhorn.

by Roy Probert

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