At present, Switzerland contains one national park, the Swiss National Park, which was founded in 1914 in the eastern canton of Graubünden. Much more recently, sixteen regional parks have been established, which date from 2007 or after. There is also one Nature Experience Park, the Sihlwald near Zurich. The network was founded to help preserve, maintain, and improve biodiversity across the wide but fragmented range of habitats found in the country. Unlike the National Park, which is essentially a wilderness area, being legally protected from human interference, the regional parks integrate human activity and are intended as exemplars of integrating sustainability with nature and habitat conservation. With an emphasis on decentralisation, the regional parks aim to encourage local involvement, environmental learning and activity, and serve as insurance strategies regarding their future health and protection.
The majority of these parks include forests and woodlands, although
their ecological and/or forestry significance differs across a diverse spectrum
of landscapes, habitats and biotopes. The criteria for turning land into a
nature park highlights ecological, as well as cultural and historical
requirements, so that generally endangered species and rare habitats are a part
of a park’s responsibilities, be these in mountainous areas, valleys, highland
meadows or moors, grasslands, or wild rivers and alluvial wetlands. Nearly all
habitats, apart from those above the tree line, feature forests, woodlands and
trees. Some are entirely unique woodland habitats, such as the Risoud forest in
the Parc Jura Vaudois, the Sihlwald near Zurich, composed of the largest
continuous beech forest in lowland Switzerland, and God da Tamagur wood in the National park, the site of the highest
recorded stone pine forest in Europe.
Cultural landscapes too, rooted in local and regional identity, are
seen as at the heart of the network’s 21st century founding. Within
this broad definition concerns around traditional and vernacular buildings, are
included in many of the park’s conservation aims and responsibilities.
The umbrella organisation is the state funded Swiss Parks Network, founded in 2007. Regional Nature Parks go through several ‘candidate’ stages to ensure they meet the legislative social, cultural and environmental criteria. At present there is one candidate park, Parco Val Calanca,in Graubünden. In addition, there are two UNESCO Biosphere reserves in Switzerland, which are integrated into the network. An interactive map of Swiss Nature Parks can be found here.
The Swiss National Park in Graubünden
The country’s first and only National Park was founded in 1914 and covers 1742 miles of the Western Rhaetian Alps in the eastern canton of Graubünden. Given over a hundred years has passed since its inception, during which there has been very little human intervention, the National Park is seen as a pioneering example of wilderness, with the likes of Rewilding Europe commending it as an early experiment in wilderness ecology.
Not as many tree stands grow in this highland Alpine region compared to the other more westerly cantons. Wood cover across the national park is about 30%, mainly comprising Alpine mixed forest habitats. Historically, Graubünden’s forests were intensively harvested in the first half of the 19th century, with large-scale and comprehensive clearances. While spruce, larch, Swiss stone pine and mountain pine are the principle mixed Alpine woods in Graubünden, clear cutting in the park has resulted in mountain pine becoming the dominant recolonising species. Although there is next to no virgin forest today, some natural regeneration has occurred, and the decline of forestry across the canton – due to drops in demand, stricter regulation, and the complexity and challenges of working in higher inaccessible environments – has meant wood cover has been gradually increasing.
The mixed Alpine forest habitat is found primarily between about 800 m and 2300 m elevation. Between 2100 m and 2500 m the forest reaches its tree line limit and is replaced by smaller shrubs and Alpine meadow plants and flowers. One exception is the God da Tamangur or“the wood at the back”) where the largest European stone pine forest can be found as high as 2300 meters above sea level – see further in the Val Müstair Biosphere reserve section below.
The extent of mountain pine’s spread is also evident in
forests around the Pass dal Fuorn – between Zernez and Val Müstair – the largest mountain pine forests in
the Alps. It is thought these will gradually regenerate into more typically
mixed sub-alpine forests. Two varieties are found, the erect and reclining
mountain pine, the pioneer species having regenerated in unpromising stony
ground, going on to recolonise the park’s clear-felled slopes. Around the
nearby Alp la Schera, mixed alpine woods can be found comprised of the broader
habitat species alongside stone pine, that is mountain pine, larch and spruce.
Further – the National Park Centre in Zernez and designed by Valerio Olgiati is featured in the FDR8 feature on Olgiati.