The rescue of the Vorderdurnachtal Alp – an example of mutual support and lived solidarity in Switzerland

by Dr rer. publ. Werner Wüthrich, Doctor of Administrative Sciences

The Durnachtal valley lies at the foot of the Hausstock in the southern Glarus region. The Vorderdurnachtal Alp with its three Stafels Bergstafel, Längenstafel and Heustafel stretches over an area of about 256 hectares. It used to belong to the commune of Rüti. The pasture area lies between 1,200 and 2,450 metres above sea level. The alp lies in Switzerland’s oldest game reserve, the Freiberg-Kärpf. Here visitors can observe many wild animals. The climate in the Durnachtal is harsh, as the lowest glacier in Europe is located at the back of the valley. The view from the upper Stafel is impressive – from the Ortstock to the Tödi.


Setback after a natural disaster

Rüti and its alp in the Durnachtal look back on an eventful history. In 1944 they made the headlines in the Swiss media. The mountain stream or beck in the Durnachtal valley burst its banks and so for one day superceded war events in Swiss media headlines. It was no ordinary flood, because the Durnagel is no ordinary mountain stream. The inhabitants of Rüti were well aware of this fact.
On 24 August 1944, half a million cubic metres of rubble poured into the valley after a severe thunderstorm; they destroyed forests, fields and meadows. The water flooded the machine rooms of the textile factories as well as the Rüti living rooms. Over a hundred metres of the SBB route and tracks, as well as the cantonal road, were washed away. An emergency bridge on wooden supports had to be built, so that after several weeks the railway line could be used again. A chronicler wrote at the time: “If all the debris that the torrent has transported down into the valley in a few hours were piled up on the Landsgemeindeplatz (the largest square in the Canton of Glarus), there would be a mountain 71 metres high”.
With the help of the Confederation and the canton, the victims set up a corporation. Over the years, this corporation tamed the Durnagel with 81 control structures. The wide bed of the stream, interspersed with boulders, still gives an idea today of the force with which the masses of water could roll down to Rüti after a thunderstorm.
At the time it was clear to the whole of Switzerland that mountain regions, and in particular mountain farmers, need support – and that not only from the state. In 1941 the Zurich physician Dr Paul Cattani founded the “Patenschaft für Berggemeinden” (sponsorship for mountain communities) – in order to strengthen solidarity with the mountain regions in the lowlands, and thus the cohesion in Switzerland. This was a success. Cattani commented: “Many a lasting bond was woven in a wonderful interaction of giving and taking, of helping and understanding, which holds men of all kinds together in the unity of a truly federal people. (cf. Patenschaft-Post (Sponsorship Letter) 1/2006)

Disaster on the economic front

25 years later – in the sixties – new misfortune announced itself in Rüti. The textile factories in Rüti and in numerous other places in the canton and in the whole of Switzerland faced competition from the Far East, for globalisation in the modern sense had begun. Some of them were able to hold their own for some time. But the end came inevitably. In 2002 one of the last textile factories of the Glarnerland was closed in Rüti. The young people moved away. With only about 400 inhabitants left, tax money was nowhere near sufficient. On the communal alps the buildings and facilities were in urgent need of renovation. The transport funicular had to be overhauled. Rüti was inevitably in debt and was placed under supervision by the canton. The state councillor responsible at the time demanded that Rüti sell its communal alps – also in order to save the cost of the necessary investments. This did not go down well in the village.

