Tourists who throw stones: "I like to make money, but not at any price"


Tourists who throw stones: "I like to make money, but not at any price"

1.7 million overnight stays for around 5,000 inhabitants: That can't go well. Or does it? How the Austrian Kleinwalsertal fights for its identity and the untouched nature with an unusual control concept - and at the same time tries to make its visitors happy.

Thousands of stones lie around on a steep mountain meadow in the shadow of the Großer Widderstein. Some are only the size of a fist, some are the size of a small car, but over the years they have all got where they are with mudslides and avalanches. And none of them is in the right place, says Wolfgang Ott. The mountain farmer points the sword of his huge chainsaw at a pile of stones nearby and says in the isch-heavy dialect of the Oberallgäu: "Every stone less is a handful of more fodder for the cows. And the piles are an important biotope for reptiles." Two workers from the Rhineland, an elderly lady from Lower Franconia, a teacher looking for inspiration for the next class trip and a handful of other volunteers nod and set off.

For the next three hours, the luscious banging of stone on stone fills the air in the tapering mountain valley. Only a few dozen meters further on, mountain hikers in colorful functional clothing march by towards the summit every minute and are amazed at what their colorful doubles are doing off the path on the other side of the stream - and probably also what they have to laugh about. The answer is the same as for themselves: vacation.

More than 350,000 people spend their holidays every year in Kleinwalsertal, which is only connected to the rest of the world via a single road - from the German winter sports resort of Oberstdorf. On all other sides, the Austrian municipality is surrounded by high mountains, crowned by the 2536 meter high Großer Widderstein. Hiking, biking and climbing in summer, skiing, tobogganing and cross-country skiing in winter, embedded in the most beautiful alpine panorama. And those who have less sporting ambitions can also use cable cars to get to the summit in summer, and there are even lifts in some towns. In short: the Kleinwalsertal is a real holiday paradise.

But as it is with holiday paradises: the more people come, the less paradise. It's not even nine kilometers from Riezlern at the beginning of the valley to Baad at the other end, but over the short distance the hotels are lined up like a string of pearls. In well over 10,000 guest beds, 1.7 million people spend the night a year. With just over 5000 inhabitants, this is a real announcement, combined with a big question: holiday stronghold and livable home for the local people and animals, does that go together in the long run?

The volunteer action on this day is one of several attempts to find an answer to this. The idea: to bring vacationers and locals together outside of the hotels, huts and restaurants in order to promote mutual understanding and to sensitize guests through participation. It works really well on this sunny summer's day: for the volunteers, the trip is a welcome change in their holiday plans - including a hearty snack on a stone-free meadow at the end of the assignment. And for the mountain farmers, in this case Wolfgang Ott, "experiencing nature consciously", as the initiative of Kleinwalsertal Tourismus is called, is a real help: There are simply too few of them now - instead of 50 to 70 hectares as in the past, a cattle pasture now covers 50 to 70 hectares up to 1000 hectares. It is virtually impossible to keep up with them, and as a result the Alps are becoming more and more forested, which in turn poses a real threat to biodiversity.

Shepherd Ott explains all of this as he climbs the steep slope with his chainsaw to a group of young spruce trees: "These are flat-rooted trees that are simply swept away by avalanches. That's how we make room for mountain pine and alder, i.e. deep-rooted trees," Ott calls out group and the first tree falls without a trace. It hits the spot where Ole Ipsen was standing.

Ipsen is one of the minds behind "Experience nature consciously". While the tourism manager is so relaxed avoiding the falling tree that even the butterfly, which has perched on its knee as ordered and just stays put, Ipsen talks about the beginnings of the initiative in 2018. "At first it was just about protecting a raised bog, but we quickly realized that nature education and guiding tourist flows could be the key to something much bigger." Just one possible answer to the question of how the valley can keep its identity.

Since then, "we've sat at a table with more than 200 people, from hunters to hoteliers to forest owners." And of course everyone has their own opinion about what is important for the future of the valley. "'Paragliding, huge problem' was then said at the community meeting, for example. But is that really it?" Ipsen describes one of the greatest challenges of superimposing the respective perspectives.

In order to actually be able to evaluate this objectively, the people from Kleinwalser commissioned the University of Innsbruck and a planning office with an "analysis of ecosystem services": Put simply, the study should calculate the actual value of nature, including in monetary terms. The result was a good 400 pages of material, on which every square meter in the valley was assigned to a service, from water as a habitat to the forest in its function as avalanche protection - summarized in a clear report of measures.

It sounds complicated and bureaucratic, but it was actually the decisive building block for bringing the various factions and interest groups in the valley to the table and to talk to each other. Also, and above all, because conflicts have always arisen and continue to arise. For example, when setting up sanctuaries for game, Ipsen says: "There are people who say that we have to close off entire valleys from an ecological point of view. And others who say, but we've been doing this for years." One of those who want to exclude people from many more areas in the valley is Matthias Fritz - a hut operator of all things.

In shorts and a shirt, with long hair and a big smile, Fritz, whom everyone in the valley just calls Matl, is standing on the terrace of the Obere Gemstelhütte and spreading an enormously good vibe. One would rather assume the man was on a surfing beach if it weren't for the gnarled hiking stick in his right hand and the Alpine panorama in the background. Every morning, the man in his late fifties climbs from the Hintere Gemstelhütte, his second mainstay 400 meters below, to 1692 meters. At least in summer, in winter the landlord locks his two huts.

"Everything that takes place in the summer is perfectly fine," says Fritz. "The mountain bikers can ride where they want, if you like. The hunters don't have to complain that the game has scurried away, they just have to sit down again." Only in the cold season, there must be complete silence, because "the chamois is a flight animal and completely shuts down its circulation in winter. If it escapes once, it uses up as much energy in this minute of flight as if it were left alone for three weeks - and the second time she dies."

Fritz points with his cane to the valley below him, through which hikers come in summer and ski tourers in winter: it all belongs to him, 560 hectares of forest and mountains. While “Experience nature consciously” tries to find a compromise with marked out routes for winter sports enthusiasts, Fritz would prefer to block everything. "The concept is great, and the rangers are certainly doing a great job, but there will always be black sheep - and they drive where they want, route or not."

Someone down in the valley called him a "quarrelsome" because of his uncomfortable position. An attribution that Fritz is really happy about, the man is generally a contagious happy nature. And an exciting example of how you can see the overarching whole even with your own very clear interests: Fritz is not only a hut host, but also a hunter and owner of a ski school - so he is not doing himself any favors with his blocking requests, at least financially. Nevertheless, the hut landlord does his business with the guests in his hut, and he is not ashamed to admit it: "Earning money is okay. But not at any price."

For Fritz and others in Kleinwalsertal, that doesn't just sound like an empty phrase. And even if the efforts of some hoteliers, mountain farmers, innkeepers and hunters are not motivated by love of nature but by self-interest, in the end it is the result that counts, according to tourism manager Ipsen. "We have to try to strike a balance between the use of nature and the preservation of nature, that's also the basis for tourism. It's an attitude that can develop outwards, that takes time." And you have to take it - for example for a heap of loose stones on a steep mountain meadow.