swiss national park

Swiss National Park

Unique in its kind - unharmed living world.

A modern sanctuary dedicated to nature for eternity.

Based in an initially degraded nature area, economically underdeveloped.

A great idea for nature, a concept that survived for more than 100 years with minimal changes.

    As changes are happening faster and faster, the social entropy is increasing, there is no choice but look back at the time when wise decisions were taken with expectations to last, when thinking was “live plants and animals” and not “services provided by ecosystems”.

    Switzerland passed through a deforestation period in the 18th century. By the end of the 19th century a large part of the alpine area of Eastern Switzerland (region of Lower Engadine) was degraded by deforestation (timber), mining and cattle ranging. This land constituted the core area of the Swiss national park. “Switzerland “with unflagging zeal and little regard to cost” corrected rivers and creeks, dried up swamps and marshes, and deforested even the steepest slopes of the mountains” - 1914, Bisserger, chair of the parliamentary commission for the creation of the Swiss National Park.

    Pro Natura (Switzerland’s oldest nature conservation organization) was created in 1909 by the pioneering families and biologists, as the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature, specially to fund and create the Swiss National Park. The park was established in 1914 by a Federal act, consisting of the formerly private land and some land added by the State and local communes. The Park is the oldest in the Alps, it’s territory is 174,2 km2. The original goal of the Park is to establish an area for the “protection of all animal and plant life from human influence”.

Ethical premises of the Park.

For more information: Patrick Kupper, Creating Wilderness, A transnational History of the Swiss National Park, 2014)

    “Wilderness is not an objective category but a state of mind; it is a byproduct of the process of individual and social appropriation of nature. Accordingly, it is important to perennially historicize wilderness, and to situate it both in time and in space.”. Ideas about wilderness in the Swiss society “were grounded in the …traditions of European Romanticism and at a core antithetical to civilisation… Swiss wilderness was no longer considered a given but rather something that had disappeared a long time ago… The park founders let their contemporaries know that they wished the national park to be a “grand experiment:” Within the national park, “alpine ur-nature should be restored and presented and presented to the future as a sort of sanctuary for undisturbed natural life. In accordance with its experimental character, this process should be approached and validated scientifically…The alpine primeval nature to be restored to the Swiss National Park was a wilderness “such as had adorned the Alps as a pure creation of nature before the intrusion of humans.”

    The Park took into consideration the fact that Swiss wilderness disappeared a long time ago, in contrast with parks in other countries (US), which were established to preserve bits of remaining wilderness. “The founders’ core idea in pursuing total protection was not so much to preserve nature in its “original” form as it was to return such nature to modern civilisation and to scientifically support and validate the process required to achieve this goal.”

    The Park corresponded to the movement of cataloguing of the world based on a dual-category system: a natural space separate from social space of human civilisation. The significance of this dichotomy is well expressed by the Chair of the Commission of the Swiss National Park and a renowned botanist Carl Schroeter (Federal Technical High School, Zürich) : “ (The national park) is primarily a place where any human interference is prohibited for all time, and where alpine ur-nature can and will recover undisturbed and continue to evolve. It offers a refuge for plants and animals, a sanctuary, a sacred place for nature. Its borders serve as a breakfront for the waves of human culture flowing from every nation, which have destroyed the youthful countenance of Mother Earth: the park is a place apart from “ecumenism”, from the sphere of colonisation”. The creation of a national park should “especially now be highly valued as a productive ferment in the hoped-for renewal of humanity, which has become too materialistic and selfish”

1914: Bissenger, chair of the parliamentary commission for the creation of the Park: the most vivid illustration of human greatness “is the fact that, once humans had become the absolute rulers of the earth and their fellow creatures, they felt compelled to protect those creatures to some degree against their own power and depravity by erecting barriers to create plant and animal sanctuaries, sacred places for nature”. The omnipotence of man obliges him to act responsibly and to assure the well-being of other living beings. 

1923: Prof. Carl Schroeter: Seldom has a movement of a purely idealistic character spread so rapidly and victoriously through the world as the movement to protect Nature against the civilisation which threatens to overwhelm it. Everywhere is heard the cry, “save, what may yet be saved, of the original face of mother earth.”” Swiss national park 1.pdf

1926: Prof. Schroeter, fourth Hooker lecture at the Lilnean Society: The movement for Nature protection is very strong in Switzerland, and civil law permits even expropriation in the interest of natural and historical monuments. The formation of the League for the Protection of Nature (Naturschutzbund) has made the matter a national one; it has about 30,000 members, who pay an annual subscription of 2 francs, or 50 francs for life membership. The League has been instrumental in many ways, but the most effective measure is the creation of the Swiss National Park, which occupies about 54 square miles in the Lower Engadine. Here shooting, fishing, manuring, grazing, mowing and wood-cutting are entirely prohibited. No flower or twig may be gathered, no animal killed, no stone removed, and even fallen trees must remain undisturbed. There are no hotels, only simple Alpine shelter huts, and camping and the lighting of fires is not allowed. The aim is to exclude the effect of human interference so far as possible: scenery, plants and animals are absolutely protected. Swiss national park 2.pdf).