Radical change of federal policy

At the same time, the political environment in federal politics changed. Let me enumerate a few points that affected the mountain regions and the alpine economy:
The Federal Council was pursuing the strategic goal of joining the EU. Experts drafted a report on the New Regional Policy NRP. They recommended that small-scale Switzerland be restructured. Larger units would make it easier to integrate Switzerland into the EU. Smaller communes could be merged and the cantons consolidated into five to six regions. Peripheral areas with “limited economic potential” could be emptied or “closed” because the infrastructure costs would not be justified (final report NRP of 6 February 2003 under the direction of the Seco, i.e. the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs). In the media, areas such as the Calanca valley in Grisons and the Muothatal in central Switzerland were cited as candidates for such a policy.
Fully in line with the new trend, an article on the southern part of Glarus with a clearly negative tendency was published in the NZZ am Sonntag on 6 February 2005. “Im Jammertal” (In the vale of tears) was the title. The author reported on the decline of the Glarus hinterland. He wrote that pessimism had spread. In Rüti there was just one hairdresser, a few farmers, a restaurant and a garage. “There is an end-time mood.” – Will the southern part of Glarus become an area with “limited economic potential”, the reader will inevitably have asked himself, which might have to be “emptied”?
The federal government abolished the Investitionshilfefonds für Berggemeinden (investment aid fund for mountain communes), which it had set up in the 1970s. For more than 30 years this fund had helped the mountain communes to cope with their infrastructure tasks by means of long-term, interest-free but repayable loans. But this was not to last. With the money from the investment aid fund, the Confederation set up a new, different fund: the Regional Development Fund. This is based on the EU European Regional Development Fund and promotes innovative projects and programmes in rural areas, which can also cross national borders. For example, the federal government today pays an annual operating contribution of 650,000 Swiss francs to the Canton of Schaffhausen for its nature park, which includes two southern German municipalities. It has its own administration and is supervised by a university of applied sciences. The problem is that these funds come from the Investment Aid Fund for Mountain Communities, and that there is now still an outflow of capital from the mountain communes, where they are sorely needed. Does the wealthy Canton of Schaffhausen really need this money? There are numerous nature parks in Switzerland.
Agriculture came under general pressure in the first decade after the turn of the millennium. The negotiations in the WTO (Doha Round), and also the Free Trade Agreement with the EU that the Federal Council was striving for, were designed to further reduce border protection for agriculture. In the AP 2010, the Federal Council further proposed halving the cheese subsidy for alpine farming. This would have made the preservation and operation of the alps much more difficult.

Spirit of optimism in southern Glarnerland

Now came the hour of Heiri Hösli, a mountain farmer in the Ennetbergen. He knows the Alp Vorderdurnachtal well, since as a boy, he spent many summers there with his father. He began writing letters to the editor as early as in 2002 and sent them to the regional “Fridolin”, to other regional newspapers, to the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, the “Schweizer Familie” and the “Schweizer Illustrierte”. Sometimes even an article was added.
Heiri Hösli attracted attention throughout Switzerland – also from the writer of these lines, and I soon drove up the narrow hairpin bends through the mountain forest into the high valley of the Ennetberge mountains, which lies 500 metres above the main valley of Glarus. The landscape looked groomed like a park in the lowlands. Turn left at the brook, so the route had been described. At our last meeting, Heiri Hösli was convinced: “You can’t just give the mountain area up, if is no longer profitable”. He wanted to start a campaign with a donation account to help Rüti and save the alp. I’m going to help with that, I had told myself spontaneously at the time. This decision was followed by several articles in the newspaper at hand and a letter to the Migros “Kultur-Prozent” (Culture Percentage) (The Migros is Switzerland’s largest retail company), asking whether they would not also like to take part in the campaign, as the protection of the Alps and their culture is part of Switzerland’s cultural heritage.
A few days later there was a letter in my mailbox – from Dr Rolf Widmer, member of the Glarus government. He invited me to work with him. Together with his colleague Dr Stefan Müller, then a public prosecutor in Glarus, he was drafting the statutes for a foundation. Soon private donations of between 100 and 10,000 Swiss francs were received. Several communes from the lowlands helped. Soon enough money had been collected to buy Alp Bodmen for 120,000 Swiss francs and to contribute it to the foundation. It took a little longer to raise 350,000 francs for the Vorderdurnachtal Alp. But it wasn’t just about the purchase price. Urgent investments were on the agenda: The stable, the facilities and the entire infrastructure for cheese production had to be renovated. At the end, it was a proud sum of about 700,000 francs that came together. About one third was donated by private individuals. The “Patenschaft für Berggemeinden” contributed a large amount. Communes from the Cantons of Zurich and Zug also helped. Mathias Vögeli, the communal presidentof Rüti, was in charge of everything.

