Times of climate change call for Johannes Ehrenfeldner, Director of Lake Neusiedl National Park, to address the restoration of biodiversity and ecosystems even more intensively. Erwin Pichler, Regional Manager GrECo Burgenland, spoke with him about the threats and impacts, economic risks and current measures.
How climate change is impacting a national park beyond the obvious environmental toll
Pichler: Climate change influences the entire national park – on the one hand it effects nature and the environment, and on the other hand there are the economic impacts. How do you see this from your position?
Ehrenfeldner: I don’t see my role as National Park Director as being limited to nature conservation, but much more comprehensively in a regional and sustainability context -even if the word is overused. I see my responsibility as an equilateral triangle – the ecological, the social and the economic. Each responsibility is equal. As a national park society, we move within this triangle. Against a climate change background, it can also be quite simply explained: The region feels climate change first hand: when there are really dry years, as there were two years ago, the immediate consequence is that birds stay away because they choose other resting places. And as a result, tourists who come here especially for this bird watching hotspot also stay away. This leads to less added value in the region. Therefore, one can also say that climate change has a direct influence on value creation.
Pichler: The absence of the birds also reduces the added value. So, it’s a 1:1 effect?
Ehrenfeldner: Exactly. One can rarely intervene in nature, maybe a little but usually not at all. No one has ever managed to make it rain, for example. But you can at least simulate rain or tweak things so that the groundwater remains at a reasonable level. At least this buffer remains an option for us.
Pichler: In general, biodiversity is declining. Can we do something about it in the National Park?
Ehrenfeldner: We can’t save the world, but we can manage the conditions so that the birds find the habitats they need. Bird migration is a global phenomenon. Species of wading birds are declining sharply. The much-used Bird Index, which mainly catalogues the small birds that used to thrive on agricultural land, shows that the number of these birds is also severely diminishing. However, there are also climate change winners, for example the so-called mid-winter species. Historically, the wintering and over-summering was dominated by northern species, but now more species like the shelduck and the hoopoe are arriving. They feel very much at home in the dry climate when they can also find sand. You can also observe that the climate zones are shifting.
Pichler: Where do the birds that no longer come migrate to?
Ehrenfeldner: That is an interesting question. Animals have only two options, either to migrate upwards or to migrate northwards. Either they colonise higher areas or more northerly areas. If they can’t go further north either, they die out.
Pichler: You once said that you can’t protect nature because you have to be stronger than nature itself. What do you mean by that exactly?
Erenfeldner: That is a bit of a philosophical statement, if you like. But I am firmly convinced that we as human beings are not capable of protecting nature. Nature will always be stronger than us humans. We can preserve and maintain our living space in such a way that it is worth living in. These large, protected areas such as national parks are part of this. These are places where a person would like to go. If this is no longer the case, because desires get out of hand, such as building development, the purpose of protection becomes relevant again, but not with the purpose of protecting nature itself, but basically protecting it for humans, who then retain these valuable habitats.
Protecting a wealth of biodiversity as eco-systems become unbalanced
Pichler: The national park that you manage is a huge area, which is also partly cultivated. Can you tell us a bit more about how that works?
Ehrenfeldner: The national park covers 10,000 hectares,5,000 hectares of which belong to the strictly protected nature zone. You’re not allowed to go into this zone, only for scientific reasons, but nor would you want to, because it’s uncomfortable in the reed beds, there are mosquitoes, it smells like rot. The other 5,000 hectares are a millennia-old cultural landscape where very sustainable grazing has taken place, which has also led to a wealth of biodiversity. The variety of rare plants, birds, and insect species are the product of this extensive management. The fact that the area of the national park is actually a border landscape also has a potentiating effect on biodiversity. It is the last foothills of the Alps (Rax, Hohe Wand, Schneeberg, Leithagebirge, Ruster Hügelland) and part of the Hungarian lowlands. We have plant communities and ecosystems that have the westernmost distribution boundary as well as those with the easternmost. Two climatic zones meet. One is continental and the other maritime/atlantic.
Pichler: Can one still speak of a balance in this ecosystem as a whole?
Ehrenfeldner: No, you can’t say that. The area of the national park and the adjacent areas is one of the most intensively used agricultural areas in Austria. It is the epicentre of Austrian agriculture. Also because of the climate and the soils, the fertility of the land is very high. The limiting factor is currently the water.
