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The MountainA Political History from the Enlightenment to the Present$

Bernard Debarbieux and Gilles Rudaz

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226031118

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226031255.001.0001

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The Unifying Mountain

The Unifying Mountain

(p.265) Eleven The Unifying Mountain
The Mountain

Bernard Debarbieux

Gilles Rudaz

, Jane Marie Todd

Martin F. Price

University of Chicago Press

Abstract and Keywords

In the process of the making of building nation-state, numerous mountain ridges have been mobilized as "natural" borders between states. On the opposite, recent initiatives try to shift from this notion of mountains as barrier to mountains as bridges among communities. The transboundary character of the mountains is considered as an asset. These regional initiatives are part of the general rise in influence of transnational regions, which the imaginaries of globalization seem to encourage, even as the exclusive prerogatives of nation-states evolve and transborder practices intensify.

Keywords:   border, ecoregion, bioregionalism, Cordillera del Condor, Virungas, Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Alpine convention, Sierra Nevada (USA)

From September 16 to September 18, 1997, the city of Somerset West, near Cape Town, South Africa, hosted the first global conference devoted to transborder protected natural spaces. Called “Parks for Peace,” this conference illustrates the leadership role of southern Africa in such initiatives. For several years already, heads of state in the region, encouraged by Anton Rupert, regional representative of the WWF, had been involved in several operations of that kind. At the opening ceremony for “Parks for Peace,” Pallo Jordan, the South African minister of environmental affairs and tourism, welcomed his guests: “The rivers of Southern Africa are shared by more than one country. Our mountain ranges do not end abruptly because some 19th century politician drew a line on a map. The winds, the oceans, the rain and atmospheric currents do not recognize political frontiers. The earth’s environment is the common property of all humanity and creation, and what takes place in one country affects not only its neighbours, but many others well beyond its borders.”1

Eighteenth-century naturalists could have made a similar observation, except for the reference to the environment as “common property,” which was not an Enlightenment idea. In the following two centuries, however, governments and the military preferred to use rivers, mountains, and oceans to mark political borders (see chapter 2). To be sure, at Somerset West the countries of southern Africa did not propose to give up their borders, not even those lying along natural boundaries. They did suggest, however, that the regions, ecosystems, and biotopes through which these borders passed could be the object of coordinated management, protection, and development measures.

In the years following the Somerset West conference, the idea of “peace parks” elicited enthusiasm and a large number of concrete initiatives,2 benefiting (p.266) from a growing globalist and environmental awareness everywhere in the world, which gave precedence to the imperatives of the earth’s environmental quality over geopolitical considerations and the defense of national spheres of influence. The idea found fertile soil in the mountain regions: international borders had consistently been located there, and natural scientists just as consistently promoted the mountains as a scientific laboratory. But with the far-reaching changes in the status of the borders after World War II and the proliferation of transnational forms of cooperation, the naturalistic view of the mountain sometimes made mountain massifs political objects of a new kind. Political entities and management zones took mountain ranges and massifs both as a context for their projects and as their frames of reference.

War and Peace in the Cordillera del Condor

The borders of Peru and Ecuador are the most emblematic example of that recent shift in the political meaning of the mountain. Ever since they achieved independence in the early nineteenth century, the two countries had had a continuing border dispute in the region of the Amazon that on several occasions degenerated into military conflict. In 1942 the two countries reached an accord, ratified in the Rio Protocol,3 in which they recognized a line of demarcation that followed the ridge lines separating the catchment basins of two rivers in the region.4 That solution conformed to prevailing practices—that is, it adopted natural boundaries as political borders. It also took into account the declared priorities of the two nations with respect to their territorial strategy. Both were primarily concerned with controlling the waterways, potential access routes to the Amazonian Basin.

As in the case of the border between Chile and Argentina (see chapter 2), however, the border agreement was signed before the reconnaissance of the lands had been completed. The U.S. Army’s detailed cartography in the 1940s revealed the existence of a river, the Cenepa, that flowed across the designated border.5 That discovery launched anew the two countries’ conflict, which lasted until the mid-1990s. The peace treaty signed in 1998 handed over the Cenepa Basin to Peru and fixed the seventy-eight kilometers of disputed borderline along the ridge line of the Cordillera del Condor.6 That put an end to one of the longest-running border conflicts in history.

The treaty, however, did not use the figure of the mountain merely as a principle for fixing the border. It also stipulated that the region be demilitarized and converted into a natural park. In so doing it was adopting (p.267) the proposal of Yolanda Kakabadse, president at the time of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and minister of environmental affairs in Ecuador.7 The protection plan was motivated by the results of several international scientific expeditions that had just brought to light the tremendous botanical richness of the cordillera. A scientific work published in 1997 estimated that the Cordillera del Condor was home to the “richest flora of any similar-sized area anywhere in the New World.”8 Peru and Ecuador, assisted by several international foundations, agreed at the time to create “ecological protection zones,” form a binational steering committee,9 and, ultimately, establish a conservation corridor, named “Condor-Kutuku” (2004).10 The International Tropical Timber Organization, which was responsible for proposing several scenarios for transnational protection, has regularly noted that the objectives of conservation and pacification are closely linked: “The conservation efforts in the Condor Mountain Range are not only contributing to the conservation of the extraordinary biological wealth shared by the two countries, but also to creating an environment of trust, an essential element for building a sound, imperturbable and lasting peace in the region.”11

In the eighteenth century it seemed that peace was guaranteed by borders running along the mountain summits; but in the early twenty-first century, on the border between Peru and Ecuador, peace takes the form of transborder protected areas created to respect the extraordinary characteristics of the species and biotopes found there.

Cooperating in the Virunga in the Name of Mountain Gorillas

In the 1990s another mountain region came to emblematize the idea that transborder parks could promote peace in parts of the world torn apart by recurrent conflicts. The Virunga, a region of highlands and volcanoes, lay on the fringes of the British, Belgian, and German empires in the last decades of the nineteenth century, at a time when the three European powers were reshuffling their colonial claims in East Africa.

