Sunday, October 6, 2013

Neusiedler See

The saline systems discussion group visited the National Park of Neusiedler See – Seewinkel, one hour to the east of Vienna and near the border with Hungary. The trip focused on the management and loss of saline waters, one of two threats facing saline systems into the near future. (The other threat is the unnatural salinization of freshwater systems, for which we visited Hallstatt – see previous post).

The park was the first national park in Austria, established in 1983. It is an agricultural region that has changed from pasturing cattle to cultivating vineyards; it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site. It has also been designated a Bird Heritage Site because 340+ bird species migrate through the small region every year, attracted by one of largest reed belts in Europe.

Lake Neusiedler See on the horizon, fringed by the second largest reed belt in Europe.

Reeds are still traditionally harvested for roof thatching.
 We met Alois Lang, who has worked at the park since its inception. Using a large, high-resolution topographic model of the region, he explained the physical characteristics of the area that make it so unique. Neusiedler See is a very shallow (max depth 2.2 m, average depth 0.8 m). It is endorrheic, fed by precipitation and regulated by evaporation, though nowadays a weir ensures that the lake does not completely dry up or flood anymore, drastically changing its hydrology.
Alois Lang explains the morphology and hydrology of the Neusiedler See - Seewinkel region.
 The same strong winds push sand out of the lake onto the eastern bank, creating sandy soils that proved perfect for vineyards, changing the land use from cattle pasturing and haying to family-owned wine production 70 years ago. We saw hundreds of neat rows of grapevines on our way to the park, covered in nets, passed over by biplanes, and enveloped in a noisy ambiance of automated gunshots, all in an attempt to keep the migrating birds out of the vineyards during the concurrent grape harvest.
The sandy soil and climate of Neusiedler See are perfect for vineyards.
Next, we met with Prof. Alois Herzig, the former director of the park and biological station, and Harry, who is in charge of park education. They animatedly discussed the park’s management successes and challenges. Rather than owning land, the park annually rents the land and the right to manage it from the local landowners. In this way, the park is composed of 10,000 hectares of little islands of land surrounded by agriculture and linked together by plots of land that have gone fallow as part of a government-subsidized program, adding another 3-4,000 hectares.
Map of Neusiedler See; the green areas show the national park.
Fallow plot in between two vineyards.
The management of the land depends entirely upon the decisions of the 28 national park staff; they are not dictated numbers by government entities, such as bird population numbers or hectares conserved. If they notice something that works, they continue to do it. For example, they noticed that cattle-grazed land provided more bird habitat than mowed land or untouched land, so they paid to borrow traditional grey cattle from southern Austria and Hungary. In this way, they reintroduced a traditional land use practice in the region which also serves an ecological function.

The national park has enjoyed other successes in addition to recovering grasslands. The lake was once used as an eel fishery, introducing an exotic species that decimated the local fish population. In order to become a national park, the government required this industry be stopped, helping to recover the lake’s natural species assemblage. 

They also count successes within the community of Neusiedler See. The national park serves as a role model for sustainable land use and through the years there has been a change in the way locals value and use their land. So much of the land is now rented to the park or allowed to go fallow because it is of economic value to the whole community because of the ecotourism it brings, which supports stable jobs so young people can afford to stay in the community.
Birds and wine draw tourists to the region.

The town of Illmitz near a saline pond.
The national park faces challenges ahead. The first is money. The current budget is based on a contract between the regional and national governments, each paying 50% of a budget upon which the governments, without consulting the park, decide every year. The budget for 2014 is uncertain as both governments consider defunding both the national park and the fallow land subsidy. Should the park be unable to pay its rent to landowners – which already requires 60% of the budget – the landowners may choose to redevelop the land. The budget restrictions also leave only 3% for monitoring and 2.5% for education. The park does not receive revenue from tourism, so its land management, tourism advertising, and monitoring data rely solely on personal agreements it has made with local landowners, industries, and university researchers in Vienna.
IGERT saline systems group with Harry and Prof. Alois Herzig of the National Park.
 Ecologically, the main challenge is now water retention. Water management in the area focuses on maintaining stable lake levels and avoiding floods. Water is also free and unlimited, so sloppy water use among the farms is common. This inefficient consumption lowers the water table so much that the smaller Seewinkle saline ponds, which naturally tend to dry up in the summer, are drying up permanently because the groundwater that feeds them is now too deep. The park has lost 60 ponds in this way, and now focuses on educating the importance of saving the remaining forty ponds in its area.
Birds at a Seewinkel pond.

Seewinkel saline pond.
 Many of us were struck by how similar the region was to the Nebraska Sandhills in appearance and ecological function. This will lead to many interesting future discussions in the saline systems group about how saline systems are understood and managed.
Heading back to the city, marked by Vienna's "Home Mountain"

(Post written by Victoria)
(Photos by Victoria and Nathan)

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