Pichler: So, the biggest threat to the national park is the lack of water. What do you think are the main causes of this situation: The climate or intensive agricultural use?
Ehrenfeldner: There are always three components – the shift in precipitation or too little precipitation in the winter months, higher temperatures, and consistent drainage/extraction of groundwater for agricultural drainage. The Seewinkel is a wetland. Thus, agriculture only became possible through drainage. On the Hungarian side they acted more cleverly than on the Austrian side, ensuring their canals could be used for drainage as well as for irrigation. On the Austrian side, however the focus was on alpine water management, where the drainage of water was the main concern.
It is possible to intervene in the systems, the drainage, and the agriculture, and create a trend reversal. Drainage should be controlled in such a way that as much water as possible remains. Not a single drop should leave the region!
Striving for a circular economy is inevitable. We have submitted a proposal to the EU, which we want to implement in the next five years. The province of Burgenland uses drainage channels with controllable sluices, which thus consistently retains water. There is also the question of which crops are more suitable, i.e. which do not need so much water. For example, seed corn and outdoor vegetables with overhead irrigation such as onions consume a lot of water and produce a high loss through evaporation. Glass houses are more effective for these crops because they have a closed water cycle. And I don’t want to blame farmers and growers now, it’s just the agricultural industry’s system.
Insuring environmental risks, a lost cause, or a beacon of hope?
Pichler: These are developments that have taken place over the last 150 years, and it’s only now we are seeing the results. So now we must find a solution to them. At GrECo, we try to manage risks in many situations, but we can’t manage everything. The best-case scenario, and we try very hard to achieve it, is to prevent risks from occurring in the first place. That is probably – to use the word sustainable once again – the most sustainable method. Do you agree?
Ehrenfeldner: Awareness of hazards has become much more prevalent today, but despite our awareness of drought damage, it can’t really be covered by insurance, even though it is almost a calculable risk. And, sadly, at some point, society will no longer be able to afford it.
Pichler: We see more and more of these direct dependencies. Parametric weather insurance pays out when a predefined value is exceeded or not reached. For example, the amount of precipitation or the temperature. Settling claims with this type of insurance is simple. The prerequisite, however, is to ensure that the data is collected in an objectively independent manner. A promising insurance solution that is still in its infancy.
Ehrenfeldner: These are such systemic risks that endanger the functioning and stability of an entire economic area. Where there is not just one cause.
The future: what’s in store?
Pichler: Resource management will become a major issue for Burgenland agriculture, especially in the Seewinkel regions. Do you have visions of future-oriented management?
Ehrenfeldner: Future-oriented management is like high-risk investments because you have a limited view. You are dependent on certain parameters being correct in order to make a profit. If you as a farm depend on only one crop, it brings more risk. Therefore, all sectors (agriculture, forestry, or manufacturing companies) that depend on nature must take a broader view. Forestry and agricultural enterprises already do this to some extent. They do not focus on one tree species, but on a whole range. In the short term, this diversification is accompanied by lower yields during the trial period, but in the long term it brings advantages. In forestry, you have to think in terms of rotation periods, which are, for example, 100 years. A challenge but investing for the longer term is completely necessary.
Pichler: What goals do you have personally, for yourself and for the National Park?
Ehrenfeldner: In the medium term, to renew the (structural) infrastructure of the National Park. My longer-term goal is to become the European benchmark in terms of strategy development, extensive grazing, and dealing with climate change: To show people how we do it, maybe not perfectly, but at the very least how it can work.
About Nationalpark Neusiedler See
Since its foundation in 1993, it has been the goal and obligation of the Lake Neusiedl – Seewinkel National Park to actively protect and preserve habitats for plants and animals. Accompanying scientific research is fundamental to the corresponding measures for the protection and maintenance of the ecosystem. Another essential core task of the National Park is the maintenance of the infrastructure of the valuable area to enable visitors to experience nature and recreation. Covering a total area of 10,000 hectares, over two states and 1,200 landowners, the park is home to 348 species of birds, wild horses, water buffalo and baroque donkeys, as well as many other animal and plant species.
Director of Lake Neusiedl National Park
Regional Manager GrECo Burgenland
T +43 664 274 48 92
T +43 664 540 78 01
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