Mountain ecosystem services inside and outside protected areas – the Swiss National Park and Davos

Ana Stritih and Adrienne Grêt-Regamey, ETH Zürich

Mountain ecosystems in the Alps have provided essential services such as food, water, timber and protection from natural hazards (e.g. avalanches, landslides and rockfall) for centuries, enabling mountain societies to thrive in these marginal environments. In recent decades, other ecosystem services have also been recognized as important, not only to local inhabitants, but to a wider society. Mountain ecosystems have a high aesthetic value and offer many opportunities for recreation, provide habitats to rare and charismatic species (such as ibex and capercaillie) and contribute to climate regulation. Sometimes, tradeoffs occur between these different ecosystem services. For example, high populations of wild ungulates (deer, ibex and chamois) attract hikers and tourists, but compete with cows for grazing and lead to conflicts with dairy farmers. Such tradeoffs (as well as potential synergies) should be taken into account when managing mountain landscapes.

A common measure aimed at preserving the cultural value and biodiversity of mountain ecosystems is the establishment of protected areas. The Swiss National Park (SNP) was established in 1914 as the first national park in the Alps, with the aim to minimize human disturbance and let natural processes take their course.

The minimal level of human intervention offers a perfect opportunity to observe the transition from a managed landscape to wilderness and provides a contrast to other regions in the Swiss Alps, such as Davos. The landscape of Davos is similar to the SNP in terms of topography, climate and vegetation, but its management is oriented more towards traditional agriculture and tourism. The demand for ecosystem services is therefore different between both areas, which affects the tradeoffs and synergies between services. In spite of differences in management, many similar processes can be observed in both Davos and the SNP. Abandonment of traditional agriculture leads to succession from pastures to forests and the upper tree line moves upward as a combined effect of abandonment and climate change. Increasing temperatures also lead to increases in primary productivity of grasslands and forests. The structure of forests is changing as well – in the absence of grazing and forest management, they become denser and their species composition changes. All of these changes have different effects on the different ecosystem services. For example, when open larch forests transition to denser spruce stands, this increases their effect in preventing avalanches, but may reduce their aesthetic value.

Within ECOPOTENTIAL, we use Earth Observation data to better understand where ecosystem services take place. For example, we use a combination of LiDAR, airborne images and Sentinel2 data to distinguish different forest structures and tree species. This information is used as an input to a process-based avalanche model, which allows us to map which forests are most important in contributing to avalanche protection. Using such models for a variety of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, recreation, and biodiversity will help us understand tradeoffs and synergies between the ecosystem services. We will compare these between the SNP and Davos, to better understand the effect different socio-economic demands.