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Our green lungs are running out of air

Looking for corridors: Katrin Löning identifies obstacles in the landscape and in people’s minds. (c) Martin Walser

Animals and plants have to migrate in order to reproduce. That involves crossing land used by human beings. Ecological networking therefore needs the support of a variety of stakeholders. CIPRA brings them together.

On a flip-chart placed on the table, Ueli Strauss draws two parallel lines in blue – representing the Alpine Rhine – and then adds two black lines on either side of the river to indicate the Swiss and Austrian motorways: insurmountable obstacles for many animals and plants. The onlookers’ eyes follow his hands. Two transverse green lines appear, and Strauss fills in the space between them. This is a wildlife crossing, a green bridge. “The Swiss cantonal development plan specifies legally binding links between green areas,” says the Director of the Spatial Planning Office of the Swiss Canton of St. Gallen. On the Vorarlberg side, he adds, links have been defined but they are not legally binding.

Some thirty municipality representatives and experts from a variety of fields including spatial planning, nature protection, hunting and climate change mitigation from Liechtenstein, Vorarlberg and Switzerland have gathered on this autumn afternoon at the invitation of CIPRA International to attend a workshop on the subject of habitat networking for flora and fauna in the Alpine Rhine Valley.

Wide range of perspectives

Participants’ expectations vary: Ernst Albrich of the Vorarlberg Hunting Association is there “to listen and learn”; Martin Strele of the Vorarlberg Verein für Bodenfreiheit (Freedom for Land Association) is “looking for allies”; Oliver Müller of the Liechtenstein Office of the Environment is hoping “to develop a cross-border planning base”, and Ueli Strauss is focusing on “striking a balance between various interests in the border region”.

The workshop is a product of the international greenAlps project, which has been created to examine and utilise results from on-going and completed projects, process them and make them available to stakeholders at a regional, national and international level with the aim of improving the general framework for efficient and sustainable European environmental policies to protect and preserve the natural environment in the Alps (Biodiversity & Landscape, p.11).

CIPRA International was responsible for public relations and the coordination of publications and organisation of events, including the final conference held in Chambéry, France, in November 2014 and the workshop held in the Alpine Rhine Valley in October. The project ran until the end of 2014 and was co-financed by the European Fund for Regional Development's Alpine Space programme, the Liechtenstein government and the Paul Schiller Foundation.

The many users and uses of land

Differences in legislation in the countries of the Alps are a major obstacle on migration routes for flora and fauna. More tangible obstacles exist in the form of roads, residential areas, and commercial and industrial buildings. Today’s infrastructure is encroaching more and more on green areas. The increasingly technical character of agriculture is another reason why our green lungs are running out of air. In addition to flora and fauna, which are dependent on green areas and the corridors that link them, human beings are among the losers too, as these green lungs also act as groundwater reservoirs, recreational areas and/or extensive farming land.

On a map of the Alpine Rhine Valley, the workshop participants are shown the location of the region’s green lungs by Heiner Schlegel of the Renat spatial development agency. “They are highly diverse. Some are to be found within the lake basin,” he says, indicating a hatched area on the shore of Lake Constance, “while some lie between mountain slopes, and others are land improvement sites or flood plains.” The hatched areas on the map are connected by blue lines: rivers, the arteries that bring life to the green lungs.

Most of the corridors between habitats include land that has multiple users and rarely enjoys any form of protection. All too often, proposed land uses are defended with the public interest argument. Mario Broggi, former President of CIPRA International, puts it like this: “Public interest is the sum of the individual interests involved, and the landscape today looks correspondingly fragmented.”

Building an Alps-wide network

For the participants one thing is clear. Before the natural environment can be networked, people need to network with each other across borders and different disciplines, with spatial planners playing a key role. They have to strike a balance between conflicting demands in terms of land use. But Alpine countries organise their spatial planning systems in different ways. In Switzerland, the cantons settle many questions in their development plans, while in Vorarlberg decisions are taken at a local level – and Liechtenstein has no spatial planning legislation at all.

What should be the benefits of a piece of land? Who is entitled to make use of it? When is compromise required? Some strategies and guidelines have already been developed to help answer such questions, but the problem lies in implementing them. This is one of the conclusions reached by the greenAlps project. The greenAlps team, comprising nine partners from six Alpine countries, communicated their findings in the form of recommendations for policy-makers and the Alpine Space programme. With these recommendations and other publications, projects and activities, CIPRA – together with its partners – is working towards the creation of an Alps-wide ecological network. CIPRA’s contribution includes participation in the Alpine Convention's Ecological Network Platform (Alpine Policy, p.15) and support for local authorities via the Alliance in the Alps network of municipalities (Cities, Towns & Villages, p.17).

“Allies: hunters, nature protection organisations, the tourist trade, local recreation facility providers, the media ….” This is what Katrin Löning of the Austrian Institute of Ecology writes in green on the flip-chart. Michael Vogel, President of the Alpine Network of Protected Areas, points to the green bridge next to it. “Can pedestrians use it, too?” he asks. Now that's an idea – people by day and deer by night, a combined wildlife corridor and pedestrian bridge with added value for everyone!

Source: Annual Report 2014, CIPRA International, http://www.cipra.org/annual-reports