The planned extension of Switzerland's national park in canton Graubünden has been called into question after residents in the village of Zernez voted against the idea. A decision is now expected to be taken in January over the future of the park.
The community of Zernez rejected the proposal to enlarge the national park by 227 votes to 145. Close to 64 per cent of the residents took part in the vote, which the mayor, Chasper Buchli, described as "emotional".
The decision is a serious setback to the government plans, because 69 per cent of the park is located in Zernez.
The head of the national park commission, Martin Bundi, said the chances of realising the project were slim and a decision would now have to be taken in January.
Zernez rejected the proposal to extend park by 200 square kilometres. The park commission says the present area is too small to allow the comprehensive conservation of the rich variety of native species of flora and fauna the park was designed to protect.
As part of the project, a buffer zone surrounding the park boundaries would be established, where only environmentally sustainable human activity would be allowed.
"I am very disappointed," Bundi said. In his opinion, there is mistrust between the community and the environment ministry. "The reasonable arguments presented in favour of the extension fell on deaf ears," he said.
Zernez's mayor, Chasper Buchli, said he regretted the "emotional" arguments which led to the decision. The voters feared that their authority would be undermined in the event of the plan going ahead.
Twenty communities have to vote on the project and so far, Zernez is the second community to do so. In May 1999, Lavin voted in favour of the idea.
The director of the park, Heinrich Haller, said Zernez's decision was a "very bad sign" for plans to expand the park. "We have carried out this project democratically, keeping in contact with the communities," he said.
There remain three possibilities for the commission, according to Martin Bundi. The first option includes pursuing the project with the other communities as planned. The second option would be to modify the project and leave to one side the communities which reject the expansion plans. The third possibility would be to end the exercise altogether.
The government, the canton of Graubünden and the national park commission will spend the next month trying to come up with a solution.
In June, the cabinet approved a plan for the park to be extended to include a dozen lakes known as the "Lakes of Macun".
The environment ministry described the 3.6 square kilometre area as a "piece of Greenland in the middle of the Alps". Lying on a high plateau to the north of the park, the area around the lakes is home to a variety of alpine species including ibex, marmot and chamois.
The latest deal was worked out between the national park commission and community of Lavin, which administers the area.
Once the only national park in Central Europe, the Swiss park is today the second smallest of the 14 alpine national parks.
swissinfo with agencies