    Paul Sarasin, the spiritual and policy father of the park, an independent polymath: “just as Nature knows no political boundaries, safeguarding it is also not limited to confines of states”. “It is not out of national vanity, but to assert a fact, when I say that for the first time, anywhere on Earth, there is a single, comprehensive, closely guarded (in every sense of the word) large-scale reserve, and that is the Swiss National Park in the Lower Engadine; it should and can serve as a model for all others”.

    Jean-Jaques Rousseau contributed to the ethical concept by looking at nature as the physical basis of life and having an intrinsic value that liberates nature and engages with it.

    Newtonian physics were shaken by the relativity and quantum theories in the beginning of the 20th century. Quantum physics made clear that observations and measurement could not help but disturb the object being studied.

The Park is based on two pillars: strict nature protection and scientific observations.

All actions or absence of action are nature oriented.

I. Total Protection, stringent protective regulations, totally autonomous nature:

    Nature protection there is considered as part of heritage conservation.

    The original goal was to totally avoid human impact over a large area for a long period of time. For more than 100 years the Park has benefited from legal protection that correspond to the initial intention of the founders of the Park. The Park managed to ban access to a forested area for more than 100 years, despite the provisions of the Swiss Civil Code. Everything is nature-oriented, it’s a long term experience and experiment, allowing studying natural processes for their own benefit. The fauna and flora develop there freely and the natural processes follow their own dynamics. It is not about species protection, the whole area is protected by its natural processes, whatever they are. This wholistic and consistent philosophy represented, since the foundation of the Park, the central element and the guarantee of its future development.

    Total protection goal was a reaction to nature-destructive modernity. With time, developing theoretical approaches, based on the openness of ecological processes, corrected this concept while keeping the original slogan “nature prevails” as the practical base of the concept. At present the goal of total protection is understood as “process protection”, nature might not return to equilibrium but will stay in motion.

    Strict separation of the park and surrounding areas, of wilderness and civilisation, has always been a hight priority, for the sake of both parts.

    The park’s concept stands explicitly against a division between of the animal kingdom into useful and harmful animals. The Constitution of 1874 provided the Federal Government with legislative rights for forests protection but the predators were not protected at that time. In 1962 bears and lynxes were added to the list of protected animals in the Federal hunting act, thus ending the division between harmful and useful animals. “All wild things are equal in the national park” (annual report 1939) remained the approach forever.

    The legal protection of initially established rules and constant reaffirmation of the original approach allowed the park to withstand different types of societal pressure, in particular by the electricity industry (dams), tourism development, overgrazing by multiplying deer. 

    The Park is the only park in the Alps having the IUCN status of a “strict reserve” (Ia), the highest protection level, not because of its initial hight nature or landscape value, but because of its initial hight level of degradation of nature and intention of founders.

    The Park is often described as a heterotopia, this status led to tensions with the surrounding culture, relevant to land use change, prohibition of subsistence practices, approach to visitors as “disturbances”, assigning high value to nature protected from any human influence.


    Despite the goal of total protection of anthropogenically undisturbed nature, some interventions have been agreed for the Park. Through interventions nature was not distorted but corrected, the goal being helping nature to erase human influence. The goal of nature developing into a natural equilibrium became less compelling with time, conditions were changing and the park area was too small for thriving species. The capacity, professional and financial, also developed with time.

    Some introduction of wildlife in respective habitats: ibex. 1920 report: “an old, fundamentally distorted view that ibex preferred to live around glaciers, snow, and rocky deserts. No! It was human, with their culture (alpine commerce and hunting), who drove the ibex higher and brought about their extinction due to more precarious living conditions. Ibex need food to live, not snow and ice.” The release of the ibex was well accepted by the local population. To keep the ibex in the park salt licks were used, in particular when surrounding areas started luring the ibex out of the park to boost tourism.

    The second reintroduction was the bearded vulture in 1991, also well accepted by the public.

    Reintroduction of bears was considered, one experiment conducted, but abandoned due to lack of food for them, tourism, livestock and negative attitude of farmers. The area did not satisfy the needs of wolves and otters.

    Management of bears in case of return, mainly compensation for damage by bears.

    Control of fox and deer populations. Stocking out trout in the Cluozza.

