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Scrunching down to get a good view of delicate yellow orchids sprouting in a roadside pasture, Dr. Kurt Redl tells us how cows grazing in the meadow promote biodiversity.
“They only leave the cows in each field for a few days,” says Redl, an Austrian botanist who has been studying alpine ecology for decades.
In between periods of grazing, a flecked carpet of wildflowers blooms, including more than a dozen orchid species that we identify on this day. Altogether, there are 72 orchid species in Austria, and 40 of them are on a “red list” of threatened species.
Centuries of mindful agriculture, with careful livestock management and harvesting of hay, have essentially created an ecosystem that includes a human component. At its best, it’s a harmonious and sustainable balance between man and nature. Besides providing habitat for wildflowers, the open meadows in the Alpine high country also break up the forest canopy, slowing the spread of insect pests between stands, Redl says.
We’re in the heart of 45,000-acre Kalkalpen National Park in late June, and it’s peak orchid season. Along with Redl and a park ranger, twelve of us have signed up for a nature hike to learn a bit more about alpine ecology here in Austria’s largest protected forest area. My eight-year-old checks out a few of the blooms, then finds a juicy snail that he carries along on the next leg of the hike down to a mountain refuge, where we snack on cold cuts, cheese and beer.
While Dylan contemplates the sausage selection, I think about the contrasts between the manicured and managed landscape in this Austrian preserve, and the way we manage national parks back in the U.S., with an emphasis on wilderness and preservation of natural landscapes generally unmarked by human activities.
Kalkalpen National Park was established in 1997 in an area that includes a handful of wild limestone mountain ranges, but also encompasses several existing villages. The park was created as an overlay to existing land use in the area. About 88 percent of the land is federally owned. Eleven percent is in private hands, and local communities own one percent of the land.
Historic agricultural land use like traditional grazing on Alpine meadows is deemed to be an important part of the park’s landscape, and the mission of the Austrian national park system includes preservation of that cultural heritage.
In some parts of the park, land mangers are trying to restore natural ecosystems. It’s a concept that’s not always popular with visitors and residents, says ranger Regina Hochstein.
“Sometimes now we leave the trees that have been killed by insects,” Hochstein says. “People ask us right away if we shouldn’t be clearing the dead wood out of the forest. We’re still trying to educate people who live here, and visitors, how we want to have some areas that are not managed,” she says.
For one thing, such areas are important for research, and ambitious long-term goals include the re-introduction of native animal species that were long ago displaced by human activity.
That would include European lynx, a wild cat that, just like in Colorado, was seen as a threat to livestock and extirpated from the landscape long ago. Kalkalpen National Park is one of the few places in Austria where lynx have been located on a regular basis. The visitor center gift shop selection includes a stuffed toy version of the cat, and Dylan is psyched to add a new friend to his collection of animal buddies.
“I’m gonna name you Shadow,” he says, promising to introduce his new playmate to some Colorado wild cats upon returning home. For an eight-year-old, he’s really tuned in to the issue, probably because we had just watched the Colorado Division of Wildlife release Alaskan and Canadian lynx in the San Juan mountains of southwest Colorado a couple of months before our trip to Europe.
He asks me why there is only one lynx in the area.
“Isn’t he going to be lonely? How are they going to make baby lynx,” he asks me as we walk back out toward the car.
A European lynx relocation project in the 1970s did help bolster populations of the cat in some key areas, especially in rugged hideaway valleys in the Swiss Alps. But the remnant lynx population in Austria is widely scattered, probably well below a density that would enable the cats to sustain themselves. Researchers say ensuring a viable lynx population would require additional relocations, as well as more protection for key habitat areas, including movement corridors that would allow cats from the different population pockets to disperse and mingle with other groups.
Re-establishing populations of lynx and other wide-ranging forest carnivores is challenging in a region where villages and roads are the rule, and not the exception, Hochstein says.
Waterfals and wildflowers
The second stop on our short tour of Austrian nature preserves is the 25,000-acre Gesause National Park, also located in the Styria province. With outstanding natural resource values, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 2003 recognized the park as category II protected area.
It’s another hot and muggy day, so we choose a trail called Der Wasserfallweg (the Waterfall Trail), figuring that the cool spray of the cataracts will help keep us motivated to explore the rocky crags and narrow mountain canyons.
Here too, the wildflower season is in full swing, with spectacular stands of alpenrose and other specimens blooming along the path and in pockets of soil between the big blocks of limestone and dolomite rocks.
A stream trickles crystal clear over the boulders, and Dylan dunks his head in a forest pool before we begin the crux of the hike: A series of cable-assisted climbs up steep faces to the alpine zone of rock and ice. Nearby, a series of rock walls lure climbers with technical routes. Some of the peaks in the park like Hochtor are among the most popular climbing areas in Austria.
Gesause National Park also has a rich variety of woodlands, partially due to a wide range in elevations. From the valley floor of the Enns River to the highest peaks spans a vertical of 1,800 meters, so the flora includes deciduous trees, as well as larch woods and stone pines. The protected forest zone provides habitat for woodpeckers and owls that are otherwise quite rare in this region. The Enns River is considered the backbone of the park, and its waters and riparian areas shelter sandpipers, dippers and gray wagtails. The river is also home to the endangered Ukrainian River lamprey.
After hour mountain hike, we deep our feet in the cool blue water to cool off, vowing
to return another year to explore more of Austria’s natural wonders.
There are six national parks in Austria, most of them located in the country’s mountainous regions. For an overview, go to: http://www.tourmycountry.com/austria/nationalparks.htm.
All the parks are accessible with public transportation from the country’s major cities, via trains and busses. All the parks offer great hiking and interpretive programs, along with gorgeous alpine scenery and small villages with welcoming inns and restaurants.
The town of Molln in the main gateway for Kalkalpen National Park, with a full-service visitor center that has information in English. Information on Kalkalpen National Park is online at http://www.kalkalpen.at/.
Gesause National Park includes a landscape cut by deep river gorges, dense forests and steep limestone walls with numerous waterfalls. Get info at http://www.nationalpark.co.at/.
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