Chapter 3.15 Mountain Areas - Environment in EU at the turn of the century

Mountain areas have seen considerable demographic change – with workers leaving, and retired people moving in. At the same time, tourism and purchases of second homes lead to significant seasonal variation in the population make-up. Tourism, promoted as a means of economic development for remote areas, has imposed environmental pressures in some vulnerable mountain regions; a Protocol to manage this issue exists for the Alps under the Alpine Convention. While ‘green tourism’ is developing as a new market, offering environmental benefits, there is continuing growth in intensive, environmentally threatening tourism in less developed regions.

Several mountain ranges are ”trans-national areas” requiring special attention in a European spatial policy in terms of watershed management, risk prevention, preservation of biological and landscape diversity, and recreation. Gradients and exposure make mountain areas highly suitable for renewable energy generation such as wind and hydroelectric energy. These could offer additional, sustainable revenues for mountain economies, but the environmental benefits and costs need to be assessed carefully. Many EU areas depend on the water resources of mountains – for high-quality freshwater, irrigation water for food production, hydropower generation, and for supplies for natural wetlands in plains. There is increasing demand for water, mainly in eastern and southern European countries, at the same time as water resources are threatened by deterioration in quantity and quality, and also by the prospect of climate change.

Over the next 20 years, long-distance freight traffic across the Alps is expected to double, and passenger transport to increase by 50 percent. Where much of the traffic is in transit, the mountain areas enjoy little benefit, but can suffer serious environmental and social impacts. Traffic network impacts are concentrated in valleys where people live: thus in the Alpine region there are severe impacts from traffic noise and pollution, particularly from ozone and lead. Potential conflict between transport requirements and the protection of the mountain environment is shown by the experience of Austria, where reducing road infrastructure charges to comply with EU legislation was followed by an increase in freight traffic. In contrast, the Alpine Convention’s traffic protocol has helped Switzerland to achieve a 70% share for rail of goods in transit, while the maximum weight for road transport is limited to 28 tonnes per truck (lower than in other Alpine countries).

Worsening economic conditions for agriculture threaten cultural landscapes. Soils in mountains are more sensitive to degradation and require specifically adapted land use patterns. However, in the valleys and on good accessible slopes, farming has tended to shift from extensive meadows to intensively grazed pastures, with increased irrigation and use of fertilisers. In other areas, there has been abandonment and afforestation of land, the negative effects of which are partly mitigated by agri-environment measures. Both of these changes cause a significant decline of biodiversity and root density. Unlike intensification, abandonment will cause increasing soil erosion and snow gliding, changes in water storage capacity and water transport in soils, the beginning of podzolisation of soils and might result in more natural hazards.

In the Accession Countries, the main changes are driven by the transition towards a private economy. Pastures are enlarged by cutting subalpine forests and shrubs, while hunting tourism causes the overgrazing of some forests by growing deer


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