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Nature protection gives region new lease on life

The Entlebuch is covered by moorlands and forest meadows

(Keystone)

The main railway line between Berne and Lucerne passes through the lush countryside of the Entlebuch region. Few tourists visit the area, but the locals hope to change that by turning it into Switzerland's first Biosphere Reserve.

High above the main valley in the Entlebuch stands the Church of the Holy Cross. Pilgrims flock here to see a silver crucifix believed to contain a piece of the cross brought to Switzerland after the Crusades.

The dark spruce forest lying next to the church is becoming a place of pilgrimage in its own right. A newly completed boardwalk winds through the tall trees and over babbling brooks. It's called the "Soul Walk".

"The aim is to let people sense the soul of the forest. Visitors can get in touch with themselves by following the path," says biologist, Engelbert Ruoss. "If you are very sensitive you can feel, hear, and see things that are very typical of the forest. So keep quiet, and watch, listen and smell."

Ruoss is heading the project to have the Entlebuch recognised by Unesco as a Biosphere Reserve.

Biosphere Reserves are designed to meet one of the most challenging issues of the 21st century - to conserve biodiversity while at the same time meeting the material needs of an expanding population.

There are more than 350 Biosphere Reserves worldwide but the Entlebuch, if approved by Unesco next year, would be the first in Switzerland. Unlike national parks and nature reserves, which are strictly off-limits to any form of development, Biosphere Reserves put the emphasis on sustainability.

They are made up of core, buffer and transition areas, and are intended to promote nature conservation and scientific research, while fostering sustainable human development.

The Entlebuch seems an ideal site for a biosphere reserve, with moorlands, meadows and a karst moonscape covering nearly half of the total area. It is already protected by federal environmental laws, and Swiss scientists have been studying the fragile landscape for years.

Unfortunately, the protected status has done little for the region's economy.

"The Biosphere Reserve is a chance for the Entlebuch because the area is rather poor," says Ruoss. "It isn't a mainstream tourist area, so if we want to develop we have to have a USP - a unique selling point."

The communities in the Entlebuch have set up a number of hiking trails and paths to attract visitors to the proposed reserve. They range from the one-hour "Soul Walk" to a challenging four-day hike exploring the moors.

The Sörenberg ski resort lying at the end of a side valley stands to gain most from the new trails. It's just one of many ski resorts in Switzerland faced with the threat of global warming. Situated at 1,100 metres above sea level, it's losing skiers to higher regions where snow can still be guaranteed.

"I don't think it's possible anymore to survive depending only on winter tourism," says tourist director, Theo Schnider. "We have to find ways to attract tourists the whole year round. So it's important that we promote the summer season."

"We're trying to develop sustainable summer tourism in harmony with our fantastic natural landscape."

The resort has entered a loose partnership with the area's farmers, who, like farmers across the country, have been hard hit by subsidy cuts. The tourist office promotes their home-grown products like sausages, honey, jam, and even strawberry wine.

The strawberry wine is a relatively new product, unique to the region, and was the brainchild of Franz Schnider. He was one of the first farmers in the Entlebuch to take matters into his own hands.

No longer able to depend on subsidies, he and his family took an innovative approach to agriculture. They planted some of their fields with strawberries, unprecedented at the time for a farm lying more than 1,000 metres above sea level.

They have since opened a restaurant where Franz does the cooking. A separate shop sells his strawberry wine, along with other farm products and handicrafts made by his wife.

Schnider says the Biosphere label would help bring his products to a wider market. "We'd like to be able to sell the specialities from the Entlebuch. The Entlebuch must have a name, a label that we can sell."

The sound of the bells from the Church of the Holy Cross ring faintly through the forest of old trees covered with moss and lichens.

Beside the trunk of a fallen tree, a cross has been erected. Ruoss stops for a moment to read the plaque. "This is the cross for a very old spruce which was born in the 19th century and was knocked down by Hurricane Lothar, December 26, 1999."

A little further on, there's another plaque: "You will find more in the forest than in books. You'll learn more from trees and rocks than any teacher."

A biosphere, according to Ruoss, is also meant to inspire.

by Dale Bechtel

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