At that very moment, European explorers assigned to map the zone reported the presence of mountain gorillas. In 1921 the U.S. naturalist Carl Akeley, returning from an expedition, approached Belgium’s King Albert I in an effort to persuade him to implement measures to protect the gorillas within the borders of the Belgian Congo and Rwanda (the League of Nations had entrusted the administration of that colony to Belgium after Germany’s defeat in 1918). The king, impressed by his visit to Yellowstone (p.268) National Park a few years earlier, decided in 1925 to create the first “national” park of Africa; it would bear his name for several decades. In 1929 Albert National Park was expanded: it now straddled the border between the Belgian Congo and Rwanda-Urundi.12 In the 1930s the British colonial administration created a hunting reserve just north of the national park and then a forest reserve along its edge.

When the new nations in the region (Rwanda, Congo, and Uganda) achieved independence, each turned the protection tools the colonial powers had created to its own advantage, using its own legal instruments. But demographic pressure and food-production objectives led to a reduction in the size of the protected area and to weakened monitoring of forest resources. The mountain gorillas were pushed farther up the mountain and onto the steeper slopes.

Interest in transnational protection of the Virunga region acquired new impetus in the 1980s as a result of two tragic events. In the 1970s the mountain gorillas, whose habitats had been radically reduced in size, found a convincing advocate in the mass media in the person of Dian Fossey. Her gruesome murder at her research site in 1985 provoked a wave of international protests. People once again began to think about protecting the region’s species. Then, in the 1990s, the area became a civil and international war zone. The wars claimed a large number of victims and led to vast migrations of refugees. These conflicts complicated the task of managers of the protected areas. At the time, the Virunga massif comprised three national parks, governed by the laws of their respective countries. But each of these parks remained fragile, facing pressures from farmers and poachers in the region. Virunga National Park in Congo and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda were the successors of Albert National Park, though smaller in size; Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda replaced the British colony’s forest reserve in 1991.

In the 1990s many international organizations encouraged coordination of national protection policies. Several wanted to make the Virunga an emblematic locale for promoting peace through protection of the natural mountain environment. There was no dearth of scientific arguments. The massif as a whole displayed extraordinary signs of biodiversity, with many species native to the region. The massif was part of a single ecoregion, called the Albertine Rift Afromontane Region Forests, that some environmentalist associations identified as one of the hot spots of biodiversity on the planet.

Transnational initiatives took the form of a tourism development project to facilitate observation of the gorillas (the Mountain Gorilla Project), (p.269) a species protection program (the International Gorilla Conservation Program), and many programs for cooperation and exchange between the administrations and wardens in the three parks.13 In the early 2000s an NGO, the Wildlife Conservation Society, proposed that this collaboration be extended to a larger entity: the Greater Virunga Landscape. As a result, in 2004 ministers from Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo signed a Trilateral Entente Protocol for the Conservation of Nature in the transborder protection regions of the central Albertine Rift.14 The signatories expressed their desire “to coordinate and collaboratively manage these protected areas as one ecosystem.” Their commitment thus extended well beyond the protection of the mountain gorillas.

As in the Cordillera del Condor, the initiatives in the Virunga pursued a dual objective: to protect nature and to promote peace. Supporters of the initiatives justified their actions by claiming that the Virunga was a unique natural region, an ecoregion that had to be conceived of as a totality if it was to be managed in an optimal manner. From that standpoint, they partially achieved their objectives, since the national parks administrations on both sides of the border have managed to collaborate on common objectives. But the idea that pacification of the region could result from such cooperation in nature management has not become a reality, as attested by the resumption of conflicts between the nations and interests present in the 1990s. The most optimistic console themselves by noting that the resumption of hostilities has not prevented those involved in local environmental protection from continuing to cooperate.15

Bioregions and Ecoregions: A New Order of Nature? A New Political Frame of Reference?

In the Cordillera del Condor, as in the Virunga Mountains, nature-protection initiatives have taken into account emerging paradigms in environmental management and new political conceptions of the mountain. In the first place, these initiatives, supported by international organizations and coordinated among bordering countries, became transborder. Nature protection—the protection of the mountains in particular—was until the mid-twentieth century a national prerogative. It was motivated as much by the national imaginary as by the nature imaginary (see chapter 4). Now nature protection tends to borrow a globalist rhetoric, toning down nationalist rhetoric if need be in the name of safeguarding species and promoting peace.

In the second place, in both the Cordillera del Condor and the Virunga (p.270) Mountains, the object to be protected has changed in nature. Animal and plant species are still at issue, foremost among them the mountain gorillas of Africa and the rare and native species whose presence was revealed by the botanical expeditions conducted in the Andes, campaign after campaign. But increasingly the advocates of nature protection have devoted their efforts to maintaining biotopes and ecosystems, and to preserving interactions between creatures and the free movement characteristic of these interactions. That evolution in the models of nature protection—from the protection of species, especially the most emblematic ones, to the protection of environments—has granted increasing importance to the characterization of these biotopes and ecosystems. That gradual shift in the objectives of nature protection explains why the identification of areas that possess combinations of species and specific dynamics now plays a decisive role. Among these areas, mountains occupy a key place.

