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Biological diversity as an investment - Protected areas give the Alps a good image and help man and nature

Mar 20, 2007 / Swantje Strieder
Given good management, protected areas can contribute both to regional value-added and the preservation of biodiversity. Environmentally friendly holiday accommodation with a recognised seal of approval like the Gîtes Panda in the French Alps enhances the quality of life in and around protected areas.
Image caption:
Die Einrichtung grosser funktionierender Schutzgebiete ist für Naturschützer, Raumplanerinnen und Politiker weiterhin eine der grössten Herausforderungen des 21. Jahrhunderts. © CIPRA International
Purpose-built ski resorts with car parks the size of a football pitch and the corresponding crowds converging on the cable cars: Growing tourism and mobility accompanied by the decline of agriculture and the resulting depletion of the landscape are a threat to the biological diversity of the Alps. For environmentalists, spatial planners and policy makers, the creation of large and functional protected areas is one of the major challenges of the 21st century.
At first sight, there is a confusing variety of categories of protected areas (national parks, nature protection areas, landscape protection areas, natural parks, regional parks, Biosphere Reserves, areas subject to landscape protection orders, etc.). Moreover the definitions vary from one Alpine country to another. Some protected areas primarily serve regional development purposes and the maintenance of the quality of life for the local inhabitants and neighbouring communities, while others are aimed exclusively at the preservation of biodiversity. CIPRA sees these protected areas as a pillar for sustainable regional development but has also raised its voice against fraudulent labelling in this context and is calling for a serious approach to the development of protected areas with quality criteria to be made binding for all categories and in all the countries of the Alps.
In its investigations for "Future in the Alps", the team of experts commissioned by CIPRA has concentrated primarily on projects that apparently succeed in co-ordinating opposing interests like regional development and the quality of life and the preservation of biodiversity. In its work the team has focussed on the following questions:
o Under what conditions can major protected areas contribute to both regional value-added and the preservation of biodiversity?
o Do we have successful development strategies for protected areas?
o Do existing protected areas contribute to the preservation of the species and biotopes?
o How can the preservation of biological diversity be made a priority concern?

Protected areas generate a good image
It can generally be assumed that the creation of a protected area will have a positive effect on regional development; the benefits in terms of image alone are enormous. Regional value-added, however, is not so easy to quantify. Job creation effects can only be clearly identified in the case of park management and services (biologists, park wardens and rangers); whether the new job in the café or bakery is a reaction to the hunger of incoming visitors or that of the local population is hard to determine. On the other hand, CIPRA has always said that the importance of protected areas for regional development cannot be assessed on the basis of value-added alone; they are of multifunctional value, and that value cannot always be precisely measured. Take the case of ecology: biological systems are incredibly complex and cannot be described on the basis of a few statistics - in spite of scientists interest in indicators like the presence of endangered species or the size of the protected area. The true value of biodiversity is inestimable, covering as it does aesthetic and cultural aspects, regulatory effects on the climate and water household, the quality of the soil and also the pollination of field crops by insects, on which the success of the harvests depend.

Preserving the Triglav gentian and Rhaetian poppy
In general the Alps have a lot more to offer in the way of biological diversity than the lowlands. That is because of their many ecological niches deriving from a vertical rise of over 3000 m, their varied topography and extreme differences of climate in such a compact area, and also the effects of traditional methods of agriculture. The Alps are not only home to one third of the European flora but also to 400 unique plant species like the Triglav gentian, glacier pink or Rhaetian poppy. In the last one hundred years, however, there has been a rapid decline in biodiversity, and the rate of species decline has exploded further in the last few years. To counter this development, CIPRA is calling for protected areas and other areas of high biological diversity to be networked through a system of ecological corridors. In addition, the variety of the species and ecological functionality must be preserved and promoted outside of the protected areas, too.

