High Hopes: A World of Mountains Worth Saving

As vulnerable as tropical rainforests and just as endangered, the mountains of the world have received inadequate protection. Our mountains are crumbling, scientists say, and it’s high time we shore them up.

Summit Strategies

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Hutchings Creek, Mt. Lyell, Sierra Nevada.
Photo by Peter Alpert.

FEW OF EARTH’S FEATURES APPEAR MORE ENDURING and immutable than its mountains. A relief map of Asia conveys how solidly they define the world: the Caucasus and the Urals form borders between Asia and Europe; the Himalaya isolate Tibet from India; the Tian Shan divide China from Kirghizia; the Altai stand guard at the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, and China. From adventure-travel accounts one gains the impression that the Andes, the Rockies, and other great ranges are fortresses all but impervious to assault. Unlike lowlands, where rainforests, rivers, marshes, and grasslands can be easily reached and destroyed, highlands seem aloof, secure in their immensity and sacrosanct in their beauty, mystery, and power.

But conservationists’ long experience in defending the Sierra Nevada and other North American ranges against the onslaught of irresponsible developers has taught us that the uplands are indeed vulnerable. While our species once feared and revered the Olympian heights, today we arrogantly and ignorantly reshape the gods’ former abodes. The “conquest of mountains” no longer signifies women and men striving to reach difficult summits. It now connotes the reckless human bent for blasting and molding mountainsides to accommodate resorts and egos; for removing a mountain’s insides and leaving tailings to poison streams; for stripping forested slopes of their trees and their dignity.

Though what’s happening to mountains under the crush of expanding populations is alarming, the damage isn’t yet irreversible. Hopeful voices were raised at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where scientists from the International Mountain Society put forth a plan to save the highlands: they called for intensive alpine research and a vast array of conservation projects, and convinced all 178 governments in attendance to sign on to the program.

For the plan to succeed, the world’s mountains need a large and dedicated constituency. Brilliant dreamers and zealous defenders must give the peaks a voice. To that end I present a portfolio of words and images, some portraying enduring grandeur, others depicting tragic decline. My hope is to inspire not just sighs (whether of admiration or despair), but commitment.

Prosperity’s Price

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Dorje Lakpa, Himalaya, Népal

THEY ARRIVE FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD — vacationers in ever-increasing numbers on pilgrimages to the mountains. Often in search of respite from urban ills, these sojourners are finding more and more that the troubles they hoped to leave behind shadow them up the slopes.

Mass tourism boomed after World War II as industrial economies recovered their strength and low-cost, long-distance international travel became readily available. Mountain areas closest to population centers have borne the brunt of this onslaught. Perhaps hardest hit have been the European Alps, where a persistent rash of ski resorts has spread across the landscape.

Nor are the highlands of developing nations immune to such infections, brought on by international-lending banks and aid agencies (such as the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development) that cheerily help convert rural economies into ones that depend on cash from tourists. The resulting shift often disrupts  the cultural habits of centuries. Populations may boom, and the people may abandon their traditional stewardship of forests, water supplies, and wildlife to chase after vacationers’ dollars, marks, and
yen.

Unfortunately, thoughtless trekkers from well-heeled countries too  often generate not only currency but crises. They discard trash willy-nilly, encourage their guides to burn scarce firewood, and overwhelm local cultures, particularly at the height of the tourist season. At those times, the First World meets the Third in an all-too-obvious clash of lifestyles.

The Wellsprings of Life

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Wedgemount Lake, Whistler Mountain, Garibaldi Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada

THE WATER THAT MOUNTAINS CAPTURE, STORE, AND DELIVER to the lowlands has historically been the lifeblood of much of humanity. The first tribes migrating to North America flourished in Rocky Mountain valleys, supported by abundant streams and lakes. In the Old World, cultures thrived for millennia along Egypt’s Nile River Delta, depending on water that originally fell as rain in mountains as far away as present-day Ethopia and Burundi. Mediterranean civilizations developed rapidly where the Apennine, Atlas, Pindus, Taurus, and other ranges collected ample moisture.

Yet communities and whole regions can come to harm when timber-cutting and grazing denude the highlands, as has happened with disastrous results in Madagascar, Haiti, the Philippines, and other countries where populations have burgeoned. Rain pelting barren hills is shed quickly, gathering force and generating floods with greater destructiveness than natural circumstances would provoke. Topsoil may erode and wash out to sea. Silt may clog irrigation systems and foul drinking-water supplies. In dry seasons the lack of vegetation can aggravate water shortages, and streams and wells may run dry.

In the Himalaya and other ranges in the developing world, the main threat to watersheds is not from those living traditional lifestyles at subsistence level. Rather, it is from megaprojects pushed by the World Bank, or various regional development agencies, or both. Schemes involving heavy earth-moving equipment — roads, commercial logging, and mining — can exacerbate erosion and other disturbances, sometimes disrupting entire watersheds. Dams can drown rivers. The toll of human misery these projects exact can be equally severe as they force villagers from their valley homelands, in some cases driving them to till unproductive lands high on the slopes.