The terms adopted to designate these places (ecoregion, bioregion, ecological region, biogeographical province, and so on) vary depending on the expert and the institution. So too do the definitions of these places and the ways of tallying them. The first attempts to divide up the earth’s surface into large ecological regions date back to the work of Raymond F. Dasmann and Miklos D. F. Udvardy in the mid-1970s,16 which identified nearly two hundred “biogeographic provinces.” These first typologies were criticized for being too vast in scale and for having little usefulness in the promotion of management and protection measures. Later the WWF promoted the concept of the ecoregion, defining it as “a large area of land or water that contains a geographically distinct assemblage of natural communities that share a large majority of their species and ecological dynamics; share similar environmental conditions; and interact ecologically in ways that are critical for their long-term persistence.”17 Conservation objectives thus clearly played a role in identifying the objects to be circumscribed. The criteria selected for identifying “assemblages,” “environmental conditions,” and “interactions” led the WWF to list 825 land ecoregions on the earth’s surface, 426 river and lake ecoregions, and 229 marine ecoregions. To optimize its crusade to maintain biodiversity, the WWF also drew up a list of 238 high-priority ecoregions, called Global 200, on which it decided to focus its actions.18

The advocates of radical environmentalism, especially in the United States, are less concerned with protecting natural sites than with promoting alternative ways of life. They have adopted the term “bioregion” to refer “both to geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness—to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place.”19 From (p.271) that perspective, the identification of bioregions is both a scholarly assessment and an ethical and political method, since these bioregions are supposed to become the frameworks and referents for collective life, even collective identity. In fact, bioregionalism, as an ideology and as a movement propagating that way of thinking, encourages individuals to adopt “ecocentric identities”: “An ecocentric approach to identity invites individuals to perceive themselves not simply as members of various human social groupings but as an integral part of a much larger whole, as components of a fundamentally interlinked, and interdependent, ‘web of nature.’ … This would be similar to but much greater than that experienced through identification with a people or nation.”20 It invites these same individuals to conceive of their actions and commitments within the framework of bioregions, that is, of “newly constituted territories.”21

In that respect bioregionalism is a new utopianism: “These bioregions will be inhabited in a manner that respects ecological carrying capacity, engenders social justice, uses appropriate technology creatively, and allows for a rich interconnection between regionalized cultures.”22 Some have seen them rather as an anti-utopia that, in the name of a harmonious vision of the relationship between human beings and nature, promotes a social and moral order that shapes individual aspirations to conform to environmental objectives. The normative, even manipulative character of the reference to bioregions comes through in many publications, for example: “Once individuals begin to identify themselves in terms of their environmental resources, bioregional planning will be better accepted and implemented.”23

Whatever interpretation is given to bioregionalism, it is certainly inspired by determinist thinking, according to which the characteristics and actions of living creatures—human beings in particular—are determined by the natural environments in which they live. But that determinism is not subject to the laws of nature painstakingly uncovered in the nineteenth century. This new determinism is deliberately promoted and freely assumed; it is a “‘voluntary’ environmental determinism,”24 one that is therefore deeply paradoxical.

Forming Networks of Protected Areas: The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative

Mountain ranges occupy a key place on the lists of ecoregions and bioregions drawn up since the 1980s. A comparison of the principal criteria used (geological, climatic, and botanical) casts into relief the individuality (p.272) of many of these ranges, or at least vast portions of them. The establishment of management measures on the scale of entire mountain chains follows from that preliminary objectification, which ignores political borders and administrative boundaries.

One of the most remarkable achievements in this area is the “Yellowstone to Yukon” region. Harvey Locke, a Canadian attorney and environmental activist, is said to have devised it in 1993 in response to his travels in the mountains of British Columbia. Locke obviously knew that the range already had several protected areas, including a few famous national parks (Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Glacier, Banff, Jasper, and others). He wondered, however, about the efficiency of managing discontinuous regions, a system that did not facilitate communication between the parks and the reserves or the free movement of species.

Therefore, on a topographical map, he drew a large zone that took in all the existing protected areas. Aware that it would be impossible to place the entire zone under strict protection regulations, he instead proposed the establishment of a network of corridors, which would at least guarantee the free movement of protected species. The name he gave to that vast mountain region, “Yellowstone to Yukon,” was adopted by a transnational organization founded in 1997 that was responsible for implementing the vision: the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative (Y2Y).

Locke surely broke new ground in formulating that proposal. He was praised for “his ability to bridge the worlds of science, conservation, law and political activism.”25 In 1999 Time Magazine Canada named him one of Canada’s leaders of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Locke was quick to downplay the import of his initiative. He claimed that he had simply formalized something that was already in the air: “But really what happened is that I labeled what people were thinking anyway…. So as the synthesizer and articulator of these yearnings and ideas and intellectual concepts, I was important. But I did not invent any of the things that were synthesized; I packaged them.”26

The idea of the Yellowstone to Yukon as a vast ecoregion that ought to be managed in such a way as to optimize its natural dynamics actually originated in conservation biology. Since the 1960s this joint branch of biology and ecology has been concerned with better understanding the mechanisms by which rare species vanish as well as the environmental conditions needed to maintain and restore populations.27 This is why conservation biology, like biology generally, is as interested in species themselves as in their habitats, the purview of ecology. Research conducted at the time in the national parks of the Rocky Mountains and the vicinity showed that (p.273) the parameters of the protected areas did not always offer optimal conditions for protecting emblematic species, especially the grizzly bear.

Starting in 1964 that observation led several agencies, including the U.S. National Park Service, the Forest Service, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, to conceive of joint modes of management coordinated across a vast region encompassing the largest national park in the United States, Greater Yellowstone.28 The idea for a Yellowstone to Yukon region borrowed a great deal from that Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In the end it was only an extension of it considerably farther north. Like Yellowstone with its grizzly, it had its own emblematic animal species: the wolf.

In 1991 scientists equipped a she-wolf with a radio tracking collar to follow her movements. The animal, named Pluie (French for “rain,” a name chosen because of the weather conditions prevailing during the operation), surprised scientists with the extent of her migrations. She covered an area of 100,000 square kilometers, crossing through the territories of British Columbia, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. A year and a half after beginning to track her, scientists lost trace of the wolf. They later recovered the battery from her radio collar; it had been pierced by a rifle bullet. In 1995 Pluie, a male, and three wolf cubs accompanying her were shot and killed by a hunter. The newspapers had been following her movements, and she acquired the status of a martyr. Her history became part of the legend of the Y2Y initiative.29 In a sense, her tragic end provided an image for the idea that species protection had to be conceptualized within new frameworks.

