The National Park in Val Trupchun, September 2019.
The National Park in Val Trupchun, September 2019. Wikimedia / Agnes Monkelbaan

The birth of the Swiss National Park

Around 150 years ago, things were looking grim for Switzerland’s flora and fauna. Then two Basel academics seized the initiative, and set about bringing to life their vision of an unspoiled, primordial landscape in the Engadin. In 1914, the first national park in Central Europe was opened in the Val Cluozza.

Pascale Meyer

Pascale Meyer

Historian and curator at the Swiss national museum

The establishment of a national park owes a great deal to glacial erratics. These oversized rock masses were believed to be leftovers from when the Alps region was formed. As the 20th century dawned, many of these erratics were at risk of being broken up. They were obstacles, standing in the way of major construction projects. One particularly massive specimen, the Pierre des Marmettes near Monthey, was already earmarked for destruction when the Swiss Society of Natural Sciences, appealed for a rescue operation. The Society set up a committee that not only promoted nature conservation, but also started pushing the idea of a national park.
The Pierre des Marmettes at Monthey, 1930.
The Pierre des Marmettes at Monthey, 1930. ETH-Bibliothek / Photographer: Leo Wehrli, colourised by Margrit Wehrli-Frey
It was time for some decisive action to be taken; the forests and nature as a whole in Switzerland (as in all of Europe) were in a bad state, overexploited and uprooted. Huge areas of forest had been cleared, wildlife populations were dwindling and there was massive depletion of broadleaf forests. The forest could no longer withstand the pressure of the human population, which was growing rapidly as a result of industrialisation. Modernisation projects such as the canalisation and straightening of rivers, expanding the road network and, in particular, the clear-felling of mountain forests were pushing animals and plants to the periphery of existence. The last lynx was sighted in 1876, by which time the ibexes had long since disappeared and even the wolf was encountered only as a border-crossing rarity.
In 1924 a landslide destroyed part of the village of Someo in Valle Maggia. The frequent landslides in Ticino are a result of the large-scale deforestation for the wood trade during the 19th century.
In 1924 a landslide destroyed part of the village of Someo in Valle Maggia. The frequent landslides in Ticino are a result of the large-scale deforestation for the wood trade during the 19th century. ETH-Bibliothek / Photographer: Anton Krenn
At the same time, however, the Alps were becoming the iconic symbol of Switzerland and an embodiment of Swiss patriotic feeling. Romanticising the Alps was almost part of our tourism mantra. Mountain holidays were becoming increasingly popular with foreign visitors – both in summer and in winter. And there was a pressing need to safeguard this landscape which made Switzerland so attractive. The nature conservation movement was already well established internationally. During this period, associations were formed in Europe, North America and Europe’s colonial regions that took up the cause of preserving nature. All of this had been preceded in 1872 by the founding of Yellowstone Park, which as a “recreation area” was intended to make the region’s natural wonders, the geysers and the waterfalls accessible to the public.
Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first national park. Illustration from 1904.
Yellowstone National Park was the world’s first national park. Illustration from 1904. David Rumsey Map Collection
And now this first-response environmental movement was reaching Switzerland. In places such as the Lower Engadin, where Steivan Brunies (1877-1953) came from, the damage was plain to see. A botanist who worked as a secondary school teacher in Basel, Brunies knew the Lower Engadin like the back of his hand. Together with Paul Sarasin (1856-1929), the Basel academic who, with his cousin Fritz Sarasin, had previously conducted anthropological, geographical and geological research in the colonial regions of Ceylon and Celebes, Brunies chose the area around the Val Cluozza for the creation of the pair’s shared vision of an unspoiled primordial landscape. They sought to curb the progressive threat and destruction of advancing civilisation and “restore the primordial alpine nature”. Sarasin and Brunies encountered a substantial support base in upper-class urban circles; the idea met with much less enthusiasm among the region’s predominantly rural population, however. They were concerned about their pasture and mining areas.
Portrait of Steivan Brunies, ca. 1930.
Portrait of Steivan Brunies, ca. 1930. Basel University Library
Portrait of Paul Sarasin, ca. 1920.
Portrait of Paul Sarasin, ca. 1920. Basel University Library
In 1906, Paul Sarasin became the first chair of the new nature protection committee, the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature, which paid one franc of its membership fees to the national park to finance the rent. But Sarasin, who had been back in Switzerland since 1896, dedicated himself not only to the national park, but also to global nature conservation. He saw the natural paradise of the Earth as being destroyed by humankind. Although he had himself profited from the structures of colonialism and was involved in racial research, he asserted that: “…The white man is the great destroyer of creation, the meddler in earthly paradise…” He harboured a romantic yearning for the primordial, the natural, a scene of paradisical perfection. At the same time, however, Sarasin was living out a colonial habitus: despite his criticism of colonialism, he paradoxically assigned to the white man the role of watching over and protecting the “natural paradise”. And so Sarasin set up the International Conference on Nature Protection, which met for the first time in Berne in 1913 – under the aegis of the Federal Council. The outbreak of World War I brought all these efforts to an abrupt halt. But not the push for the national park, though, which met with widespread approval.
The illustrated guide dating from 1942 was intended to be “our companion on long winter evenings when we dream of hiking”, encouraging and nurturing a love of nature among the Swiss public.
The illustrated guide dating from 1942 was intended to be “our companion on long winter evenings when we dream of hiking”, encouraging and nurturing a love of nature among the Swiss public. Swiss National Museum
In 1913 a parliamentary committee visited the Val Cluozza region; on their return to Bern, the members of the committee then threw their enthusiastic support behind the national park idea. Only the Social Democrats had trouble with the proposal, or, more precisely, with its financing: the country’s social problems were too big and too pressing. However, they were defeated in the Council, removing the last barrier to the establishment of a Swiss national park. On 1 August 1914, the first national park in Central Europe was officially opened. And ever since, the region has been a pristine natural wilderness area that has been mostly removed from public use, in which flora and fauna can grow and flourish undisturbed.
Map of the National Park ca. 1927.
Map of the National Park today.
Map of the National Park ca. 1927, and today. ETH Library / Swisstopo
The ecosystem is closely monitored, because one of the park’s most important tasks is research – and while it has been established that the diversity of species and the number of ungulates has increased, 100 years is not long enough to obliterate the traces of human exploitation. But the park is becoming increasingly popular. More than 120,000 visitors come every year to hike and to look at the animals. Since hikers are not permitted to leave the marked paths, the animals have become accustomed to people – with a bit of luck you might even spot an ibex. And this is quite an accomplishment, because it wasn’t until 1921 that the park’s circuitous trails were recolonised with young animals.

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Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).