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The Hole in the Swiss Trees Reclamation Plan : The Swiss Plan to Spend $10 Billion to Save Their Alpine Trees From Air Pollution--Even If They Don't Need To

August 22, 1993|Jonathan Kandell | Jonathan Kandell is a former New York Times European correspondent; his last article for this magazine was on French opera czar Pierre Berge.

To hear the Swiss tell it, their postcard-perfect country is in the throes of one of the world's major environmental disasters: A mysterious ailment threatens to kill a far higher percentage of Alpine trees than the Amazon rain forest is losing to arson.

The drama began to unfold 10 years ago, when environmentalists made their first serious surveys of the Swiss forests and found thousands of sickly trees. Over the next few years, they warned that 50% or more of the nation's woodlands were damaged or dying, victims, they assumed, of air pollution, mainly from the 4 million cargo trucks that annually crisscross Switzerland on their way to neighboring countries.

Such numbers were alarming, and not just because the Swiss love nature and depend on it for a lucrative tourist trade. The forests, known as bannwalder , protect mountain communities against snow, mud and rockslides. If the tree barriers were lost, slides might conceivably bury centuries-old villages and drive the dwindling Alpine population to the cities.

As panic spread, the Swiss government committed itself to saving the forests by restoring air purity to 1950 levels within the next decade. The cornerstone of this strategy is a $10-billion plan--an amount equal to about one-third the country's annual federal budget, though doled out over a dozen years--for building a railway network that will ferry foreign trucks, with their ignitions turned off, across Switzerland. The rail scheme has aroused protests in the European Community because of the costs and delays it will mean for truckers. But in Switzerland--which is not an EC member--almost two-thirds of the Swiss electorate supported the plan last year. Even before that referendum, the government increased funding for reforestation efforts and gave scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Forestry Research a mandate and a hefty budget to prove the destructive effects of motor-vehicle emissions on Alpine trees.

And so, with a thoroughness and sense of purpose the world has come to expect from them, the Swiss seemed well on their way to resolving their environmental conundrum.

Trouble is, after years of research, Swiss scientists have been unable to uncover evidence that hydrocarbons and other combustion-engine pollutants are destroying significant numbers of trees. Worse yet, their most recent monitoring of the bannwalder indicates that Swiss forests show no signs of dying off and indeed are more extensive now than at any time in the past century. "I doubt there's a problem--so why should I be looking for its causes?" asks Jurg Bucher, who has spent much of the past decade at the forestry research institute studying the effects of air pollutants on trees.

The skepticism spreads to scientists with other expertise. Paul Fohn, director of the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research, based in the ski resort Davos, insists that there has been no increase in the frequency of avalanches over the past 10 years. "If forest sickness was growing, you would expect more avalanches, wouldn't you?" he says.

Because of these disappointing research results, environmentalists have reacted to scientists with much the same feelings the ancient Greeks reserved for bad-news messengers. There are dark accusations of professional incompetence, treason to the cause of ecology, even financial machinations. "Maybe the scientists are prolonging their research so they can get more money for their projects," grumbles Andreas Gotz, director of Bergwaldprojekt, a volunteer reforestation program based in the eastern town of Chur.

No one, though, is suggesting that just because the Alpine forests might be healthy the country should reconsider its multibillion-dollar offensive against foreign truck traffic. Nor has confidence been shaken in the premise that Switzerland, by its own efforts, can turn back the clock to an era of purer air despite being surrounded by countries that account for most of the pollution drifting across the Swiss mountains and valleys.

Perhaps the stubborn, exorbitant campaign to save the Alps can best be understood within the context of other quixotic Swiss crusades to defend themselves against a hostile outside world. The end of the Cold War may have eliminated the remotest danger of invasion, but Switzerland, with one-eighth the population of Italy, still maintains an army larger than its southern neighbor's. And while the specter of nuclear war has receded in the rest of Europe, the Swiss continue to press ahead with a mandatory program to install an underground shelter in every home by 2000.

"We Swiss have always tried to wall ourselves off from Europe and build a secure world of our own," says Niklaus Meienberg, a social critic and writer whose iconoclastic views make him a loose cannon among his 6.7 million compatriots. "And we've always needed a big outside threat. With no more communism to worry about, pollution looks like it could be it."

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