At Yellowstone specialists in conservation biology demonstrated that protection policies were more effective when the protected areas were well adapted to the behaviors of species. They showed as well that threatened species greatly benefit from corridors that protect their movements.30 By forming a network of protected areas in an ecoregion of considerable size, agencies were able to respond to the fragmentation of habitats and ecosystems, identified as one of the principal obstacles to the protection of biodiversity.

The Yellowstone to Yukon project adopted the idea of an ecological corridor. In December 1993 environmentalists, scientists, and others gathered for a workshop in Kananaskis, Alberta, Canada. Each participant drew on a map the boundaries of the region he or she wanted to demarcate based on the principles of his or her area of expertise and in accordance with personal criteria.31 It quickly became clear from the resulting assemblage of maps that the migration zones for the large predators, foremost among them the grizzly bear and the wolf, were the prime focus of attention. (p.274) The region selected included the Mackenzie Mountains, the Canadian Rockies, and the Columbia Mountains. Along its outer edges it adjoined the protected regions of Selway-Bitteroot, Hells Canyon, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Unlike for a national park or a nature reserve, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative also declined to fix strict boundaries for the chosen zone on the grounds that the notion of boundary could not be applied to the idea of an ecosystem without distorting it.

Finally, the Yellowstone to Yukon project declared one last ambition: that of establishing collaboration between the agencies and populations on either side of the border. In that respect it broadened the early experiment of Waterton National Park in Alberta and Glacier National Park in Montana. These two parks, separated only by the U.S.-Canada border, in 1931 became the first to institutionalize transborder cooperation. The term “peace park” originated there. A few decades later the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative adopted the idea for its own use and systematized it, as if to show that ecoregions constitute the only pertinent entities for conceptualizing environmental management.

Within a few years Locke’s idea had become an ambitious and wide-ranging project. It circumscribes a region that is sometimes called the “wild heart of North America.”32 Covering a vast mountainous region, it serves as a management model for this type of environment: “Of all the world’s mountainous regions, the Yellowstone to Yukon landscape provides the best opportunity to preserve an intact, ecologically healthy mountain system where both human and wildlife communities can thrive and prosper.”33 It is not surprising, then, that the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative has inspired operations in other mountain regions of the world.

Coordinating Policies across a Mountain Range: The Alpine Convention

The Afromontane forests of the Albertine Rift, and the Rockies between the Yellowstone region and the Yukon, among other examples, have been identified as ecoregions primarily to serve specific objectives of environmental and species protection. Neither the identification of these mountain regions nor the transnational cooperation that resulted has led to more general regional projects. In reality, few ecoregions and few transborder mountain regions have achieved that status. The Alps undoubtedly constitute the most remarkable exception.

The Alps range is one of the ecoregions (however that concept is defined) commonly identified in Europe. The idea that it constitutes a natural (p.275) region meriting joint management across borders goes back a long time, at least to the 1950s. Around that time, advocates of protecting Alpine nature became concerned about the rate of tourist, urban, and industrial development in the region. At the general assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, held in Brussels in 1950, Renzo Videsott vehemently protested against the tourism projects threatening the Gran Paradiso National Park in Italy, where he served as director. He called for transborder coordination to defend protected areas and to protect threatened animal species. Shortly thereafter the Bavarian League for Nature Protection and the Society for Wildlife Protection in Germany formed an umbrella organization composed of representatives of associations from several Alpine countries. That was the beginning of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA). Its founding documents announced its mission to “preserve habitats and flora and fauna in the Alps as well as to assess the influence of tourism on the landscape, plants, and animals.” Although modest in size and ambitions, CIPRA became the first organization concerned with treating the Alps as a single entity and with monitoring the preservation of its natural qualities.

A second step was taken in the 1970s. After two decades of frenetic tourism development, many voices in associations, agencies, and political parties demanded a moratorium on the construction of buildings and infrastructure and also called for more protected areas. The idea that the Alps constituted a space apart, a unique environment in Europe, began to make inroads. The strong economic and demographic growth of the bordering regions, such as the Po Plain, Bavaria, the plains and corridors of the Rhône-Alps region, and the Swiss Plateau, made that mountain region look like a recreational area and a nature reserve for everyone’s benefit. The CIPRA therefore revived the idea of cooperation among the Alpine countries to define a common vision for the massif as a whole. The idea led to an intergovernmental conference held in the Bavarian Alps in 1989, then to the signing of an International Convention for the Protection of the Alps, commonly called the Alpine Convention, in Salzburg in 1991. The signatories are the seven countries in which the range is located,34 plus the European Union, which has thus demonstrated its desire to be a partner in those forms of transborder institutional cooperation that are consistent with its own regional policy (see chapter 10).

But the involvement of European countries and of the European Union in that unprecedented experiment in regional cooperation on the scale of a massif has been controversial because of the predominant orientation of the Alpine Convention. The first lines of the document single out (p.276)

The Unifying Mountain

24. Alps made with faces. Cartographical rhetoric has a role to play in presentations of institutional projects having to do with mountain massifs. Maps displaying the region concerned may show how the project comprises a large number of border regions, which thereby establish closer ties to one another. But they may also suggest the fundamental, prepolitical unity of the range by using simplified representations of the terrain. This illustration, produced on behalf of the network of communes in the Alliance of the Alps, shows the diversity in that fundamental unity. Courtesy of Alliance in the Alps, Design ID Connect.