Challenges for protection area management
Many nature protection actors complain of a simultaneous deluge of superfluous information and lack of expertise - with regard to themselves and their staffs. At the same time it is often difficult to convince various groups like farmers, forest owners, hunters, sawmill operators, and the hotel and catering trade of the advantages of a protected area, because they are wary of restrictions being imposed on their rights and activities.
All too often the environmentalists underestimate the sensitivities and fears of the people affected. That is clearly illustrated by the case of the wolf project in the Bavarian Forest Nature Park, which failed because of a lack of acceptance on the part of the local population, or the unfortunate choice of the German name for the Rhön Biosphere Reserve, which reminded the local people of a tribal reservation in the USA - with themselves as the exhibits! Only if all concerned pull together will nature protection projects receive the support of the resident population and succeed in the long term.

Nature experience as a key holiday activity
Fortunately, the task of winning the minds of the local people is facilitated by the fact that nature protection and biological diversity are positively charged concepts in the northern countries of the Alps like Austria and Germany. 83 percent of all Austrians, for example, consider the creation of national parks important or very important; three quarters of all inhabitants of the Alps see the parks as an economic factor, and 95 percent believe that they promote tourism. 78 percent of all Germans think that enjoying the natural environment is an important part of a holiday, all the more so as walking is one of their favourite holiday pastimes.
For their research, the team of experts investigated seventeen model projects, although not all of them are located in the Alps. Their focus was on protected areas where there is close interaction between tourism, agriculture and business. From their work, the team drew the following conclusions:
o The project must be clearly defined from the start so that no false expectations can arise. Critics must be involved in the debate from the beginning. Without the active support of leading associations and businesses, many initiatives are doomed to fail.
o The management needs not only expert knowledge but also social competence so that conflicts with stakeholders can be solved in advance. A change in consumption (energy, for example) or personal habits (cycling instead of using the car) in the interest of sustainable environmental protection requires creativity and patience on the part of all concerned.
o Protected areas must be able to demonstrate their relevance over and over again if they are to receive the support and funding they need. Regular audits of the economic, social and ecological processes help to generate positive motivation on the part of the decision-makers and a high level of acceptance on the part of the general public.
o The development of ecological networks linking protected areas and their immediate surroundings leads to synergies and contributes to nature protection at a wider level.
o The creation of large protected areas requires the pulling power of a well known public figure. That makes it easier to obtain the necessary support in the political world and business community.

Insufficient research into biodiversity
The quantifiability and evaluation of biological diversity is a pressing problem for the scientific community. According to a recent poll, 96 percent of all protected areas worldwide operate a monitoring system for biodiversity or are about to install one, but the methods used to date have only been a partial success.
According to the team of experts commissioned by CIPRA, Natura 2000 - the protection area system for endangered species of flora and fauna and rare biotopes in the European Union - is a case in point. Although Natura 2000 sets a high standard for protected areas and monitoring, it pays too little attention to the special situation of the high mountains. Many unique Alpine species of plants, for example, have not even been catalogued. The protection of flagship species, i.e. especially popular and photogenic animal species like the golden eagle and bearded vulture in the Hohe Tauern National Park, generates a keen response in the media and is an incentive for many nature lovers, but it has little scientific relevance for the ecological status of the area as a whole.
The BRIM system (Biosphere Reserve Integrated Monitoring), on the other hand, is based on a broad scientific and socio-economic approach but practical implementation has so far been limited. Further research is necessary if we are to find concrete answers to the question of the extent to which protected areas contribute to the preservation of biodiversity.
Of the seventeen model projects studied by the team of experts appointed by CIPRA, three are discussed below. They are considered successful projects in the context of existing protected areas, and they support both regional development and biodiversity:

1. Carinthia/Austria

Preservation of the natural and cultural landscape in the Hohe Tauern National Park
The Hohe Tauern National Park, which was founded in 1981 as the first national park in Austria, covers large areas of the three Austrian provinces of Carinthia, Salzburg and the Tyrol. The park comprises unspoilt Alpine landscapes with glaciers, rock and scree, waterfalls, natural mountain meadows and forests, and the high-level pastures that have been managed by mountain farmers for centuries. A walk through the various vegetation zones from the valley floor to the 3000 m high peaks offers an insight into the biodiversity of the Alps.
At the beginning of the 1990s, attention turned to protection for the cultural landscape in addition to the protection of nature. The national park authorities mapped and evaluated the areas of extensive management that are of value in terms of landscape protection. A regional association was established to organise compensation payments to farmers applying extensive management practices - a new form of subsidy for agriculture. In the region of the national park in Carinthia, financial support is now provided for sustainable agriculture on a total of 6,000 hectares of land as a buffer zone surrounding the strictly protected core of the park.

