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    • Iseltrail Stage 3: Virgental
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    How This River Caused a 50-Year-Long Fight

    Why Austria's last free-flowing, glacier-fed river in East Tirol is a success story for conservation and tourism alike...

    How much can a person fit into five days? Five days, 120 hours, 7,200 minutes – in our fast-paced world, it doesn’t feel like a huge amount of time. It’s a working week, easily measured in cups of coffee consumed, emails sent and received, and episodes of evening telly watched after a day at one’s desk.

    But along the Isel River in Austria’s East Tirol, time takes on a different meaning. It slows down. Here, five days is the time it takes to hike the Isel Trail, where water cooler chat is replaced by the steady roar of waves, spreadsheet columns by towering spruce trees, and the incessant glow of laptop and phone screens by the white of glacial ice, glistening in the sun.

    The Isel Trail Experience

    The Isel is Austria’s last glacier-fed river. It runs, completely uninterrupted by dam or other man-made structure, from the Umbalkees glacier, near the summit of the mighty Rötspitze mountain in the Hohe Tauern National Park, to where it joins with the Drava. The Isel Trail, which was opened to the public in 2020, is a long-distance hike of around 75km, split into five stages across five days. Over these five days, hikers walk from the medieval town of Lienz the to the Umbalkees Glacier, encountering a mind-blowing plethora of settings and eco-systems: picture-perfect mountain villages, sun-soaked valleys, sandy beaches, serene ancient forests, rushing waterfalls and glittering arctic landscapes.

    Isel Gorge
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    As one hikes through this incredible roster of habitats, the free-flowing Isel Rivers remains the one constant. In all of its forms – as crashing white-cap waves or as a gently babbling stream – it reminds visitors of the way in which it has resisted all interference from the modern world, and it invites them to follow its example. “Take your time”, it whispers, “listen to the birdsong, breathe deep and enjoy the cool, pine scented air – take this moment to enjoy being in harmony with nature”.

    This wide, continuously changing riverbed in the valley is now a rare habitat, one which has largely disappeared across Europe.

    Wolfgang Retter
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    Wolfgang Retter - Environmental Activist

    The Unique Eco-System of Glacier-Fed Rivers

    Glacier-fed rivers are unique in the way that they constantly shift and change. Without dams or other disruptions to control the natural flow of the water as it melts from the glacier under the sun, the banks of the river flood each day, creating a unique and rare habitat for increasingly endangered species of flora and fauna.

    To take one example: the German tamarisk – a tall plant with deep roots and pale pink flowers – used to be a common sight, but as wild rivers have dwindled to just a handful across Europe, it’s become a much rarer occurrence. This species needs floods to survive: the constant shifting of the gravel banks provides the plant with access to vital nutrients and prevents the sun-loving species from becoming overgrown by pines and alders. The Isel River is a safe harbour for the endangered German Tamarisk, as well as a number of animals. Decreasing sandpiper, common otter and huchen populations have been recorded in recent years, but those with their homes in and around the Isel are guaranteed sanctuary.

    German tamarisks in the Virgental valley
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    It’s clear that, with free-flowing, glacier-fed rivers increasingly few and far between due to threats such as glacier retreat caused by climate change, it’s more important than ever that those remaining are guaranteed conservation. The Isel River is now protected, and when following the trail, its incredible natural power feels boundless. But its presence wasn’t always so secure.

    A Decades-Long Struggle for Conservation

    In 1971, plans were made to build a huge hydroelectric power storage plant in East Tirol, which proposed that all glacier streams would be disrupted and diverted so as to fill a reservoir. It’s thanks to the indomitable efforts of individuals like conservationist Wolfgang Retter that the Isel River exists as it does today. In response to the power plant plans, Retter founded the Association for the Protection of the Recreational Landscape in East Tirol, and dedicated himself to campaigning for the river’s conservation, organising lectures with renowned scientists and working hard to convince the local population that this area of outstanding and undisturbed nature must be preserved.

    The power plant plans were incomprehensible to me. "That's impossible!" I thought. "We can't divert so many glacial streams here for a reservoir while there are plans for a national park!" So I started asking questions.

    Wolfgang Retter
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    Wolfgang Retter - Environmental Activist

    A Hiking Trail as a Protective Wall for Nature

    Finally, after decades of hard work, the Isel River became a Natura 2000 protection zone in 2015, securing its place in a protected network of valued yet threatened European habitats. Five years later, in 2020, the river’s eponymous trail was opened. Developed in collaboration with environmentalist and nature photographer Matthias Schickhofer, the Isel Trail isn’t just a new path for holidaymakers and hikers to follow and enjoy; it also adds another layer of protection to the river and its surroundings, bringing public awareness, increased funds and a deeper understanding to the struggle facing Europe’s remaining glacier-fed rivers. To use the words of Wolfgang Retter himself: the Isel Trail is like “the last stone in the protective wall surrounding the Isel”.

    Iseltrail stage 4
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    The creation of the Isel Trail was the last stone in the protective wall surrounding the river.

    Wolfgang Retter
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    Wolfgang Retter - Environmental Activist

    More Than a Long-Distance Hiking Trail

    The Isel Trail represents a commitment to sustainability. The creation of this extraordinary path should enhance the public’s appreciation for and understanding of glacier-fed rivers and other natural environments. Those who follow the Isel Trail and see the power, beauty and vital importance of untouched nature may feel inspired to become eco-friendlier in their own personal lives, or to become advocates for environmental conservation themselves.

    In addition to inspiring visitors, the Isel Trail secures sustainable jobs for local residents, creating increased demand for guides and rangers, as well as hospitality staff at the mountain huts, hotels and other establishments along the route.