(p.277) the Alps from several standpoints at once: “The Alps are one of the largest continuous unspoilt natural areas in Europe, which, with their outstanding unique and diverse natural habitat, culture and history, constitute an economic, cultural, recreational and living environment in the heart of Europe.” But article 2.1 clearly states that the convention is a “comprehensive policy for the preservation and protection of the Alps.” The parts of the Alpine Convention that attest to an interest in supporting or promoting economic activities or improving the living conditions of the inhabitants seem like an afterthought. In fact, it did not escape anyone’s attention that the convention, which is binding as an international treaty, was signed by ministers for environmental affairs in the countries concerned and not by heads of state. It was not until the late 1990s that references to sustainable development would take precedence over statements of strict protection objectives.

As a result, the Alpine Convention and the application protocols that allowed it to become operational have repeatedly encountered opposition in national parliaments, both from interest groups representing mountain population and from associations of elected representatives from mountain regions. These representatives of the mountain populations’ interests argue that the convention pays too much attention to the objectives of environmental protection and that, when the convention was drawn up, the populations played only a marginal role. A gradual incorporation of development objectives has not appeased the principal opponents. That situation slowed and sometimes even blocked the protocols ratification process. In late 2009 specialized committees from both parliamentary chambers in Switzerland opposed ratification of the protocols on the grounds that they displayed an “imbalance between the protection and the exploitation of Alpine regions.”35

The demarcation of the application zone of the Alpine Convention, once it became inevitable, gave rise to contradictory scenarios and discussions that reveal the positions of its promoters and opponents.36 The advocates of a vast zone that would include the large cities located near the Alps, such as Munich, Vienna, and Milan, argue for the importance of involving political actors and populations as much as possible in actions that promote sustainable development. The proponents of a restricted application zone have often sought to limit as much as possible the dreaded constraints. For the associations representing the local populations, the primary issue at stake is to keep the mountains from becoming merely a reserve to satisfy the needs of the surrounding cities: “The Alps region must not become a complementary zone. That idea goes against good economic (p.278) decentralization. The Alps must not become the Indian reservation of Europe.”37

In response to the resistance of existing organizations, often created in an effort to define the sectoral policies of countries in the region (see chapter 5), the Alpine Convention has promoted a unified vision of the Alpine area (fig. 24). It has also encouraged the formation of other associations and groups, composed of advocates of protection or promoters of sustainable development in the region. The protected areas in the various countries now have a network of organizations, called ALPARC, that allows them to exchange information and practical knowledge and compare conceptions of their missions. That network promotes the establishment of ecological corridors on the model of the North American experiments so that the objectives of conserving animal and plant wildlife will not be limited to the protected areas. The Alliance in the Alps, an association of municipalities that strives to promote sustainable development initiatives at the local level, has nearly three hundred members.38 Two other associations, one of Alpine towns and another of tourist resorts called the Pearls of the Alps (see chapter 10), are working on similar objectives in their respective contexts. Finally, the national and provincial alpine clubs that emerged in the last third of the nineteenth century have gradually been converted to the aims of protection and controlled development in the Alps. They federated into the Club Arc Alpin in 1995 “to represent their common interests, particularly in the areas of alpinism, nature conservation, alpine regional development and alpine culture, and to achieve the purposes documented in the Convention on the Protection of the Alps.”39 Nationalist rhetoric and the vaunting of athletic feats, which gave rise to these clubs in the nineteenth century, have given way to an environmentalist and internationalist vision oriented entirely toward the practices and management of the mountain massifs.

The Alpine Convention, the first international treaty designed to coordinate various public policies across a mountain massif, was subsequently promoted as a model for actions across Europe and in several other regions of the world as well.40 At the instigation of the International Year of Mountains (see chapter 8), the agenda for action of the Alpine Conference in 2003–4 expressed a desire to conduct exchanges with other mountain regions of the world so that they could benefit from the Alpine experiment. A similar convention was thus signed in the Carpathians, and comparable projects are under discussion for the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Altai.41

(p.279) Diverging Forms of Political Institutionalization in the Sierra Nevada

In 1991 the Sacramento Bee, a regional newspaper for central California, published a series of articles titled “Majesty and Tragedy: The Sierra in Peril” (fig. 25).42 The journalist Tom Knudson presented the results of eight months of interviews, readings, and visits to the Sierra Nevada. The articles attracted attention both for the quality of the investigation and for the somber portrait that emerged from it: air pollution, death of the forests, poisoned rivers, threatened wildlife, soil erosion, forest fires. Shortly thereafter Knudson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for journalism.

Nearly a century separates Knudson’s portrait of the Sierra Nevada and the impassioned initiatives of John Muir (see chapter 4). In The Mountains of California, one of his most popular books, Muir, often described as one of the most influential environmentalists in the United States, describes the mountain range: “It still seems to me above all others the Range of Light, the most divinely beautiful of all the mountain-chains I have ever seen.”43 Muir was deeply moved by the splendor of the Sierra Nevada. Knudson was grief-stricken at the condition of its landscapes and its compromised biodiversity.

Both men had a clear idea of what the Sierra Nevada was and ought to be. The mountain range was clearly identified in the early phases of Spanish colonization. Geologists and botanists, from the late nineteenth century to the present, have supplied numerous scientific descriptions. Back in 1891 Andrew Lawson, professor of geology at the University of California,

The Unifying Mountain

25. Front page of the report on the Sierra Nevada in the Sacramento Bee. Tom Knudson, “Majesty and Tragedy: The Sierra in Peril,” Sacramento Bee, June 9–13, 1991.

