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From cattle-breeding to ski tourism: A village in the process of change

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Lenk in Obersimmental (Canton Bern), 1840: on the steep slopes wild hay is harvested and sturdy Simmental cows are grazing on the Alps. The splendid farmhouses are testimony to the affluence of the cattle-breeders. At the end of the 19th century, bad harvests and competition from dairies in the valley impair the economic situation. Many people from Lenk emigrate and meadows and pastures are left untended due to lack of labor. The forest starts to take over. Since the 1960s, however, winter tourism has led to a turnaround and holiday houses have been built on the meadows. Agricultural subsidies, the stable economy and land-use planning regulations have since slowed down the change.

This is how the development of the landscape in Lenk can be described in fast motion. WSL researchers reconstructed it as part of the EU Project HERCULES on the basis of historical map data and interviews with older long-term inhabitants in Lenk. HERCULES is investigating cultural landscapes, i.e. the whole environment that has been influenced in some way by humans. “Cultural landscapes cannot be destroyed. They can only be transformed,” explains Matthias Bürgi, who is head of the HERCULES Project at WSL.

The initial findings indicate that most Europeans believe the current transformation is leading to a loss of valuable landscapes. This is mainly due to the intensification of agriculture, the impact of industrialization and urbanization. HERCULES determined the dynamics and patterns of the changes, as well as the driving forces behind them, in order to provide help in influencing them better.

In the Obersimmental-Lenk case study region, better road and rail connections, the mechanization and motorization of agriculture, and tourism have been decisive for the landscape changes over the last 150 years. More recently, people have also started to notice how climate change is having a serious impact on the landscape: “The glaciers are melting quickly. You can no longer see them from the bottom of the valley.”

What use is this information? “Being confronted with the deve­lopment can help to change how people view the places where they live, and convince them to deal with the landscape more carefully,” says Matthias. (Beate Kittl, Diagonal 2/17)