National Park expansion hailed

Phillippe Roch of the Swiss Environment Agency (second left) described the expanded National Park as a gift for the nation Keystone

"This is a marvellous present for the whole country" is how the head of the Federal Environment Agency, Philippe Roch, described the expansion of Switzerland's only National Park, which was inaugurated - symbolically - on August 1.

This content was published on August 1, 2000 - 08:01

The tiny area, in canton Graubünden, was the first place in Europe to be designated a nature reserve. The inclusion of the lakes of Macun - a small 3.5 square kilometre area - represents a first step towards trebling the size of the park.

Although the Swiss National Park was the first of its kind in western Europe, when it was created on August 1, 1914, it is now one of the smallest. However, the 169-square kilometre alpine area in Switzerland's far east corner is the largest nature reserve in the country.

It protects a rich variety of fauna and flora, including ibex, chamois, red and roe deer, and the rare bearded vulture. But it is generally acknowledged that the park is too small to allow comprehensive protection.

Hans Lozza of the National Park service says the two dozen Macun lakes on a plateau 2,600 metres above sea level will make up for the deficit of wetlands within the existing boundaries. He says the land around them will also help to enrich the park's diversity.

"Geologically, the existing park consists of 95 per cent dolomite and limestone whereas the Macun area is made up of gneiss and amphibolites," said Lozza. "There are also some very special flowers, for example Ranunculus Pygmaeus, a very small yellow flower which, in Switzerland, is only found around the lakes of Macun."

The environmental organisation, Pro Natura, whose founding members gave the push for the park's creation in 1914, believes the expansion represents a moral victory for conservation efforts. "It's the first time in nearly 90 years that there's been a public debate about expanding or creating more national parks," said Otto Sieber, general-secretary of Pro Natura.

Sieber says while neighbouring countries try to set up more and larger national parks, Switzerland chose another path by subsidising agriculture in the Alps, seeing farmers as the best defence against development. "That prevented us from rethinking the question of national parks," Sieber said.

Pro Natura and the National Park service are convinced plans to eventually triple the park's size will be approved in the next few years. However, securing the small Macun area was no small feat. The lakes belong to the commune of Lavin, and it took more than three years to get the people of Lavin to agree to lease the lakes to the park.

"It was largely an emotional issue," said Lavin councillor, Robert Cantieni. "Many people accused us of selling and not simply leasing the area. Sport fishermen regret that they've lost their fishing ground. We also noticed during our discussions a certain amount of scepticism towards the National Park administration.

"Some people felt we simply gave in, even though the agreement is clear and transparent. Many people also said that Macun was protected well enough without the need for it to be made part of the park."

The lakes were a popular hunting and fishing ground, but Cantieni says it is primarily the peace and solitude found there that mean the most to the people of Lavin. The lakes have also provided inspiration. So much so, that a local writer penned a novel about resident dwarves and dragons.

Zernez is the next commune due to vote on handing over some of its territory to the park, which is expected by the end of the year. If approved, the area under discussion will become the missing link between the old park boundaries and the lake area, which stands alone as an island.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, Pro Natura has decided to use the publicity from the expansion plans to launch a campaign for a second national park. "We want six or eight more parks. But we have to start by trying to get a second," said Sieber.

"Today, nobody can say that it has to be here or there, so we've taken a different approach. We're asking regions to come to us with proposals. We will finance feasibility studies, and if any proposal is approved, Pro Natura will help fund a new park with a SFr1 million grant."

The Swiss National Park is not the only nature reserve in the country, but it is the only area of any size where man is not allowed to interfere. "The park is quite small but it should be an example of how nature develops if there is no human interaction," said Lozza. "If you go into the national park you can really see that!"

Lozza says there is still a long road ahead but it's crucial to complete the expansion if Switzerland is to play its part in putting a stop to the rapid decline in biological diversity.

"I think it will be possible and should be possible because species protection in the Alps is very important, because species have been dying out," he said.

by Dale Bechtel

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