Endangered mountain regions

Posted: 13 May 2008

While several of the world's mountain areas are in relatively good ecological shape, many face accelerating environmental and cultural decline brought on in part by government and multilateral agency policies too often founded on inadequate research.

Climate change, pollution, armed conflict, population growth, deforestation and exploitative agricultural, mining and tourism practices are among a growing list of problems confronting the "water towers of the world," prompting warnings that catastrophic flooding, landslides, avalanches, fires and famines will become more frequent and that many unique animals and plants will disappear.

An International Year of the Mountains 2002 survey of the most threatened mountain ranges listed the following regions most at risk:

Developed world:

European Alps

MatterhornView of the Matterhorn© Tony SimpkinsTwo-season tourism has grown exponentially in the Alps since the 1950s, severely compromising traditional alpine culture and beauty. Once pristine mountain valleys are now a litter of cable cars, ski lifts, tourist facilities and car parks.

In recent years, warmer than usual weather has reduced the length of the ski season at lower elevations. Yet despite the decline in snow conditions, millions of tourist vehicles, added to already heavy commercial traffic, continue to cause dangerous air pollution levels in many alpine valleys.

Current development trends show population shifting from the small farming communities in the Alpine zone (above 1,000 metres) to a handful of economic centres. Many experts believe that if this migration continues it will lead to a variety of problems throughout the Alps.

The Alps supply the flow to major European rivers including the Rhine, the Rhone, the Danube, and the Po.

Rockies and Coast Ranges of Western North America

The popularity of skiing and other recreation is placing unsustainable pressures on many areas. Throughout western Canada and the US, conflicts are emerging over the competing demands of recreationalists, environmentalists, logging and mining industries.

As well, with the growth of telecommuting in North American society over the last 10-15 years, ever larger numbers of people are building homes in prime mountain land and maintaining their business interests long-distance. This is creating management problems ranging from parks fire protection issues to the preservation of wildlife habitat.

Unlike previous booms in mining, cattle, or energy, today's development growth in the North American Rockies is driven by new economies - services, recreation and information. The result is sprawling land-use conversion, mostly from agriculture to residential, even in the most rural areas, leading to fragmented land ownership, sharper contrasts in land-use at public/private boundaries, and natural habitat loss.

Navajo Peak and the Continental Divide in mid-winter, Colorado Rocky Mountains © UNU Mountains Programme Such problems are becoming better recognized, Dr Ives said. In Canada, for example, a recent government report concluded Banff National Park (Canada's first and the crown jewel of the national park system) is in serious danger of being over developed.

Western Carpathians / Tatra Mountains (Slovak Republic / Poland)

The Tatra Mountains cover a relatively small area surrounded by highly developed industrialized regions, especially in Poland to the northwest. Like the Alps, they are becoming impacted by rapidly growing two-season mass tourism. As well, trees are heavily damaged by air pollution, especially acid rain, from neighboring industrial centers, a problem exacerbated by periodic drought and subsequent insect infestations.

Snowy Mountains, Australia

More than 250 species of plants are threatened by potential changes in the duration and amount of snowfall caused by a series of unusually warm winters. Studies have found sub-alpine trees growing at altitudes 40 metres higher than 25 years ago.

Great Smoky Mountains, US

This national park is severely polluted, with the highest nitrate deposition of any monitored site in North America. During 1998, the park's worst recorded year for ground-level ozone, studies found damage to 30 plant species in the area. Upper elevations are saturated with acid deposition.

Developing world:

Himalaya-Karakorum-Hindu Kush

Below the Khunjerab PassBelow the Khunjerab Pass, Karakorum (September, 1995)© United Nations UniversityThis great series of ranges, extending from the borders of Myanmar and China across northern India, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan, is beset by a long list of problems.

The most severe examples of environmental and socioeconomic degradation are the HinduKush in Afghanistan, the Karakorum and western Himalaya (embracing Pakistan's Northern Areas), and the disputed territory of Kashmir.

In many places elsewhere through the Himalaya problems are brought on in part by quickening deforestation due to the growth of tourism and of forest-based industries (furniture, sporting goods and newsprint, for example). In the last few decades, an intricate network of roads has been built into the mountains, providing access to many previously remote areas.

Among other issues in the Himalaya causing environmental problems: overgrazing, accidental forest fires and rock quarrying.

Pamir, Tajikistan

The mountain Tajiks, driven out by the Soviet army in the 1940s, started returning in the late 1980s. The civil war that later followed in Tajikistan resulted in widespread devastation and poverty.

Hengduan Mountains, southwest China - Yunnan

In an attempt to prevent flooding and silt buildup downstream in the Yellow and Yangtse rivers, China's central government banned all logging in the headwaters of the great streams. This approach is widely regarded as scientifically unsound and another economic burden on already impoverished mountain communities. Efforts to compensate by pushing for rapid development of mass tourism threaten to damage the country's great variety of mountain cultures.

Recent positive developments include the 1996 World Heritage Site designation of Lijiang Town - ancient capital of the Naxi minority nation and the Yunnan Great Rivers Project: a government-NGO collaboration to protect a spectacular area bigger than Pennsylvania containing river gorges (Salween, Mekong, Yangtse) that cut through ice-capped mountains whose lower slopes and valleys are among the world's most biologically diverse.

Sierra Chincua, Mexico

Since the early 1970s, logging and agricultural expansion have destroyed 44 per cent of the forest in this reserve in central Mexico, winter home of the monarch butterfly. At that rate, the entire forest will be gone within 50 years.

Amber Mountains, Madagascar

Some 80 per cent of Madagascar's forest has been lost to agricultural expansion, mining and charcoal production. The remaining 14 million hectares are disappearing at a rate of between 150,000 and 200,000 hectares a year.

Worldwide, deforestation of the tropical rain forests is highly visible in the global media but the highest rate of deforestation occurs in mountain cloud forests - 1.1 per cent per year, according to the FAO. Rates of clearing are particularly high in Central America, East and Central Africa, Southeast Asia and the Andes.