Hannes Richter

How Great Ideas Travel

Hannes Richter

The Hohe Tauern National Park

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The Grossglockner with Pasterze Glacier

By Markus Reiterer

No doubt, the trip needed careful planning. After all, 115 years ago a trip like this was a somewhat different experience than it is today, to say the least. These days, you hop on a plane, spend some listless hours in celestial limbo, digesting whatever it is you get served, watch a movie or two and arrive wherever it is you want to arrive. In 1899, twenty-five year old Albert Wirth planned his trip from the heart of Austria to North America.

Albert was a shrewd young man, born into a wealthy Austrian family and on his way to become a successful business man. He would travel through half of Europe before boarding the steamer to cross the Atlantic and then continue West, to a territory that only recently had become part of the United States. Some 30 years before Albert Wirth travelled overseas, people like Cornelius Hedges and, perhaps more importantly, Francis V. Hayden had started to advocate that a special status be given to a territory that only later would transgress the boundaries of the states of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho: Yellowstone National Park.

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Albert Wirth

Hayden warned that if the area was not awarded legal protection, people would simply “make merchandise of these beautiful specimens”. Finally – and after the usual amount of lobbying – the U.S. Congress on March 1, 1872, decided to set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park: „Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming .... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people“.

With this, the first ever National Park in human history was created, at least on paper. However, there was still a long way to go from legal text to practical reality: local opposition against the park was considerable as Yellowstone promised rich resources for mining, game, etc. Poachers were after the herds of wild animals and wreaked havoc among the bison and elk population, while others aimed at making maximum profit from the other riches of the park. As the first park superintendents lacked the necessary resources and personnel to effectively control this vast stretch of land, the army was finally brought in by the mid-1880s and contributed substantially to improving the situation. In fact, much of today’s organization of the National Park Rangers can be traced back to this early involvement of the army.

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Aerial view of ramd Prismatic Spring; Hot Springs, Midway & Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park

When Albert Wirth, after weeks and weeks of travel – crossing half of Europe, all of the Atlantic and three-quarters of North America – finally reached Yellowstone National Park, many of the park’s early problems were already in the process of being solved. Albert was impressed: not only by the otherworldly beauty of Yellowstone, but also by the national park idea itself. He should never forget it! At the beginning of the 20th century almost the entire southern part of the Großglockner, today Austria’s highest peak at 12, 461 feet, the surrounding areas, as well as the so-called Pasterze glacier were privately owned by a family named Aicher von Aichenegg.

During that period the family suffered from its own economic and financial crisis, so by early 1914 they decided to sell the estate. Immediately, speculations on the future of the area that constituted Austria’s Alpine heartland began. Some wanted to block off the area to be used only by hunters, others wished to build a rope car to Großglockner’s very summit. One German entrepreneur even claimed that he had already bought the area and intended to close it for any use, except for some restricted trails that he wanted to negotiate with the Austrian Alpine Society. In other words: the situation was somewhat confusing, to say the least. With the first shots of World War I fired against the heir to the Austrian throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo in June 1914 all this vanished from the limelight.

Indeed, people had other things to worry about. Yet, immediately after Albert Wirth returned back home from military service, the issue caught his attention. This was less surprising as it may sound, as Albert had been married to Maria Aicher von Aichenegg since 1907, a member of the family who owned the area. In a stroke of genius, Albert decided to do three things simultaneously: to invest some of his money, help the family of his in-laws and to ensure that the heart of Austria´s Alps be protected for generations and generations to come. In a letter to the Austrian Alpine Society of May 1918, Albert offered 10,000 Crowns to the Society to buy the area in question – some 15 square miles in total – under the condition that the Alpine Society would ensure that „the Großglockner area be protected for the future as a natural park“.

In other words: Albert Wirth did what he had learned from the great example of Yellowstone. We can easily assume that – as in the case of Yellowstone National Park – the Großglockner area suffered some similar teething problems. In fact, the situation might have even been worse: the economic crisis of the twenties and thirties, World War II, and more. The fact of the matter, however, is that generations and generations of engaged citizens, grassroots organizations, mountaineers, etc. not only kept Albert Wirth’s idea alive, but developed it further.

Today, the initial 15 square miles of the Großglockner area form part of the Nationalpark Hohe Tauern (established 1981), which comprises 708 square miles of territory ,covering parts of three of the Austrian States: Tyrol, Carinthia and Salzburg. It is not only Austria’s biggest national park – it is the biggest national park of the entire Alpine region and has been a dedicated World Heritage Site since 2006. Today, the National Park Hohe Tauern, and with it the Pasterze glacier is much more than simply a protected area.

It is part of Austria’s identity, a site of visionary thinking, a site where the interaction between nature and economic interest can be studied as in no other place; a site where the impact of global warming may be more visible than in many other places due to the dramatic retreat of the Pasterze glacier, a site that shows the hopes and efforts of an entire generation through the road built in the 1920s, crossing a major part of the area; a site that is as fragile as it is beautiful.

And it is not to a small extent, a site that shows how ideas can travel from one side of the Atlantic to the other, from one place of utmost beauty to another. If you wish to learn more about the Pasterze, please consult the wonderful book published in 2011 by the Nationalpark Hohe Tauern and the Austrian Alpine Society called “Die Pasterze – der Gletscher am Großglockner” (unfortunately only available in German), or the Park’s homepage: www.hohetauern.at

P.S.: For those following this series: The author meanwhile has left his post in Washington, D.C. and is back in Vienna, where he started to work for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization. Nevertheless, he intends to continue this series, which might have become even easier, as Austrian Places are now much closer. The next story will lead us to some interesting times of religious reformation and counter-reformation in the aftermath of the 30 Years’ War.