National parks back on parliamentary agenda

The Greina plateau in south-eastern Switzerland could be part of a new national park. Greina Stiftung

The Swiss government does not want to have to fund new national parks. But parliament - meeting for its regular summer session - may have other ideas.

This content was published on May 31, 2005 - 13:37

Switzerland currently has only one national park, despite being a pioneer of the idea more than 90 years ago.

In 1914, Switzerland led the way in creating the first national park in the alpine region and in central Europe. It is situated near the village of Zernez, in the southeastern corner of the country.

But Swiss pioneering efforts in this field have since run out of steam. In fact, the Zernez national park, which borders Italy, has remained the only one of its kind.

Over the years, other European countries have more than caught up with Switzerland, establishing a large number of protected areas which are recognised and financed by the state.

"It is true that in Switzerland there are more than 2,000 protected areas of one kind or another. But they are small, and hardly anyone knows they exist," said Otto Sieber of the environmentalist Pro Natura organisation.

"More recognition on the part of the state would help to increase public awareness of the importance of protecting the natural environment."

Economic factor

The issue is not only important from the point of view of environment and landscape.

European experience shows that national parks can be an important factor in the sustainable economic development of peripheral and structurally weak regions.

"The visibility of national parks can be an asset in marketing a region," Sieber added.

"For this reason, the creation of new parks is now seen as an instrument of regional policy. A national park generates annual added value of SFr17 million ($13.8 million)."

The economic argument has finally won over the Swiss cantonal and local authorities, which are generally not motivated by purely environmentalist concerns when it comes to natural heritage.

In recent years a broad-based coalition has formed aimed at pushing for the creation of new national parks.

Initially, the government supported the idea. In autumn 2002, it drew up proposals for an amended law protecting the natural environment and landscape. The draft legislation defined three types of protected area of national importance.

Change of direction

Some of the funding for setting up and managing protected areas was to be provided by the federal authorities. The services and products of the new parks were to have their own quality label.

But in February 2004, the government surprised everyone by deciding to delay the proposed revision for financial reasons.

It said that at a time of budget cuts the federal authorities should not be taking on new financial commitments.

For many observers, the change in direction was just one signal of a swing to the Right after the Swiss People’s Party won a second seat in government and its figurehead, Christoph Blocher, joined the cabinet.

The decision provoked a massive reaction. More than 300 local authorities wrote to the government asking it to reconsider.

Parks yes, funding no

The government has partially relented. Last February, it submitted a new draft, which reiterates the main points of the previous proposal. But there is one major difference: it rules out the possibility of federal funding.

During the June parliamentary session, the Senate - consisting of representatives of the country’s 26 cantons - will be debating the legislation.

There are signs that parliamentarians want to return to the original concept and provide for federal funding of up to SFr10 million annually.

The House of Representatives, the other parliamentary chamber, is due to debate the issue later this year. The first new parks could receive federal recognition as early as 2007.


Key facts

There are three types of protected areas:

Full-scale national parks, comprising a large central area in which no human intervention is permitted.
Regional parks, in which human activity is possible but subject to strict environmental controls with emphasis on ecologically sustainable development.
Parks in and around urban areas, established to protect the natural environment in densely populated areas.

Recognition on the part of the federal government would allow the parks to attach a quality label to their products and services.

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In brief

In the summer session of parliament, the Senate will debate a revised version of the law protecting the natural environment and landscape.

The government-sponsored legislation provides for federal recognition of three types of protected area of national importance.

The government and a parliamentary committee disagree over the funding of national parks.

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