    Another intervention was protection of park’s borders. Post-Second World War years saw the failure of the illusion that the park can operate and a nature’s island, untouched by surrounding modernity. Wardens working on it became the object of local resentment and envy. Initially the number of park violations was extremely small, wardens were very effective to keep poachers, timber thieves, trappers, gatherers, livestock and domestic animals away.

    Fire management: Combating human-created fires was part of the policy of total protection. The question of wether the natural processes should be allowed to run, under total protection, or should one intervene to protect flora and fauna from naturally occurring fires was assessed on the basis of nature regrowth after natural fires between 1951 and 1962. Park authorities decided to suppress even natural wildfires as being too destructive (underbrush accumulating and slow after-fire regrowth).

    The Park did not have an active reforestation programme, only natural regeneration without human interference.

Keeping focus: The Park kept the same focus for more than 100 years. It showed an amazing permanence in the face of change. The Park was explicitly excluded from the reorganisation of the federal government’s reserve policy. The claim of total protection was present at all times and every attempt to undermine it had to be justified. Over more than 100 years the approach to the park was consistent, the initial objective of the federal decree of 1914  that in the park “all plant and animal life be left to their freely developing nature” has been flayed but survived and strengthened. The founders of the park were very successful in establishing firm principles and solid structures from the beginning.

Tourists are perceived as invasive species who pose danger to the nature in the park, however it is important for the local economy (proven by results of a recent study), in particular because the tourism is well managed, culturally not accepted by the local population and thus has never develop into a mass phenomenon.

Extract from the National Park regulations:

- it is strictly forbidden to leave the marked paths;

- no litter;

  1. -no natural object may be picked or removed: animals, plants, sticks, stones, etc.

- dogs are not allowed in the Park, not even on a lead;

- no winter sports, cycling or flying of any sort are permitted;

- bathing in lakes, pools, streams and rivers is not permitted;

- no camp fires;

  1. -overnight stays are strictly forbidden, including in parked vehicles  alongside the main road;

  2. -it is banned to speak too loudly;

- Nature must be left undisturbed;

Park wardens are present to enforce the maintenance of the Park regulations

and it is their duty to report any contraventions.  Only if each visitor respects

these regulations will everyone have an equal chance to observe the wonders

of nature – now and for years to come. Paths are accessible only 5 months

in summer. There are no facilities of any kind in the Park.

II. Scientific research (non-invasive and useful for park management only):

    The park was set as an ecological field observation laboratory. At some stage (1980s) it was one of the most researched areas in the world, however the abundance of individual contributions led to no overall understanding of the ecosystem or its processes. The goals of “total protection” and “freely developing nature” were not consistent with the concerns of scientific research, in particular with the prevailing laboratory (artificiality and constructed quality), not field, studies. Also, the park did not contribute to bridging the ever expanding gap between the two. The expectations were enormous, and burden put on scientist titanic, but the did not meet the scientific expectations and research goals.

    The research in the park has always been oriented at field biology, at long-term botanical observations and monitoring, at spacial but mainly temporal comparisons. The park was set to be a “rewilding experiment”, “a fully, constantly monitored, reserve”, long-term studies by several generations (since 1917).

    The rules of the research in the park stipulate that any scientific observation shall be non-invasive, conducted with only insignificant impact on nature, plants and animals, catching or killing of warm-blooded vertebrates is forbidden;

    Over time scientific methods and objects have been adapted, the term “scientific observation” was replaced with “scientific research”, the research started serving less basic research and more park management applications (f.e. deer or tourism monitoring). Long term monitoring of identified plots is still on of the goals. Recognition has been given to the fact that biota of the park is quite poor in species. “Research had to adapt to the given terrain, and not the other way around, as is far more common in science”.

    At present, any research shall be published and accessible free of charge, they are all referred on the website of the Park. Many previous documents, field notes, maps migrated to various scientific institutions, or ended in private hands.

researchers are only allowed to leave the marked trails within the area for which they have been given permission, and are easily recognisable by their fluorescent orange jackets.

                                                                         Concept de recherche 2018.pdf

Biodiversity: the Park never focused on the protection of biodiversity, the concepts of total protection and conservation of biodiversity being in entire contradiction. Conservation of endangered species has never been one of park’s goals, species composition is never stable but constantly moving.

Research within the National Park has the following goals:

- To compile a record of current scientific knowledge;

- Long-term observation and modeling, thereby assisting early recognition;

- Provide a basis and expertise for management;

- Dialogue, communication and education;

- Scientific and data management.                                               PHOTOS

The following are the main research areas:

- development of the National Park region in connection with global and climatic change;

- influence of disturbances on the long-term development of the eco-system;

- ungulates in an alpine habitat;

- impact of protected eco-systems and sustainable use of resources for society;

  1. -benefits of sustainable development on a regional scale, in connection with the Park  and the Biosphere;

  2. -the influence of natural forces on the development of the Park  since its foundation 100 years ago.

