Switzerland: Best Conservationists

For a glimpse of primeval Europe, head for the high mountains of eastern Switzerland. In the wild scenery of the Swiss National Park, the authorities have sought to re-create the conditions that prevailed 5,000 years ago. No trees are felled, no meadows mown and no animals hunted. The ibex and the bearded vulture, once driven to near extinction, now flourish again after their reintroduction in the last century. Wolves have returned to the region, and so has the occasional bear.

A rare gesture to nature conservation from a nation famously devoted to commerce? Not so. When it comes to environmental protection, the Swiss can point to tradition. As far back as 1914, the nation created the oldest national park in the Alps or anywhere in Central Europe. And the tradition persists with a heap of legislation that establishes more than 20 new national parks. Small wonder that the country took first place in Yale and Columbia's Environmental Performance Index with a set of near-perfect marks.

It's an achievement that few would challenge. More than half the forests that cover 30 percent of the country have gotten Forest Stewardship Council certification, the international hallmark of good practice. In the EPI, Switzerland scored 65 in the effectiveness of its conservation measures, compared with an average of 25 for its neighbors and 51 for others of similar wealth. This is all the more impressive considering its population density—176 people per square kilometer, more than twice the figure for Greece, largely concentrated in the valleys and lowlands. The country has managed to juggle the needs of people with the needs of its wildlife, earning it more than double the average European score for biodiversity. "You can swim in any of our lakes, and turn on any tap and drink the water with pleasure," says Hans-Peter Fricker, head of the Swiss office of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

Why such dedication? One explanation begins with history and the importance of the Alpine landscape in the national psyche. The four original cantons that came together to form the nucleus of the Swiss nation in the 13th century encompass spectacular mountain landscapes. "The Alps are part of the whole Swiss mythology," says Reto Soler, Swiss representative of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps. "It is where Switzerland was born."

Environmentalists have taken advantage of Swiss direct democracy, which allows citizens to demand a referendum on the issues of their choosing. The current construction of the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel beneath the St. Gotthard massif in the Alps—to divert heavy freight traffic off the roads—follows a national vote. So, too, did moves to ban heavy foreign trucks.

More than 40 years ago Parliament passed laws to protect wetlands, meadows and Alpine streams and glaciers. Care for the environment is now written into the Constitution. An article added in 1996 explicitly obliges the government to promote sustainable farming and the upkeep of the rural landscape. New parks, seen as a boost for tourism and conservation, will be scattered across the country.

On the environment, this nation isn't standing still.