(p.280) Berkeley, noted that the Sierra Nevada “constitutes a magnificent unit, one of the finest examples on the face of the globe of a single range, the type of its class.”44 But a century later, when Knudson was writing his articles, the Sierra, unlike the Appalachians (see chapter 5), was not managed as a single entity. Located almost wholly in the state of California, it is divided up among many counties—all of them straddling the mountain range and one or another of the basins alongside it—eight national forests, and three national parks. In short, the range is fragmented into countless political and administrative units, which makes joint management of the totality impossible.45

That is one of the problems Knudson highlighted: “There are no official estimates of overall environmental damage to the Sierra Nevada for one simple reason: No government agency, university or environmental group has taken an exhaustive look at the entire range.”46 And, he maintained, that was exactly what the mountain range needed: an overall vision that dealt with all the places and all the problems at once. His reporting would later be credited with reframing the issues on the scale of the entire mountain range: “These articles made the conservation community aware that there was no unified voice speaking out for the protection of the Sierra.”47

In fact, at the time the report was published the construction of a unified vision and the establishment of the necessary institutions were already under way. The U.S. Forest Service, though one of the most controversial forces in the region, undertook the first form of regional coordination. The agency, which owns half the land in the Sierra, favors the commercialization of national forest timber located outside the national parks. It has regularly been blamed for the damage caused by commercial forest operations. In the late 1980s, to stave off such criticisms, the Forest Service sought to coordinate policies conducted in the Sierra’s eight national forests with the aim of guaranteeing preservation of the habitats of the endangered spotted owl. The initiative grew in subsequent years with the adoption of the Sierra Nevada Forest Plan Amendment, usually known as the Sierra Nevada Framework, which set up discussions between the different parties in forest conflicts and promoted management modes acceptable to most of them.

The U.S. Forest Service’s reframing of policies on the scale of the mountain range led to other such initiatives. Each attracted its own set of actors, and each came up with a specific plan of action. In 1991 the state of California, through the California Biodiversity Council (a committee made up of federal and state agencies as well as local collectivities), sought to promote its regional policies for ten “bioregions,” all defined by biophysical (p.281) criteria. One of these regions was the Sierra Nevada. The state of California also sponsored a scientific study intended to provide indisputable grounds for identifying a bioregion and for promoting appropriate public policies. The four-year (1992–96) study, titled “Sierra Nevada Ecosystem Project” (SNEP), emphasized the diversity of the ecosystems that constituted the Sierra Nevada and at the same time concluded that the promotion of environmental management on that scale was imperative. In November 1991 the Sierra Summit, also financed by the state of California, set out “to launch a consensus-building process for improving the management of natural resources in the Sierra Nevada.”48

Unsatisfied with the modalities and results of that summit, environmental and nature-protection organizations joined with citizens groups promoting watershed management and held their own conference, Sierra Now, in August 1992. One outcome of this event was the launch of the Sierra Nevada Alliance. A little later a second environmental coordination group was created: the Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign. In both cases these organizations assembled—or gave a new institutional form to—various volunteer groups that had previously had little contact with one another. And in both cases financial assistance from private foundations allowed these groups to come together.

Initially, then, the emergence of the Sierra Nevada as an object of institutional initiatives was motivated by a concern for environmental protection in the region. Although the various institutions and events expressed different points of view, the question of protection truly structured public debates. In light of that focus, a second series of initiatives arose in the mid-1990s, openly concerned with reframing the debate in terms of the living and working conditions of the populations and the interests of local businesses. In reaction to the Sierra Now conference and the creation of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, economic actors and regional developers held their own conference. Worried about the increasing power of radical proposals for environmental protection, they established the Sierra Economic Summit, at which they agreed to create the Sierra Communities Council.49

That polarization of regional coordination initiatives led in 1994 to efforts at reconciliation with the creation of the Sierra Business Council. The organization targeted businesses, hoping to raise their awareness of the benefits they could derive from a high-quality natural environment. This pragmatic attitude had the objective of preventing people in the Sierra from getting caught up in the usual posture of radical opposition, with protectors of the environment pitted against supporters of economic development.

(p.282) In 2004 this approach, which favored integrating the objectives of environmental protection and economic development, acquired full institutional recognition. A state agency, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, “initiates, encourages, and supports efforts that improve the environmental, economic, and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region, its communities, and the citizens of California.”50 That “mission” rested on a vision: “The magnificent Sierra Nevada Region enjoys outstanding environmental, economic and social health with vibrant communities and landscapes sustained for future generations.” The idea of a “Sierra Nevada region” took root in a lasting way, and the mountain environment as a frame of reference came to be central to its purpose. Environmentalists and promoters of economic development were invited to contribute jointly to sustainable development and to reasonable management of mountain resources. Promoters have thus had to familiarize political leaders with that new object. To that end, a Sierra Nevada Lobby Day is held every year.51 Within the walls of the capitol in Sacramento, that day is dedicated to persuading California state legislators that “the Sierra Nevada exists as an entity and matters!” Lobbyists conduct a work session to remind legislators of the regional issues at stake, then go door to door to legislators’ offices to ask them to support the lobbyists’ actions. The idea of a new mountain region has taken root in the halls of the California legislature, the only entity that can decide to give it a long-term institutional form.

The Mountain as Emerging Regional Framework and as Referent for Collective Action

From the Virunga to the Alps, from the Rockies to the Andes, and from the Sierra Nevada to the Carpathians, mountain ranges and massifs, whether large or of modest size, are becoming political objects. Identified clearly by scientific protocols already proven for decades, these natural entities are apprehended increasingly often as management entities, even as fully functioning political entities. They are now part of the general rise in influence of transnational regions, which the imaginaries of globalization seem to encourage even as the exclusive prerogatives of nation-states weaken and transborder practices intensify: “The ‘mythical’ resurrection of the ‘local’ or ‘regional’ scale—both in theory and in practice—is an integral part of the ‘myth’ of globalization.”52

Various factors may explain why the mountain regions appear well situated for that general reframing of the scales and objects of political and institutional life. References to their natural quality, their precedence in (p.283) time over any territorial or political project, play a key role. That view is voiced in environmentalist organizations especially, both by those seeking to optimize policies for protecting threatened species and biotopes, such as the World Wildlife Fund or Conservation International, and by those who support a more radical or revolutionary conception of environmentalism, such as the staunchest bioregionalists. In addition, that environmentalist awareness is no longer the exclusive domain of such associations. It is seeping into public policies, particularly in specialized agencies and administrations in Europe and California, for example.