A couple of examples:

Non-invasive research in SNP.pdf

Wildlife disturbance and winter recreational activities.pdf

Legislation: Federal Act on the Swiss National Park.

Sources for Nature protection in the Swiss Federal Constitution:

-          Art. 2 (objective of sustainable development and protection of natural resource base)

-          Art. 54.2 (objectives of international policy of Switzerland, namely protection of natural resource base)

-          Art 73 (general provision on sustainability)

-          Art 74 (environmental protection)

-          Art 76 (water)

-          Art. 77 (forests)

-          Art. 78 (natural and protection of cultural heritage)

-          Art. 80 (animals)

-          Art. 120 on genetic engineering protects in its para 2 the “dignity of creature”.

A new field of law - the Rights of the Mountains; 

Federal Act (451) on the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage (2017), oriented at conservation of cultural landscape, of aestheticised alpine settings and idealising the work of its inhabitants, thus preventing ecological restoration and reforestation, in particular in the mountains.

    Choice of the area: Val Cluozza was uninhabited, difficult to access, and little used. Few cattle grazed there, little timber harvested. It had escaped the reach of tourism at the time. It had no spectacular landscape, no glaciers, was far removed from civilisation and had no attractive features, therefore suitable for restoration of the biocenoses.

    Previous ownership of land: mainly private, forests and pastures were largely collectively owned, the concept of communal ownership in Switzerland is completely different from other countries and regions of the world. Initial leases were for 25 years (not to limit the scope of the next generation but too short for protection) or for 99 years, then in perpetuity (due to disinterest of exploiting the land). Easements were signed with the State. Some additional areas were donated to the State for protection, some acquired by the State. Funded by first by “one franc club”, further other funding support was developed, in particular by Pro Natura combined with State funding and large individual donations. Natural not assisted regeneration was at no cost. Pastures freeing from livestock for natural reasons were incorporated into the national park.

    Originally the concept of the Park included people living in the area, with adequate lifestyle so they can keep up with culture, but not being exposed to its harmful effects. People of the Alps were described as primitive society. The concept was based on the idea that “anyone who espouses the protection of animal species must a fortiori also commit himself to the energetic protection of primitive man, this noblest of all wild creatures of nature” - Paul Sarasin. The proposal was not retained in the final original concept, and people and subsistence practices have been and still are considered as disturbances. There was also a suggestion to build a high wall around the park.

    Timing: 2 categories of protection time were assessed: short-term, abrupt changes, and long-term, for gradual social shifts. The original concept included protection for 100 years, finally the perpetuity concept was adopted. Leases 25 year and 99 years, now in perpetuity.

Challenges, not considered as problems :

- the park and the local communities had built no familiarity, trust, or ties. The policy of the park management has did include cooperation with local communities for whom it has been a foreign body, no positive emotional ties were developed. This policy was a deliberate conscious decision from the start. Local official institutions, however, supported the park from the beginning, as well as its administration. Local actors are now more present in the management of the park, a common biosphere has been develop with the Val Mustair;

- reticence to the extension of the park by some local communes, extension welcomed by other communes;

- disapproval by the local population of the ban to use land for agriculture and forestry in the early years;

- power industry: hydroelectric dams are positively perceived by local population but present a threat to the park;

extension of road and railway networks, negatively perceived by local population (mass protests).

- tourism development : negatively perceived by local population (protests) and at present present additional stress for the park as from the 1980s; original goal: avoid tourism in the park at any cost;

- flourishing of native deer population;

- development of the international human rights movement, in particular the rights of indigenous peoples (alpine communities).

  1. -the Park remains the only national park in Switzerland, proposals for creation of national parks in other areas were not accepted.

Relevance to national parks in other countries: the Park was created more or less at the time of setting of the first national parks in the US and the zapovedniki in Russia. US parks (Yellowstone, 1872) were considered as a myth and the decision was taken not to follow this myth. The Park is the original European formulation of a national park, distinct from the American model of recreational parks. The Swiss model of strict protection regime was unique in its kind when created, has been a highly imitated alternative explicitly differentiated from the American predecessors’ conservation/recreation regimes (“public park or pleasuring ground).  Mainly in Europe, which favours a combination of many small protected areas, based on the concept of natural monuments of the beginning of the 20th century, and larger nature sanctuary-types areas. The Russian zapovedniki are the only protected areas conceptually similar to the Swiss National Park from their beginnings. Unfortunately, the cooperation between them, which started in 1914, was lost in the societal changes several years later.