The Berchtesgaden Biosphere Reserve is a unique alpine environment that everyone hopes will survive the pressures of a changing world.
The Königssee, or King's Lake, shows the majestic beauty of the Berchtesgaden Biosphere Reserve.
When the glaciers in the Berchtesgaden Biosphere Reserve melt in the summer, the water in the streams turns white. Glacier milk is what the locals call it. The mountains rise straight into the sky, birds sing, and a lone eagle circles on a thermal wave before flying back to its nest. The sounds of cowbells from a distant pasture add their reassuring peal.
The Berchtesgaden Alpine and National Park in Bavaria was founded 25 years ago. UNESCO declared it part of the Berchtesgaden Biosphere Reserve in 1990. Its core comprises Alpine meadows, mountains and lakes. Altogether, the biosphere forms an area of nearly 500 square kilometers. It doesn’t only include this wilderness, though, but also towns, farms and recreation areas.
Zukunft Biosphäre administers projects in the reserve. It is precisely these human areas in the biosphere’s outermost zone, which concern director Werner d’Oleire-Oltmanns.
In this so-called "transitional" zone, the most important goal of the biosphere is that the human population gets into contact with the concept of sustainable development, he says. "The very fundamental idea is that we use our surrounding, our biosphere in a way that our children can use it also."
The sustainable use of the biosphere calls for conservation measures. Currently, d’Oleire-Oltmanns and his team are working on automobile-free tourism projects.
One calls for bicycle trails in the transitional zone, another involves an online booking system, in which tourists can organize car-free holidays in the biosphere. He says tourism is falling in Berchtesgaden and the local officials welcome anything, which will attract new ecologically-sound tourism to the area.
"We need a certain mix," he says. "Hiking is important. Wellness is also important and a combination is also a possibility, but it’s best if you have a mix."
Convincing the farming community
But attracting tourists is not the only goal. The reserve authorities also want to convince the people living within the biosphere. For the region’s farmers, many of whom can barely make a living by farming alone, the biosphere idea was viewed with skepticism.
"Farmers are very conservative," says d’Oleire-Oltmanns. "We have two groups: those who see the possibility of an advantage and those who sternly oppose any change."
Because of its topography, it is almost impossible to separate wilderness sectors from agricultural use areas in Berchtesgaden. The mountainous terrain leaves farmers with very little flat land, not enough to support grazing animals. Over the centuries, they have cleared forest and still maintain the practice of taking their animals to summer pastures in the mountains.
As a result, there are cows in the National Park and farmers maintain their century-old grazing rights, even in the high meadows.
"I don’t think we really needed this."
Franz Kuchlbauer farms the Kederbacherhof, a farm that was first recorded in a land deed in 1380. He has 13 hectares of land. Most of it is so steep, he has to mow the hay by hand. Without his Alpine meadows, he would be unable to continue farming. He takes his 20 cows into the mountains, where they remain each year from the beginning of June to the end of September, grazing in two of his pastures.
Kuchelbauer’s attitude to the biosphere reserve is wait and see. "So far, nothing has changed, but that usually happens later," he says. "As farmers, I don’t think we really needed this. Farmers have formed our landscape since the 13th century and, as you can see, it is still beautiful. And neither a National Park nor a Biosphere could have done it better. All we can do is maintain it and for that, you also need farmers."
If the farmers give up, he adds, there would only be a wilderness in the valley. "And that’s not anything anybody wants."
Farmers get no financial help from the biosphere project. Kuchlbauer can only survive thanks to his second job as an electrician. Many small farmers like him depend on second jobs. For their children, the idea of working eight hours in town, then going home to put in another 8 hours on the farm is not very attractive.
Prices of produce and meat are so low; it is hardly worth it to raise them on the labor-intensive Alpine farms. Farmers have to sell their produce locally. Expensive transport to metropolitan markets, where they have to compete with agro businesses just doesn’t pay. The biosphere can only offer farmers encouragement, but no funds to help them.
Perhaps that is the crux of the biosphere problem. It has the responsibility to preserve and sustain an area, but no real political power and no source of funding. The idea is that the label "Biosphere Reserve" is in itself attractive enough to galvanize local governments to pitch in.
But for that, major marketing measures are needed, says d’Oleire-Oltmanns, and there is no funding for such measures. "One problem of biospheres is that they’re not very well known, and not important politically," he says.
"The second problem is that all biosphere reserves have a weak administration, so they are working hard, but developing concepts needs public support," he adds. Without marketing possibilities, however, this goal remains as out of reach as the surrounding mountaintops.