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.
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.
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.
The creation of the Isel Trail was the last stone in the protective wall surrounding the river.
This place is completely unique - from an environmental perspective, but also for tourism.Wolfgang Retter - Environmental Activist
My First Long-Distance Hike: Walking the Isel Trail in 5 DaysThe long way round