"For a long time, tourism was seen as a benign economic stimulus for (mountain) communities, unlike mining and grazing that have demonstrable impacts on the environment," said Mark Peterson of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "We're now seeing that tourism comes with its own baggage in terms of the environment."
The World Trade Organization rates tourism as the globe's number one industry, accounting for about 10 percent of the world's gross domestic product.
Records show that in the last two decades, the number of visitors to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado has grown 50 percent. At peak season, 20,000 cars a day drive through Canada's national parks in Banff, Alberta.
In Europe, two-season tourism has grown exponentially in the Alps since the 1950s. Despite warmer-than-usual weather and shorter ski seasons at lower elevations, millions of tourists and their vehicles are adding to already heavy commercial traffic, causing dangerous air pollution levels in many alpine valleys. In addition, "the threat of water pollution stemming from development of all kindsincluding mass tourismis growing in the Alps," said Ives.
The growing tourism, the UN report noted, has accelerated a shift of Alpine communities from farming economies to tourism economies. Ives said that "the depopulation of small mountain communes, contrary to popular belief, leads to accelerated soil erosion and landslides because the traditional farming patterns are frequently the best precautions against landscape degradation."
In the North American Rockies, soaring development fueled by the popularity of skiing and other mountain recreation and increased telecommuting and residential construction is eroding ecosystems, destroying wildlife habitat, and placing huge demands on resources. Toxic pollution from mining tailings is also a serious problem in the Colorado Rockies and in some other mountainous areas of the United States.
The UN report cited a major air pollution problem in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina resulting from urban growth, electric power plants, and intense automobile traffic. Acid rain deposits were found to be highly concentrated at upper elevations.
Rooted in Poverty and Conflict
The UN report noted that in developing regions of the world, mountain erosion is intertwined with problems such as poverty, drought, famine, deforestation, and even war.
Besides displacing millions of people, war and ethnic conflicts often strip land of its resources and productivity. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly all of the world's major conflicts today23 of 27 warsare being fought in mountainous regions.
Ives, who has conducted decades of research in mountain areas of Asia and Latin America, said poor farmers and other mountain dwellers in developing countries are often blamed for environmental destruction that is more directly related to damaging government policies.
"Logging, both illegal and government sponsored, dam construction in areas of high seismic activity, and inappropriate reforestation programs are responsible for far more damage than that caused by so-called 'ignorant' subsistence mountain farmers," he said.
In the Himalaya-Karakorum-Hindu Kush range, for example, massive road-building in the mountains in the last few decades has given loggers and others access to previously remote areas. According to the UN report, increased deforestation to fuel wood-product industries is a major source of deteriorating environmental conditions in many areas of the Himalaya, along with activities such as overgrazing, accidental forest fires, and rock quarrying.
Jamie Pittock, director of the World Wildlife Fund's "living waters" program, said the accelerating loss of mountain wetlands and cloud forests in many tropical countries is especially troubling because they are critical sources of water for local communities and cities downstream.
"Mountain wetlands are important for recharging groundwater, which ensures a supply that fills wells, runs in taps, or can be collected from streams for a number of basic daily uses," she said.
Researchers estimate that in South Asia alone, more than half a billion people depend on water supplied by rivers that include the Indus and Ganges, which start in the Himalayas.
While world concern has focused on the loss of tropical rain forests, Pittock said, the FAO has reported that the highest rate of deforestation occurs in mountain cloud forests, which are disappearing by 1.1 percent a year.
Melting Glaciers and Snowcaps
A problem common to nearly all mountain ranges is climate change, which is melting glaciers and icecaps.
Research shows that the glacier cover of mountain regions worldwide has decreased significantly in recent years as a result of warming trends, which most scientists attribute to global warming caused by heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.
According to the Swiss-based World Glacier Monitoring Service, the world's glaciers have been shrinking faster than they have been growing. Losses in 1997-98 were deemed "extreme." Scientists have predicted that up to a quarter of global mountain glacier mass could disappear by 2050, and up to half by 2100, leaving large patches only in Alaska, Patagonia, and the Himalaya.
The famous snows of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania have shrunk by 82 percent over the past century, the UN report said, and are expected to disappear altogether in a decade or two. Similarly, scientists say the glaciers in Glacier National Park in northern Montana, part of the Rocky Mountains, are melting so quickly they may be gone in 30 years.
The disappearance of Earth's ice cover would significantly alter the global climate, said Lisa Mastny, a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. When ice melts, she said, newly exposed land and water surfaces retain heat, "leading to even more melt and creating a feedback loop that accelerates the overall warming."
Among the likely fallout is the loss of unique plants and animals. In the Snowy Mountains of Australia, more than 250 species of plants are threatened by warmer winters and less snowfall. Studies have found sub-alpine trees growing at altitudes 40 meters higher than 25 years ago.
In the Canadian Rockies, a series of warm winters has exacerbated a pine-beetle infestation that now threatens more than half a million hectares (1,931 square miles) of forest in British Columbia.
What Should Be Done?
While mountains around the globe have a number of problems in common, each region is unique and involves a complex array of different social and ecological pressures that will require localized solutions, said Hans van Ginkel, rector of the United Nations University.
"There is a serious problem of widespread oversimplification of mountain-related issues and a tendency to try to solve problems that are not properly defined," he said.
Ives said any efforts to tackle the problems must be linked to human sciences such as anthropology, social science, and human geography.
"The management of mountain regions and watersheds in a way that embraces and integrates many sciences is a key to success," he said. "Another is the promotion of alternative livelihood opportunities for mountain people in developing countries, to alleviate the poverty at the root of so many of their health and environmental problems."
As governments and conservationists around the world seek ways of protecting threatened mountain ecosystems, the World Heritage Sites program is gaining favor as one approach. In December UNESCO named the Aletsch region of the Swiss Alps, which includes several famous peaks, a World Heritage Site.
Another initiative to address problems related to tourism, development, and pollution in the Alps is the Alpine Convention, which was signed by countries from France to Slovenia.
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