Landscape protection and value-added go together
In the summer of 2003 the national park management performed a visitor census. With 16 percent, the proportion of visitors who said they had come solely because of the national park was surprisingly high. For another 34 percent, the park's existence was a further incentive in addition to the main purpose of the visit, namely "walking" or "recreation". This potential has been recognised by many hotels, mountain lodges and restaurants, and the national park website now lists three dozen partner businesses. The offering includes organic produce from the national park area as well as accommodation, guided walks and other green tourism amenities. The restaurants affiliated to the Hohe Tauern National Park Inns scheme serve creative dishes based on local organic beef in a spirit of responsibility for regional farming.

2. France

Gîtes Panda
Gîtes Panda (Panda Accommodation) is a positive marketing idea for gentle tourism throughout France that has been particularly successful in the remote areas of the French Alps. Within just a few years, the Gîtes Panda have developed a brand identity for near-natural holidays and are monitored by WWF France.
The Panda accommodation providers are affiliated to the big hotelier association Gîtes de France and have to satisfy three conditions: the businesses must be located in a regional natural or national park, they must meet the organisation's minimum standards for accommodation, and the operators are expected to play a committed role in defence of the natural environment.

Nature experience and lodgings in selected accommodation
At the A la Crecia country inn, for example, which is located at an altitude of 1100 m in the Vercors Nature Park in the Dauphiné, the proprietors have switched to solar energy for the heating and hot water. The family also manages a herd of 250 Merino sheep, which graze the mountain pastures in summer. Similarly, the owner of Ferme Les Transhumances in the Mercantour National Park in the department of Hautes-Alpes has laid out a nature trail for his visitors. And those who are not so keen on walking can join their hosts making jam, learn the traditional art of dry stone walling or try their skills as shepherds.
On the basis of successful co-operation between various institutions in the fields of tourism and environmental protection, a product of the highest quality has been created with an ecological goal.

3. Slovenia
Award-winner in CIPRA's 2005 Future in the Alps competition

Logarska Dolina, the people's park
In Slovenia, Logarska Dolina or the Logar Valley is famous as a scenic gem. The ice of the last glaciation carved out the seven kilometre long and 250 metre wide valley, which now boasts mighty larches, yews, linden and elm trees. The centuries-old farms with their expansive meadows on the valley floor give the cultural landscape a picturesque aspect.
In 1987 the municipality of Solcava, which is part of the Logar Valley, established a landscape park, but without settling the question of finance. It was only five years later, when the local people took over the park, that it really came to life.

Development in harmony with nature protection
The non-profit company launched by the local residents is licensed to run the park by the local authority. It is comprised of many partners: land owners, both residents and frequent visitors to the valley, and also experts from the spatial planning authorities. Their common objective: promoting economic development with full respect for the calls of nature and environmental protection.
The management company employed the funds received to create the infrastructure for green tourism, including a waste water treatment plant and a biomass heating system as well nature trails and the restoration of traditional buildings. How seriously the operators take eco-tourism is shown by the fact that they not only provided parking on the edge of the park but actually had a charge imposed on cars entering the valley. In addition, they restricted the amount of accommodation that could be built to prevent uncontrolled construction activity in the countryside.
In the summer season alone, the park attracts some 100,000 visitors - a precondition for direct marketing for the produce, mainly foodstuffs, from traditionally managed farms. Ultimately the measures adopted help to preserve the cultural landscape with its unique farmhouses. Whereas most locals found it hard to make a living in agriculture and forestry before the creation of the protected area, many families have now achieved a degree of prosperity on the basis of their income from green tourism.