Attempts in transregional history

Hereafter you may find the paper I held on June 28 2011 at the 6th ESEH Conference in Turku "Conflict and conservation. Which geographic scale for the history of nature conservation in the Alps?", revised according to some of the feedback I got during the session.
At its beginnings nature conservationism was mainly a national issue, related in first place to national ideologies and politics. This national dimension, in parallel to an international ideological movement born in the US and developed then also in Europe, impacted on the diverse approaches adopted in different countries: thus, parks presented often ideological similarities but national specificities.

But national parks and nature reserves were also local enterprises with a strong impact on local communities and on the way they interrelated with the natural world. In particular, to cut out a portion of territory and define it a nature reserve may have an evident impact on local economic interests and cause conflicts between the local communities and the state or the nature conservationists, even before a park is officially constituted. Writing their history requires thus also to adopt the methods of historical microanalysis. To obtain a complete understanding of the practical and theoretical development of nature preservation it is thus essential to look at all these four geographical scales: international debate, national policies, transregional comparison, local conflicts and practices. In this context what I mean by trans-regional history, which is the scale of analysis I am focusing on, is to compare different regions interpreted as subnational administrative and cultural areas, rather than supranational macro-areas encompassing various nations as in the usual interpretation. The Alps are one of the main European geographical features, an exemplary transnational space, encompassing six major countries (France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovenia). Moreover, the Alpine region includes very diverse cultural enclaves, micro-environmental features, and socio-economic conditions. In this sense it may be seen as a paradigmatic area to test the usefulness of a trans-regional approach.

The character of Alpine countries is one of radical variation in climate and in both altitude and aspect of the land. In detail, each valley and even mountain slope, has different ecosocial conditions and an overarching analysis can be made only with difficulty at the national or merely transnational level. The Alps need, in fact, to be considered first from a micro-historical point of view, that evolves then to a trans-regional scale, before heading towards a truly international perspective.

Only the adoption of a trans-regional approach as a necessary intermediate step makes it possible to understand fully which elements promoted and hindered the development of nature conservation in different countries and regions. In fact, differences are often greater within the Alps of one single nation (for example the Italian western and eastern Alps present radically different conditions of settlement) than between adjoining valley or regions separated by some political or administrative border. The macroregions I am looking at are essentially two: the western Alps around the border between France and Italy and the eastern Alps between Germany, Austria and Italy. As regards the Western Alps we will look at the two first parks that were founded in the region, both also the first in their respective countries (the La Berarde in France and the Gran Paradiso in Italy). In respect to the Eastern Alps we will instead look at the Stelvio National Park and the area that currently hosts the Hohe Tauern National Park (Fig. 1).

Italy’s first park had a quite particular history, that sets it apart both from the near French experience and from the other Italian Alpine park. The establishment in December 1922 of the Gran Paradiso National Park was due not so much to pressures of the early conservation movement or of tourism association, which did not file any official proposal for the creation of a park in the region, but to the 1919 decision of King Vittorio Emanuele III to donate his hunting reserve and tenancies on the Gran Paradiso massif to the State for the preservation of ibex either in form of a national park or of a state hunting reserve. The early history of the Gran Paradiso National Park was characterized thus by conflicts between local communities and the park administration over land-use issues, in particular with respect to the transformation of hunting from a right, sold by the mountain-dwellers to the King, into a crime, forbidden by the state without compensation. Nonetheless, conflicts notwithstanding, the early park administration was very effective and was able to set up a good working compromise with the local communities and to actually promote nature conservation. Between 1922 and 1933 the park's main aim, and one performed quite well, was the conservation of iconic animal species.

The first attempts to set up a national park around the La Bérarde peak, both to foster tourism and reduce the impact of environmental degradation, were made already before WWI under the impulse of national and local Alpine clubs. Land was bought and leased by the state from the municipality of Saint-Christophe, which was however, it is reported, more in need of cash than enthused by the idea of nature protection as such. This probably led it to underestimate the consequences a national park, that, notwithstanding the plans for tourism improvement, was supposed to work under a total conservation could have on the local economy and to its customary rights of use. The park however was set up just de facto, and no legal commitments, financial means, or administrative structures existed to manage the area. The state simply bought and/or rented land, and the conservation movement dubbed it France's first national park. It must also be noticed that the area was made up mainly by unproductive land. Nonetheless, the park administration in the years following the First World War enlarged the protected area and started an armed surveillance service. Both the interest for nature conservation and the ability to have the tools needed to enforce it seem to me to link the Italian and French experience beyond the differences in land-acquisition policies, conflict management, and legal status as a park.

