Valuing the invaluable

Breithorn (4164 m, Swiss Alps) with gentian (Gentiana brachyphylla) in the foreground

Breithorn (4164 m, Swiss Alps) with gentian (Gentiana brachyphylla) in the foreground. © Dirk Beyer

Alpine nature is worth a lot more than people realize.  Most would agree that its resources (wood, water, tourism income, etc.) are valuable, but few realize just how much  the underlying  “services” of nature are worth to all of us.
Mountain landscapes certainly have a lot of intrinsic value to me.  This may be because my fondest childhood memories are of holidays spent in the country walking with my grandmother.   We would head across meadows and through forests, along bubbling little brooks, and finally stop for a delicious lunch of buttermilk and dark bread with smoked bacon at a mountain hut, often with a bucolic view of cows grazing in nearby pastures.  To this day it is the majestic beauty of the Alps that draws me in when I want to recharge my personal batteries.  Emotions aside, the Alpine region is well known for its natural beauty and rich biological diversity.  But are these not  invaluable?

How much is a functioning ecosystem worth?  Although there are methods for estimating the value of ecosystem services, some criteria – such as landscape beauty or the existence value of a species – are hard to put an exact price tag on.  There are many pressures, primarily economic, to use Alpine resources more intensively, and this is understandable.  Efforts to mitigate climate change – itself a threat to Alpine ecosystems – include a strong drive to expand the use of renewable energy.  It seems perfectly sensible to exploit the ample supply of streams, forests, and wind for renewable energy production in the Alps.  But even as “clean” energy delivers economic and climate change benefits, it exacts costs on biodiversity.  For example, building dams in mountain streams alters downstream flow patterns, to which native aquatic species may have a hard time adapting.  Biomass harvesting may be done “sustainably” when sustainable forest management is practiced, but even in such systems the species composition is different from that in natural forests, and logging roads and equipment have an impact on biodiversity well beyond the actual harvesting of trees.  Windmills in the landscape are considered an eyesore by some, and in the wrong location they can kill birds and bats.  If too much land and too many natural resources are dedicated to energy production, valuable ecosystem functions may become disrupted, wide-ranging animal species may no longer be able to roam as widely (see more on ecological connectivity on the website of the recently completed EU Alpine Space project, ECONNECT) – and there are real costs associated with the loss of ecosystem services.

Even if we cannot obtain exact figures, we should try to get as complete a picture of all influencing factors to help us decide.  Should we build a small hydropower plant in a brook known for the last known population of a particular endangered species?    Will not building it mean foregoing income?  Yes, but is that worth more than leaving it intact?   How do we weigh the pros and cons of different courses of action?

The project  explores such questions with inter-disciplinary project partners from 6 Alpine countries.  We try to visualize the value of ecosystem services to people, and we will offer policy makers and planners some tools to aid decision-making involving trade-offs between renewable energy production and the conservation of biodiversity.  We want all the cards to be on the table, even if it means putting a price on the priceless.

About Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

“I am passionate about nature and mountains, so it is quite satisfying to be involved in a project that seeks a balanced approach to using and protecting the diverse natural resources in the Alps.” _ Karin Svadlenak-Gomez, Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Lead Partner support in project management and public relations of the project

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