Dolomites, UNESCO World Heritage Site, Center of Mounting Controversy

The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was established after World War II in an effort to create an “intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind.” Today, UNESCO plays many roles—maintaining peace and equity, encouraging sustainable development, advancing cooperation, sciences and communication, and preserving culture. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, the Dolomites in Italy are now becoming a source of controversy.

The Gardena Pass in the Dolomites (Source: Wiki Commons/Moroder)

The Dolomites is a mountain range spanning more than 140,000 hectares in Northern Italy. Comprised of 18 peaks, the Dolomites boast breathtaking scenery with sheer mountain cliffs, glaciers, and clear mountain lakes. The mountains are a sought-after tourist destination, particularly for thrill-seekers who can ski and mountain climb during winter, and paraglide and hang glide in the summer. Free climbing has also been a tradition in the Dolomites for over a decade.

The mountain range’s rich history is not only defined by its outdoor activities. Communities in the Dolomites speak three languages, German, Italian, and Ladin, an early Romance language. The mountain range also served as a front during World War I from 1915 to 1917, where Italian and Austrian forces clashed. Between battles and natural forces such as avalanches, landslides and frostbite, 150,000 soldiers died in the Alps during WW1. Today, retreating glaciers are beginning to expose buried relics of the Austrian stronghold.

World War I memorial on Mount Piana, location of the “Open Air Museum of the First World War” (Wiki Commons/AnaisGoepner)

The UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, was formed in 2010 by several Italian provinces and regions. The Foundation is responsible for coordinating the effective management of the mountain range and acts as an intermediary between local authorities and the Italian Ministry for the Environment. According to Jacopo Pasotti, an Italian Journalist who specializes in scientific and environmental reporting, climate change and land use changes currently pose significant threats to the Dolomites. Speaking to GlacierHub, Pasotti explained that the mountains are highly developed in many places, with heavy traffic during peak tourism. Fewer snow days and less snowfall would have affected tourism, if it were not for the government subsidies that have allowed ski resorts to increase artificial snow production. Pasotti stressed the importance of creating protected areas tourists can’t access to protect the natural landscape and wildlife. But he does not hold out hope for the region’s glaciers, “under all scenarios this very sensitive area is going to lose the majority of its glaciers in the next few decades.”

Mountain Wilderness is a nonprofit organization founded in 1987 in Biella, Italy by mountaineers to pursue the preservation of the country’s natural environment and culture of mountain regions. The group encourages sustainable tourism. It has recently taken issue with the management of the Dolomites and is particularly concerned over threats from tourism. Last month, the organization published an electronic letter on their website declaring it was removing itself from the Board of Supporters of the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation, stating its displeasure with the management of the Dolomites. Signed by Mountain Wilderness President Franco Tessadri, the letter states, “We were assured (in 2017, then postponed to 2018, then again to 2019) that UNESCO would make a further visit to check the management of the Dolomites heritage. This never happened.”

The Marmolada Glacier, 2015 (Source: Wiki Commons/DarTar)

The Mountain Wilderness letter accuses the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation of focusing its attention on tourism marketing rather than sustainable management– a complaint no doubt exacerbated by increased tourism in recent years. The non-profit took particular offense at the Foundation’s failure to condemn the use of vehicles on mountain trails. Mountain Wilderness also criticized the Foundation for failing to effectively communicate with its supporters. They reference a joint letter sent by national and local environmental associations to the UNESCO Dolomites Foundation. According to Mountain Wilderness, this letter was ignored. In their letter withdrawing from the Foundation’s Board of supporters, Mountain Wilderness stated, “That silence was extremely offensive to all the signatory associations, not only to Mountain Wilderness Italy, as if the Foundation had freed itself of the burden of environmentalists with a shrug of its shoulders.”

When reached for comment, the UNESCO Dolomite’s Foundation stated, “we are pleased to inform you that the Board of Directors of the Foundation has acknowledged Mountain Wilderness Italia’s willingness to leave the Board of Supporters, despite the great attention paid in recent years to dialogue and confrontation. As you surely know, the situation in Italy for the coronavirus is still serious and the lockdown still in place. Once the situation will allow it, a confrontation at political level will be proposed to Mountain Wilderness Italia.”

The Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Dolomites (Source: Wiki Commons/Moroder)

Alessandra Giannini, a climate scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society fondly remembers a family trip to the Dolomites in the mid-1970s. She and her family stayed in San Martino di Castrozza, where they hiked nearby trails and picked blueberries, which her sister ate straight from the bush. Giannini told GlacierHub she remembers finding the lighter colors of the mountains’ barren peaks particularly striking. Years later, she now knows the lighter colors on the barren peaks are due to their oceanic origin.

When asked about preservation efforts and management, Giannini stated that at the time when her family visited the Dolomites, there was “no such thing as any restrictions, except that it was forbidden to collect rare flowers.” Giannini described how her mother noted how much the Dolomites had changed since she visited in the 1950s. Her mother was surprised how different even the small town of San Martino de Castrozza was, as the “woods in the village had given way to construction.” Giannini also drew connections between concern over management of the Dolomites and the situation in Cinque Terre, a section of the Ligurian Riviera close to her family’s home. Cinque Terre is a cultural UNESCO World Heritage site. She said in the last two decades Cinque Terre has become a popular tourist attraction in Italy. According to Giannini a “thin veneer of environmentalism” defined by the establishment of a national park or a UNESCO World Heritage site is to blame for tourists overrunning Italy’s natural resources. She said, “local government structures have given preference to the business of tourism over conservation efforts.”

San Martino di Castrozza (Wiki Commons/Threecharlie)

Whether as the result of the actions of the UNESCO Dolomite Foundation, or that of the Italian government, concern over management and preservation of the Dolomites is mounting. Like many other glacierized regions, the Dolomites are under threat of climate change. Organizations like Mountain Wilderness do not want to see these threats exacerbated by land-use changes or the wear of tourist activities. However, the issue is not so black and white, as the local economy depends heavily on tourism. Recent attempts to restrict vehicle use in the Dolomites were met with opposition from hotel and restaurant owners in the Dolomites and criticism from local officials. Preservation of the Dolomites has become a balancing act– conserve the natural environment without damaging the local economy.

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