A second factor in the increasing influence of mountain ranges and massifs as political objects is that many of them lie on borders. The promotion of transborder cooperation across ridge lines may stem from a globalist or antinationalist rhetoric, from a pragmatic understanding of the limits of national public policies on the environment, or both. The image of the unifying mountain, of the mountain summit where different parties hold hands or signs accords, is replacing the image that prevailed for decades of a natural rampart between nation-states. But that rhetoric fools no one, especially not administrators or directors of political projects. Transborder cooperation is possible only if it engages preexisting legal political entities and recognizes their decisive role.53

The other great lesson of the preceding examples is that the objectification of mountain ranges and their irruption into international relations have not come about solely in the name of the environmentalist paradigm or in a single problematization—the mountain as a privileged environment for nature-protection policies. The organizations most wary or hostile with respect to radical environmentalism, and those that pursue radically different projects, tend to embrace these same mountain objects in order to champion their critical or alternative conceptions. The Alps and the Sierra Nevada illustrate that state of affairs. This is evidence of the triumph of the new political objectification of the mountain: it is being adopted not only by those who introduced it, but also by their opponents.


(1.) Quoted in Trevor Sandwith, Clare Shine, Lawrence Hamilton, and David Sheppard, Transboundary Protected Areas for Peace and Co-operation (Gland: International Union for the Conservation of Nature—The World Conservation Union, 2001), vii.

(2.) Ibid. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) played a decisive role in the emergence and spread of the notion of peace parks.

(3.) The full official name is the “Protocol of Peace, Friendship, and Borders between Peru and Ecuador.”

(4.) Ronald Bruce St. John, Rachel Bradley, and Clive H. Schofield, The Ecuador-Peru Boundary Dispute: The Road to Settlement (Durham: University of Durham Press, 1999), 23.

(5.) Alejandra Ruiz-Dana, “Peru and Ecuador: A Case Study of Latin American Integration and Conflict,” in Regional Trade Integration and Conflict Resolution, ed. Shaheen Rafi Khan (New York: Routledge/IDRC, 2008); Gabriel Marcella, War and Peace in the Amazon: Strategic Implications for the United States and Latin America of the 1995 Peru-Ecuador War (Carlisle, PA: Army War College, 1995).

(p.327) (7.) Sandwith, Shine, Hamilton, and Sheppard, Transboundary Protected Areas, 9. Kakabadse become president of the WWF in 2010.

(8.) Thomas Schulenberg and Kim Awbrey, The Cordillera del Condor Region of Ecuador and Peru: A Biological Assessment, RAP Working Papers 7 (Washington, DC: Conservation International, 1997).

(9.) Ken Conca, Alexander Carius, and Geoffrey Dabelko, “Building Peace through Environmental Cooperation,” in State of the World 2005: Redefining Global Security, ed. Linda Starke (New York: Norton, 2005), 144–55, quotation 144; Russell A. Mittermeier, Cyril F. Kormos, Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier, and Patricio Robles Gil, Transboundary Conservation: A New Vision for Protected Areas (Mexico City: Cemex, 2005), 45. Arnaud Cuisinier-Raynal defended the critical view that this conservation policy was still the best means of cleaning up a border region and constituting a no-man’s-land. Arnaud Cuisinier-Raynal, “La frontière au Pérou entre fronts et synapses,” L’espace géographique 3 (2001): 213–30.

(10.) Ali Saleem Hassan, Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

(11.) Carlos F. Ponce and Martin Alcalde, “The Condor Corridor,” Tropical Forest Update 13, no. 2 (2003): 13–14, quotation 14.

(12.) Charles Chester, “Transboundary Protected Areas,” in Encyclopaedia of Earth, ed. Cutler J. Cleveland (Washington, DC: Environmental Information Coalition, National Council for Science and the Environment, 2008).

(13.) Helga Rainer, Stephen Asuma, Maryke Gray, Jose Kalpers, Anecto Kayitare, Eugene Rutagarama, Mbake Sivha, and Annette Lanjouw, “Regional Conservation in the Virunga-Bwindi Region: The Impact of Transfrontier Collaboration through the Experiences of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme,” in Transboundary Protected Areas: The Viability of Regional Conservation Strategies, ed. Uromi Manage Goodale, Marc J. Stern, Cheryl Margoluis, Ashley G. Lanfer, and Matthew Fladeland (New York: Food Products Press, 2003), 189–204.

(14.) Trilateral Memorandum of Understanding between the Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, and the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature.

(15.) Eric van Giessen, Peace Park amid Violence? A Report on Environmental Security in the Virunga-Bwindi Region (The Hague: Institute for Environmental Security, 2005).

(16.) Raymond F. Dasmann, A System for Defining and Classifying Natural Regions for Purposes of Conservation, Occasional Paper 9 (Morges: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 1973); Miklos D. F. Udvardy, A Classification of the Biogeographical Provinces of the World, Occasional Paper 18 (Morges: International Union for the Conservation of Nature, 1975).

(18.) David M. Olson and Eric Dinerstein, “The Global 200: A Representation Approach to Conserving the Earth’s Most Biologically Valuable Ecoregions,” Conservation Biology 12, no. 3 (1998): 502–15.

(19.) Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann, “Reinhabiting California,” Ecologist (1977), reprinted in A Separate Country: A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California, ed. Peter Berg (San Francisco: Planet Drum, 1978), 217–20. For an overview of the theoretical propositions of bioregionalism, see Kirkpatrick Sale, Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision (Philadelphia: New Society, 1985).

