Thursday, July 7

The stairway to heaven or the ascent of the Vuelta a España over Sierra Nevada

“Shrinking Isles” could be the title of one of those B movies that isn’t worth spending a second on; however, it also describes the reality of much of the biological diversity of the high Mediterranean mountains. Up there, above the edge of the forest and bushes, a unique biological diversity is hidden. It is a combination of survivors from the arctic world, which reached our latitudes during the glacial pulses of the Quaternary, and a group of endemisms confined to very small distribution areas -sometimes confined to a mountain range- conditioned by a unique climate, which makes the Mediterranean world one of the most important centers of biodiversity on the planet. This condition, hot but dry summer, that we live with so much familiarity, is actually a planetary exception, since it is normal that with the heat comes with the rain. That is why our diversity and landscapes are different from everything else. The engines of evolutionary change in our mountains are unique.

Climate change, with its increase in temperature that already exceeds 1.5ºC in our mountains, together with another of those engines of environmental change that act simultaneously, the abandonment of traditional uses, mean that the conditions of these mountain islands are changing. The scientists of our country, sadly less known than its soccer players, found the first evidence, worldwide, of the rise of vegetation and entire groups of animals, as a consequence of warming. The diurnal butterflies that, as a whole, at the end of the last century had moved more than 150 m up the mountain in Guadarrama in just over 30 years.

As a consequence, mountain islands are getting smaller. The plants and animals that live up there can’t go any higher, there’s no more. The climbing effect only works if there is a mountain left. The future is dramatic and the managers in charge of maintaining this valuable diversity must be guarantors of its conservation.

Sierra Nevada is the maximum exponent of this exclusive diversity and of this problem in our country. An extremely fragile and threatened heritage. Above 2,500 m, almost 80% of the species that live there are exclusive, endemic, and in many cases, extremely threatened. The management of such an emblematic and diverse natural space became compatible 23 years ago with the consolidation and recreational use of one of Andalusia’s tourist icons, the Sierra Nevada ski resort. Society understood that an effort had to be made to reconcile the conservation of its biological diversity with intensive recreational use in certain areas, which thus remained outside the areas of greatest protection. The National Park thus became a landmark of conservation, while maintaining a public use of high spatial demand and ecosystem services. A complex balance but one that is capable of guaranteeing use and conservation.

In this worrying framework and with such an uncertain future, the proposal to upload the Cycling Tour of Spain, an event that aims to be sustainable (as pointed out by the responsible company, Unipublic), above 2850 m altitude at the IRAM observatory makes us very sad. An event with such a massive impact on such a delicate ecosystem is a devastating example of what we cannot afford. The adaptation of the access track to the observatory, the preparation of the land to house the facilities that an event of this nature requires, the shelter of hundreds or thousands of fans for several days, the increased accessibility of tourists after the race, are some of the problems that will occur. Unfortunately, recent examples such as the ascent of the cycling tour to the peak of the Buitre in the Sierra de Javalambre do not allow us to maintain hope that the measures to minimize the impact can mitigate the destruction. Teruel’s Sierra de Javalambre is a botanical jewel, an almost unknown wonder that is home to diversity and impressive landscapes. The undoubted cycling spectacle meant the destruction of the best populations of exclusive endemisms, highly threatened and with a long evolutionary history, such as Erodium celtibericum, Erysimum javalambrensis or Oxytropis javalambrensis (listed as Endangered), all of them protected at the regional level. The construction of the road on an old forest track destroyed populations of Sideritis javalambrensis; the one of the heliport was made on one of the few populations of O. javalambrensis. As the reader can see, the specific epithet refers to the sierra and denotes the restricted distribution area of ​​these species.

If the proposal itself is inexplicable and unnecessary, it is not easy to understand what the show gains with 300 more meters of elevation, what is really worrying is to show how the governance mechanisms put on the table to guarantee the conservation of public heritage such as this, they dissolve like a sugar cube in water when there is an explicit will to do so. Spanish and regional legislation, the construction of a network of spaces that we call Natura 2000, with rules of the game shared by all the members of the Union, the Habitats Directive, the decree that regulates the management of the National Park that provides it with various bodies of public and scientific/technical participation are useless if spurious and short-term interests are prioritized. No, let’s not be wrong, public use must be compatible with the conservation of species and habitats, and governance must guarantee that this biological heritage is not put at risk. It does not seem to be the result of chance that the change in the direction of the National Park is associated with the putting on the table of this insane idea.