Issues of national identity, combined, with a drive towards the promotion of mountaineering and tourism, may be cited instead as motives for the creation of the fourth and last park set up under Fascist rule in Italy in 1935: the Stelvio National Park, our first example in the Eastern Alps. Only a minimal role was played here, in opposition to the western Alpine cases, in the decision to create this park by the fact that the area hosted one of the last red deer colonies of the central Alps, or in general by considerations regarding wildlife and conservation. Scenic beauty and tourism promotion, together with the will to create a 'natural' war memorial in an area that had been in the First World War the scenery for some of the most important high mountain battles in history.
The symbolic value of the Stelvio as national border and as tourism destination were placed in such a high regard that no real conservation policy was set in place within the park. This seems to have reduced the conflicts between the park and the local population, since, in the end, Stelvio National Park, under Fascist rule and until the early 1950s when at last implementing regulations for the founding law were drafted, was not much more than its borders. The park seems to have lacked any mission and land-use philosophy that went beyond tourism promotion.

Still before the First World War representatives of the German conservation movement tried to buy a lot on the Styrian border, but word-of-mouth led the local communities to get to know about the project and the prices to skyrocket, leading to the definite abandonment of the project. fter the First World War, in parallel to the Italian redrafting of Alpine mythologies, the Alps came Thento symbolize the pan-German national character and its strength. By 1930, through acquisitions and donations the German Austrian Alpine Club was able to become the owner of virtually the whole Grossglockner peak, with the long term aim of setting up there the first 'German' Alpine national park (the heart of the current Hohe Tauern National Park). In the same years however the same region was the scenario of the construction of the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, central in opening the area to mass tourism. Again, as in the Stelvio case tourism and the conservation of sceneries, more than nature preservation as such, seem to have been at the core of the park planning process.

Even if we can notice major national trends and tendencies it seems to me that these may not be sufficient to explain the radical differences between the history of nature conservation in the Italian Western Alps and that in the Eastern ones. What I attempt to say is that the idelogical aims standing behind the Gran Paradiso and the Stelvio share more similarities with, respectively, the French and the Austrian experience than there are if we look only at the Italian national dimension. The main aim of creating a national park was, in fact, nature conservation in the western Alps and tourism promotion on the Austro-Italian border. The major characteristic common to the whole Italian experience, that must however be stressed, and that represents its exceptionality, is that here lands included in national parks, in opposition to both the French and Austrian experience, were not bought or rented, but simply declared under protection.

Transregional similarities and difference become even clearer, and even an attempt of an explanation can be made, looking at the Alps through the lens of demographic development in the areas that over time have become parks (Fig. 2). In fact, depopulation has marked the whole Western Alpine area all over the period between 1871 and 1951, opening vast parts of the landscape to processes of renaturation and creating the economic opportunity for an effective nature conservation in an area increasingly abandoned by man. On the other hand, the Eastern Alps were characterised by a steady increase in population, that created the need for new sources of revenue and favoured an interpretation of nature conservation as a tool for tourism promotion. This East/West divide represents, in my opinion, the central featurethat may be explained using a transregional approach in respect to using the traditional nation-state perspective in analysing the history of nature conservation in the Alps. Obviously, further case studies, including for example the Swiss National Park, the Triglav National Park or more recent attempts at nature conservation such as the Val Grande National Park in Piedmont.


Fig. 1 The historic Alpine parks created and planned before the Second World War</p>


Fig. 2 - The population background map is taken from Werner Bätzing (2005): “Le Alpi. Una regione unica al centro dell’Europa”, Bollati Boringhieri Torino (in case this should not be considered fair use and in any way infringe copyright please contact the post_author, the image will be removed immediately).</p>