(20.) Charlotte Bretherton, “Ecocentric Identity and Transformatory Politics,” International Journal of Peace Studies 6, no. 2 (2001).

(p.328) (21.) Doug Aberley, Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1993), 71.

(22.) Ibid., 3.

(23.) Callahan. quoted in Daniel Press, “Environmental Regionalism and the Struggle for California,” Society and Natural Resources 8 (1995): 289–306, quotation 303.

(24.) Stephen Frenkel, “Old Theories in New Places? Environmental Determinism and Bioregionalism,” Professional Geographer 46, no. 3 (1994): 289–95, quotation 291.

(26.) Chester Charles, “Landscape Vision and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative,” in Conservation across Borders: Biodiversity in an Interdependent World (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006), 134–216, quotation 145.

(27.) Michael Soule, “What Is Conservation Biology?” BioScience 35, no. 11 (1986): 727–34.

(28.) Heather J. Lynch, Stephanie Hodge, Christian Albert, and Molly Dunham, “The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Challenges for Regional Ecosystem Management,” Environmental Management 41, no. 6 (2008): 820–33.

(29.) Paul Paquet, the world specialist on wolves who conducted the Pluie tracking operation, says that “this was the founding story of Y2Y…. Really, the whole idea evolved out of it.” Quoted in Cornelia Dean, “Wandering Wolf Inspires Project,” New York Times, May 23, 2006.

(30.) Jodi A. Hilty, William Z. Lidicker, and Adina M. Merinlender, Corridor Ecology: The Science and Practice of Linking Landscapes for Biodiversity Conservation (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2006); Michel Soulé and John Terborgh, eds., Continental Conservation (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999). The slogan adopted by the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative—”making connections, naturally”—attests to its adherence to that corridor ecology.

(31.) Interview with David Mattson (U.S. Geological Survey), Cambridge, MA, June 13, 2008.

(32.) Harvey Locke, “Preserving the Wild Heart of North America: The Wildlands Project and the Yellowstone to Yukon Biodiversity Strategy,” Borealis: The Magazine for Canadian Parks and Wilderness 15 (1994).

(33.) http://www.y2y.net, accessed November 15, 2009.

(34.) The principality of Monaco later joined the initiative.

(36.) Werner Bätzing, “La region alpine dans le sens de la délimitation de la Convention Alpine,” in La convention alpine, ed. W. Danz and S. Ortner (Vaduz: Commission Internationale pour la Protection des Alpes, 1993), 236–47.

(37.) Note from René Gex-Fabry to M. R. Deffer for the Committee of the Swiss Center for Mountain Regions (SAB) of June 13, 1991, quoted in Gilles Rudaz, “Porter la voix de la montagne: Objectivation et différentiation du territoire par le Groupement de la population de la montagne du Valais romand (1945–2004),” Ph.D. diss., Université de Genève, 2005, 214.

(38.) Christina Del Biaggio, “The Institutionalization of the Alpine Region: An Analysis Based on a Study of Two Pan-Alpine Networks (Alliance in the Alps and Alparc),” Journal of Alpine Research/Revue de géographie alpine 97, no. 2 (2009).

(39.) http://club-arc-alpin.org, accessed February 12, 2014.

(40.) The ministers of the member states of the Alpine Convention promptly became advocates (p.329) of transferring their model. After one of their meetings (in Merano, 2002), for example, they declared: “In the international context, we see the Alpine Convention as a model of sustainable development for transboundary mountain regions.” Declaration of Merano, part 4, November 19, 2002.

(41.) Juliet Fall and Harald Egerer, “Constructing the Carpathians: The Carpathian Convention and the Search for a Spatial Ideal,” Journal of Alpine Research/Revue de géographie alpine 92, no. 2 (2004): 98–106; Bernard Debarbieux, Martin Price and Jörg Balsiger, “The Institutionalization of Mountain Regions in Europe.” Regional Studies (2013), http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00343404.2013.812784.

(42.) Tom Knudson, “Majesty and Tragedy: The Sierra in Peril,” Sacramento Bee, June 9–13, 1991.

(43.) John Muir, The Mountains of California (New York: Century, 1894), 3.

(44.) Quoted in Francis P. Farquhar, History of the Sierra Nevada (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 1. See also David Beesley, Crow’s Range: An Environmental History of the Sierra Nevada (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2004).

(45.) Jörg Balsiger, Uphill Struggles: The Politics of Sustainable Mountain Development in Switzerland and California (Cologne: Lambert, 2009); Jörg Balsiger, “The Impact of Ecoregional Mobilization on Mountain Policies in the Swiss Alps and California’s Sierra Nevada,” Journal of Alpine Research/Revue de géographie alpine 97, no. 2 (2009).

(48.) Sierra Summit Steering Committee, The Sierra Nevada: Report of the Sierra Summit Steering Committee (1992), 2.

(49.) Timothy Duane, Shaping the Sierra: Nature, Culture, and Conflict in the Changing West (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999). The inventors of that alternative form of activism thus embrace the “wise use movement,” which in the United States designates the promotion of the environment and of nature for the benefit of society. That movement is often perceived as an alternative to radical environmentalism, even as an anti-environmentalism.

(50.) Leslie Laird, Sierra Nevada Conservancy Act, California Public Resources, 2004, code 33302; emphasis in original.

(51.) Gilles Rudaz, “The Sierra Nevada Lobby Day: Putting the ‘Range of Light’ on the Map,” Mountain Research and Development 27, no. 4 (2007): 375–76.

(52.) Erik Swyngedouw, “Authoritarian Governance, Power and the Politics of Rescaling,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 18 (2000): 63–76, quotation 63–64.

(53.) Juliet Fall, “Beyond Handshakes: Rethinking Cooperation in Transboundary Protected Areas as a Process of Individual and Collective Identity Construction,” Journal of Alpine Research/Revue de géographie alpine 2 (2009): 61–73. (p.330)