Val Grande – Wilderness & museum of colonization

”Val Grande is an unique example of Wilderness in Alps (Italy) and simultaneously also attractive open air museum of colonisation”

told me Mauro Belardi from Cooperativa Sociale Eliante Onlus, Italy during our meeting in Parma at the beginning of May 2015.

So, the Val Grande can become maybe the bronze or silver category according European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System (EWQA)

, summarized after while our short discussion Max Rossberg, Chairman of European Wilderness Society.

The category depends on the degree of modifications! In Germany, the largest Wilderness is actually an ex-military testing ground in Saxony, where the Russians held their maneuvers until 1992. The natural re-wilding, the return of key species, the abundance of natural processes and the complete absence of human intervention makes this area unique… where there was nothing 25 years ago, there is one of the interesting piece of re-wilded land in central Europe. The amount or kind of so called native species and plants is not always relevant… at least not as long as their absence is not actively invoked by human influence. I believe an excellent description of Wilderness in a European Context is Self-Willed Land.

Max Rossberg concluded.  The Val Grande website states that:

”The word “Wilderness” usually reminds of unlimited spaces, wild and uncontaminated places far from the presence of man. However, Val Grande is not only this. Here the traces of the human presence are very evident: mule tracks, summer grazing pastures, terraced soil, and abandoned cable ways witness the intense presence of man during the past centuries. “Wilderness” in Val Grande means an abandoned place with no roads nor permanent and seasonal settlements, where nature is slowly regaining its spaces. In this valley, Wilderness means harmony, natural balance, and uncontested silences”,

To experience Self-Willed Land, go to explore Val Grande in Italian Alps, less then 2 hours north from Milano. The park web site itself explains how the area became Wilderness, but also that it is a sort of open-air museum of colonisation of the Alps.   There was a long history of human presence in this territory, starting from Neolithic period until the last century when the abandonment started.

The local forests have been exploited during 800 years. The economy was a kind of survival economy for local population linked to grazing, forestry and mining areas. Wood was also used for supporting the mining industry.  The area around the current park was very famous for quarries in the past, including one very famous quarry, used for the construction of several famous monuments in Northern Italy, including the Duomo of Milano. Today the National park organises trips to that quarry!

Most of rivers of the area were heavily used by material transportation until 1920! After that date, the excavation continued but the transportation shifted to roads.  The area was also well known due to the clash during the II World War between partisans and nacists. After the war, the area was again used by shepherds until about the year 1960 and then the change happened!

The area become gradually abandoned and today is really remote and isolated, with few minor roads and is getting more and wild character. Certain level of human activities are still present, but with a low impact. Inside the park are still very small but permanent human settlements, grazing activities and tourism. Structure of biodiversity is constantly changing and is very dynamic.

Besides terrible war tragedies, past human activities and “a massive” spontaneous re-wilding there are two more important aspects in Val Grande’s story: the early active protection of the area and its importance in the history of Italian nature conservation movement.  Indeed, the come-back of mother Nature was not only the spontaneous result of land abandonment, but it was also actively promoted. Since the end of 50-ties, when the exploitation of the valley was disappearing, scientists and environmentalists began to fight for the protection of the area. The Italian State (by the State Forestry Corp) bought the lands and created two Nature Reserves with the size of 3400 hectares.

Val Grande become the very first Strict Nature Reserve in the Italian Alps! This reserve become the heart of the current National Park!  There is still ongoing discussion if Val Grande could be considered a Wilderness and an example of spontaneous Wilderness restoration.

Many things already happened in the last 50-60 years. Areas used in the previous centuries recovered, changed and obviously will be changing even more in the coming years. Spontaneous recovery of Wilderness is very complex, slow and long-term process. Nevertheless, it is good to understand that this kind of process is not very common throughout the Alps and in Europe generally and this make this area so unique and strong candidate to join the European Wilderness Network.

Answer to the ongoing discussion if Val Grande is Wilderness or not can provide the Wilderness Quality Assessment named: European Wilderness Quality Standard and Audit System running by the European Wilderness Society.

This process according the philosophy of the Definition of European Wilderness and Wild Areas, will provide an excellent example of the area restored by spontaneous succession and governed by natural processes and so contribute to the European Wilderness Network.

This provides an additional value to this area, international recognition and Europe´s wide visibility!

Note: This article is a result of co-operation among Mauro Belardi, Cooperativa Sociale Eliante Onlus, Italy, “Dario Botti, independent Wilderness expert from Parma, Italy” and European Wilderness Society. Pictures were provided by Botanist Patrizia Digiovinazzo, http://www.patriziadigiovinazzo.it/.

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