Abundant Losses

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Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo

BY VIRTUE OF THEIR HEIGHT AND EXPOSURE TO THE ELEMENTS, mountains support an array of life zones that harbor remarkably diverse flora and fauna. The dramatic mix of habitats on many tropical mountains varies from pastureland and deciduous forest to rainforest, coniferous forest, tundra, and icefields. A single mountain in northern Borneo — Kinabalu — is home to as many as 4,500 plant species, nearly a quarter of the number found in all of the United States.

While lowland tropical forests rank as the most biologically diverse places on the planet, all mountain habitats sustain a treasure trove of endemic plants and animals. Countless montane species may be lost before biologists fully investigate their genetic material or determine how they might be used for producing new drugs or foods. In some areas, the intricate interweaving of plants, andimals, soils, and climate may unravel altogether.

Mass extinctions are sweeping across mountain ranges world-wide like Biblical plagues. Among the most threatened habitats are those of Madagascar, eastern Tanzania, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, along with the forests of India’s Western Ghats, the Eastern Himalaya, and the lower slopes of the Andes stretching to western Amazonia. In North America, the ugly swaths being cut through wildlife habitat by irresponsible logging practices have left many species with no place to call home.

The Sacred Profaned

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Mt. Ngaruahoe, New Zealand

A VEIL OF MYTH AND LEGEND HAS LONG SHROUDED MANY of the world’s mountains, adding mystery to their features while obscuring them from trespassers. Centuries ago on New Zealand’s North Island, Maori warriors crossing the high plateau at the base of Mt. Tongariro avoided looking directly at the volcanic cone. They feared insulting the peak’s spirit and being punished with a blinding snowstorm.

For many devout millions, mountains continue to signify far more than agglomerations of stone or mere recreation sites. They are the dwelling places of supernatural beings either benevolent or malign, or are gods themselves. The traditional Quechua people of the Andes commune daily with mysterious apus who reside in even the smallest hillocks. The larger an apu’s domain, the more formidable its power. Many of the world’s 600 million Hindus regard an entire, might range as one god: Himalaya, father of Parvati, the wife of Shiva. In the Xishuangbanna Mountains of Yunnan, China, the forests are considered holy, and are protected from disturbance

These traditions crumble as industrial society fosters a technocratic attitude toward mountains that is far from reverential. It is difficult to imagine any mining engineer invoking the gods, or asking for forgiveness before blasting away a hillside.

The Dispossessed

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Mountain-Top Removal in Appalachia, U.S.

MOST TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN CULTURES REGARD AS ALIEN THE modern Western concept of nature as something apart from and subservient to humans. They see the natural world as encompassing and supporting them while demanding their respect. Given the freedom to live as they have for many hundreds or even thousands of years, highland societies typically exact only minimal toll from the land, farming on terraces to minimize erosion, practicing shifting cultivation to preserve soil fertility, collecting medicinal plants, cutting trees selectively, and utilizing animal dung for fuel.

Topography often combines with traditional feelings of kinship with the land to promote conservation practices. Before the Spanish conquest of western South America in the 1500s, natives of the Andes had successfully adapted to their vertical world by developing a highly specialized form of agriculture in which varied crops — including the first potatoes — were grown on small parcels of land spaced out up the slopes like patches on a quilt.

Today the vast majority of native Andean people — like indigenous mountain people in developing countries around the world — live in abject poverty. They have little choice but to work on large plantations given over to cash crops. The imposition of foreign land-tenure and farming systems has proved disastrous for the Andean environment. Indian families produce as many as a dozen children in desperate hope of extra hands to provide for the table. The population crush has forced a mass migration of campesinos from the highlands to such sprawling coastal cities as Lima and Santiago. There millions live in squalid shantytowns, breathing the fouled air that piles up against the mountainsides like trash against a curb.

In Appalachia, communities suffer as the landscape around them is scarred irreparably through mountain-top removal, a pernicious affront to the sensibilities of the people, not to mention a travesty for wildlife.

 

Towering Monuments

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Mt. Huascarán, Cordillera Blanca, Andes, Peru.

IN 1972, MOST COUNTRIES ATTENDING A UNITED NATIONS conference in Paris agreed to identify their outstanding geographical areas and nominate them for consideration as World Heritage Sites. Once approved by an international committee, the delegates decreed, the places os designated would be safeguarded in perpetuity through the cooperative efforts of the world community.

To date, 25 mountain areas in 15 countries have been inscribed on the World Heritage List. Such designation has helped to modify road proposals for Mt. Huascarán in Peru, discourage mining on Mt. Nimba on the border between Guinea and the Ivory Coast, and limit ski-resort development on Bulgaria’s Mt. Pirin.

Many spectacular areas nominated for the list still await approval; of even greater concern are those areas not yet nominated but eminently deserving of protection. Though an urgent case can be made for protecting all mountains — even those celebrated only by the people who dwell in their shadows — it is heartening that the nations of the world have concluded that some peaks and ranges, at least, are so distinctive that preserving them is clearly in the interest of all.