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Tackling Alpine Preservation

It's been almost a decade since European countries decided to work together to preserve the Alps. With new threats emerging, they're meeting in Germany on Tuesday to plan for the future.


Under threat

Next year, the Alpine Convention, a regional agreement for the protection and sustainable development of the Alps, will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

But in the decade since European countries with part of their territory in the Alps made a great leap forward and agreed to work together to find common solutions for common problems, critics say preservation efforts have not gone far enough.

Meanwhile, a host of emerging threats demand urgent attention.

Environment ministers meet in Germany

Webcam der Woche Webcam Quiz Deutschland heute DW-TV Sendung vom 27.12.2002 Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Garmisch-Partenkirchen sits right near the German Alps in southern Bavaria

On Tuesday, the environmental ministers of the seven permanent members of the convention, led by Germany, the current chair, will meet in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany for the eighth Alpine Conference. They'll assess their successes and set out an ambitious plan for the region, a rich and diverse area encompassing 190,287 square kilometres with a population of more than 13 million.

But with the Alpine Convention remaining a non-binding framework with, until now, no permanent secretariat, it remains to be seen if it has the political muscle to get the job done.

Regional thinking a good start

With the growth of the environmental movement in the 1960's and 1970's an increased awareness of the threats facing the Alps developed, and preservationists lobbied hard for a collective approach.

After years of wrangling, the Alpine Convention went into force in March of 1995. A framework agreement between seven European countries, it set out to limit environmental degradation by harmonizing economic and environmental policies in the region.

Thus, with 13 protocols, including ones related to air and water pollution, the convention's greatest initial achievement was that it promoted a regional way of thinking where highly territorial national policies once prevailed.

Gletscher gehen zurück Alpen Schweiz

The Morteratsch glacier in Switzerland has been melting at a rapid pace.

"The Alpine Convention increased the realization that the Alps need to be treated as a region and the participants need to develop a regional way of thinking," Martin Price, director of the Center for Mountain Studies at Perth College in Great Britain and the former chairman of the European Mountain Forum told DW-WORLD.

Andreas Götz, the director of the International Commission for the protection of the Alps (CIPRA) agreed.

"The main thing is that a regional consciousness developed," he told DW-WORLD.

Initial success gives way to stalled agenda

In the years since it went into force, the Alpine Convention has not been without its successes. A network of protected areas was created, as well as an International Scientific Commission for Alpine Research, based in Bern, to study environmental threats and possible solutions. What's more, related initiatives, such as the Alliance in the Alps, founded by CIPRA, encouraged individual regions to share information and best practices.

Ein Gleitschirmflieger fliegt vor der Kulisse der Alpen

A paraglider is flying in front of the Alps down from the Brauneck mountain near Bad Tölz in southern Germany.

But after an initial flutter of activity, some say efforts have stalled. Though lots of data was collected and inter-regional relationships were forged, the tough issues -- inter-state transportation, the effects of global warming, the impactof depopulation -- have not been directly tackled.

"The easier issues have been solved first and the more difficult ones left until later," Price said.

Meeting to jumpstart agenda?

At the meeting in Germany on Tuesday, the ministers are expected to announce a six-year plan to breath new life into the convention, and the creation of a permanent secretariat based in Innsbruck to oversee the revised agenda and the establishment of a monitoring mechanism to chart progress will be announced.

Likewise, CIPRA has launched a "Future of the Alps" initiative, which it hopes will - on a grass roots basis - help speed up the adaptation of the individual protocols.

"We do not have a lack of knowledge," Wolfgang Pfefforkorn, the director of the Future of the Alps Initiative, told DW-WORLD. "We have a lack of the implementation."

A more results-oriented agenda, with a regular "State of the Alps" report would be a good start, Werner Baetzing, an expert in alpine research at the University of Erlangen in Germany told DW-WORLD.

New ski resorts threaten highest peaks

Triesenberg in Liechtenstein

The steeple of the church in the Liechtenstein village of Triesenberg is seen in front of the Alvierkette mountain chain in the Swiss Alps.

A renewed commitment to Alpine preservation could not come at a better time. New threats are emerging, illustrating the Alps delicate state. Chief among them: global warming, which will affect the region in a number of different ways, including, possibly precipitating the end of ski-related tourism.

According to a report released last year by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), up to half of all Alpine ski resorts in France, Austria and Switzerland may be forced to close over the next fifty years if current global warming trends continue and the snowline rises another 300 meters to 1800 meters above sea level.

In response, the owners of the threatened resorts are looking to build so-called "second generation ski resorts" above the revised snowline among the Alps' highest peeks and glaciers despite strict laws preventing further development.

In May, in the Tirol, they succeeded. The local government ruled to relax the law, paving the way for two major projects.

Michel Revaz, the deputy director of CIPRA told DW-WORLD that he is worried the move will spark a dangerous game one upmanship among European ski resorts.

"Now that it's happened in Austria, all the others will want to do the same," he told DW-WORLD. He would prefer to see the affected regions look for an alternatives to ski tourism, rather than colonizing the Alps remaining pristine peaks.

Convention a model to learn from

Sven Hannawald Vierschanzentournee

German ski jumper Sven Hannawald soars in front of the Zugspitze mountain ridge

In the case of global warming and ski tourism, and a number of other areas, the benefits of a regional approach are many. On Tuesday, the members of the Alpine Convention will be looking to build on past successes and put bite into a decade-old agreement. The future of a region representative of many people's picture of Europe hangs in the balance.

On the plus side, experts say that when it comes to the preservation of mountain regions, Europe is leading the way and setting an excellent example for other mountain areas around the world struggling with similar issues.

"Maybe it's not the model to follow," Price said. "But it's the model to learn from."

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