    Iseltrail stage 2
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    Lower Isel in Oberlienz

    Useful Links

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    From easier eco-system monitoring for scientific studies, to increased funds for further conservation and the development of eco-friendly policies, the potential of the Isel Trail to benefit the nature that surrounds it is undeniable.

    The Isel Trail's Status is Finally Secure - and Adventure Now Awaits

    In Austria, conservation and tourism go hand in hand. In few places is this as clear as when following the Isel Trail. Thanks to the unrelenting resolve, expertise and future-facing mindset of campaigners and environmentalists like Wolfgang Retter and Matthias Schickhofer, holidaymakers in Austria can experience the wonder of one of Europe’s last remaining free-flowing glacial rivers. Amongst the quiet hush of the ancient trees, when feeling the mist of a waterfall cool one’s face, and while watching kaleidoscopes of butterflies dance over the riverbanks: this is a place for adventure, where visitors can find their moment to reconnect with the sublimity of the natural world. 

    The Isel Trail's History

    • Iseltrail: Zopatnitzen waterfall
    • Hohe Tauern National Park, Gerlosplatte
    • Iseltrail stage 4
    • Isel Gorge
    • Nationalpark Hohe Tauern - East Tyrol
    • Iseltrail in East Tyrol
    • Iseltrail stage 4
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    This place is completely unique - from an environmental perspective, but also for tourism.
    Wolfgang Retter - Environmental Activist
    austria.info: Dr. Retter, you have been devoted to conservation of the River Isel for many years now. How did the Isel Trail come about?
    Wolfgang: The Isel Trail itself was not so difficult to bring to life - but its groundwork was laid over many years. For decades, the Isel and its tributaries were in danger of being disrupted by a power plant, the plans for which were unveiled in 1973. This power plant would have been the largest reservoir in the Eastern Alps, affecting two thirds of East Tirol.
    austria.info: And you campaigned against this?
    Wolfgang: Yes. In 1971, Tirol, Salzburg and Carinthia signed an agreement: these three states wanted to establish Austria's first ever national park in the Hohe Tauern, which would highlight and preserve the area's magnificent natural landscapes and well-tended mountain farmland. So when these power plant plans followed just two years later - as a scientist, that was incomprehensible to me. "That's impossible!", I thought, "We can't divert so many glacial streams here for a reservoir while there are plans for a national park!". So I started asking questions. Critical questions, which fazed the E-economy, and for which it was insinuated I'd be held accountable.
    austria.info: Held accountable?
    Wolfgang: Yes. It was suggested, for example, that I - a teacher - would be sued by this huge electricity company for damages. In response, we founded the Association for the Protection of the Recreational Landscape in East Tyrol to protect the individuals posing these critical questions. The association formed a separate legal entity which offered us, as activists, a level of legal security. In the end, the dispute last until 1989, when the power plants project was cancelled.
    austria.info: For what reason?
    Wolfgang: As mentioned, the discussion lasted decades - during which time peak electricity prices fell significantly, meaning that the power plant stopped being an appealing prospect economically. The was the main reason - not nature conservation, but profitability. Nevertheless, we celebrated the decision, because it meant that the National Park in Tirol - including East Tirol - could ahead.
    austria.info: That was in 1991 - which means it took another 30 years to create the Isel Trail?
    Wolfgang: Yes, that's correct - but if we hadn't been successful in our campaigning back then, the Isel Trail would never have been possible. Once plans for the power planet were discarded, things were a bit quieter for the Isel for a while - that is, until 2001, when the European Union and Natura 2000 came into the picture.
    austria.info: Natura 2000 is a network of nature reserves in the EU deemed especially worthy of protection. In your opinion, what makes the Isel River such a good fit for inclusion in the Natura 2000 project?
    Wolfgang: The Isel River has a number of unique features. Firstly, it's the last Alpine river in Austria which flows freely without interruption or diversion - all other glacier rivers in Austria are used for power generation. Furthermore, the way in which it flows is very special, with the river growing and decreasing in size each day according to time and season. Then there's one factor so special that it draws in experts from all our Europe: the Isel's riverbed is unusually wide, even when it can't be seen. The river is constantly shifting and changing the shape of its bed over long stretches. It digs away at a stone island in one place, builds one up at another, shifting the gravel and sand banks . . . This wide, continuously changing riverbed in the valley is now a rare habitat, one which has largely disappeared across Europe. This makes the Isel River a key location for "pioneer species" - types of plants and animals which, in this case need a constantly changing riverbed to survive. One key example of this is the Myricaria Germanica, or German Tamarisk.
    austria.info: The German Tamarisk – an endangered shrub-like plant that grows on the banks of the Isel River.
    Wolfgang: Yes - it was ultimately our hook for securing the Isel's Natura 2000 status. The presence of German Tamarisk really strengthened our claim that the Isel itself should be declared a Natura 2000 area. There was strong resistance against this, and it wasn't confirmed until 2018. Inclusion in Natura 2000 was an important prerequisite for the Isel Trail, which opened two years later in 2020. The creation of the Isel Trail was the last stone in the protective wall surrounding the river.
    austria.info: So would you say that the Isel Trail is an example of nature conservation and tourism working hand in hand?
    Wolfgang: Absolutely. It was key to show the tourism experts that the Isel was something really unique and special for their industry too. This has been wholeheartedly confirmed by hikers following the Isel: they find it thrilling.
    austria.info: You've been committed to this work, to campaigning for the Isel, for your entire life.
    Wolfgang: Yes, you could say that. I've been involved in this work since 1973. For me, the Isel Trail is the perfect ending in the fight for the unimpaired, continued existence of the Isel River.
    • Iseltrail stage 2
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