Impressive inauguration ceremony

In 2006, the foundation invited its donors to a foundation ceremony on the alp. More than 200 people accepted the invitation. Most of them were very curious as they walked up the steep path to the alp – curious to see for themselves what it was that they had supported. Everybody was there: mountain farmer Heiri Hösli, government councillor Rolf Widmer, public prosecutor Stefan Müller, communal president Mathias Vögeli, communal clerk Heidi Seibert and many more of those who had helped. The women of the Rüti senior gymnastics group and the “Landfrauen” (countrywomen) served a delicious lunch – with an excellent veal net-covered-loaf.
After coffee, commune president Mathias Vögeli accompanied the commune on an exciting journey through the history of the village: the people in southern Glarus had been poor as mice – until into the 19th century, he explained. More than a few had migrated to America: places like New Glarus in the USA today bear witness to the origins of their 19th century settlers. The only sources of income for the commune of Rüti had been the alps and the communal forest. Until the beginning of the 20th century, the income had been enough to make dispensing with taxes possible. New life came with the industrialisation. Large textile factories with many hundreds of jobs were built, which sold their products all over the world. Rüti became wealthy and had over 800 inhabitants in its best days. At the time of the industrialisation many cows had been kept in the valley to feed the population. The turning point came at the end of the boom in the seventies. The then president of the commune Schindler already had premonitions at the residents’ meeting in 1967. His feelings in respect to the future were not good. The textile industry was going downhill throughout Switzerland. Products such as those manufactured in Rüti were being made cheaper in Eastern Europe, India or China, with textile machines from Switzerland. At the end of the eighties, the sewage system, the water pipes and the Oberstafel of the Vorderdurnachtal Alp in Rüti urgently needed to be renovated. Further investments were also made. Then the debts accrued. The hoped-for upswing did not materialise. One of the last textile factories in the Canton of Glarus ceased operations in Rüti in 2002. Not quite 400 inhabitants were left in Rüti, and it ceased to be an industrial location. What was to be done? – The then Glarus state council aggravated the already tense mood. They ordered the commune to sell its two alps, not only to use the small proceeds for paying off debts, but also to save the costs for necessary investments. – Mathias Vögeli thought this was a deplorable scheme and quoted Bertolt Brecht: “He who fights, can lose. He, who doesn’t fight, has already lost.”
Werner Blumer described the support provided by the “Patenschaft für Berggemeinden” – even before the foundation was set up. When the bridge and the spring in Rüti had to be renewed – the “sponsorship” helped. When the roof of the school building had to be repaired, the children’s playground renovated, the forestry tractor replaced – the “sponsorship” helped. The “sponsorship” also made a significant contribution to the Alp Vorderdurnachtal Foundation.
Luzi Schöb, communal presidentof Buchs in the Furttal (Canton of Zurich), spoke as a representative of the communes. Buchs has maintained an independent sponsorship relationship with Rüti for over 20 years. This is not just about money. Schöb described how the two local councils work together, visit each other, consult together and learn from each other – as well as support each other in times of need. Also this time Mr Schöb acted the “godfather” in bringing a cheque with him from the lowlands. He recounted a meeting in the year 2000, how worried Mr Vögeli had been about losing the two community alps. But how much passion there had been in his accounts even then, that he would not simply accept the impending disaster, but would do something about it. Rüti had also received considerable support from other Zurich communes such as Zumikon, Zollikon and Rüschlikon, as well as from the two Zug communes of Hünenberg and Baar.
A small episode should be added here. Werner Blumer (“Sponsorship “) had been sceptical about the plans in Canton Glarus to merge the numerous small villages into three large communes. The same had happened in the Canton of Ticino, said Blumer. Entire valleys with numerous villages had been combined in this way into a single commune. The Sponsorship then usually lost personal contact – because there was no longer a contact person on site in the villages. Government Councillor Rolf Widmer picked up the ball and passed it to Mathias Vögeli. He should simply become the “communal president” of Glarus South with its 12,000 inhabitants and ensure that personal contacts would not be lost. And that is exactly what happened.

Apprentice camp in the Durnachtal

The construction efforts do not stop – and time and again help comes from the lowlands. Migros had already sent its apprentices from the city of Zurich to clean up in the avalanche winter of 1999 (which was particularly costly in the wild Durnachtal valley).
On 15 October 2012, twelve apprentices from the construction company Josef Wiederkehr boarded their company buses in Dietikon and travelled to the Canton of Glarus. It was rainy and cold, and there was even snow. To begin with, they had no sockets to charge their mobile phones. Their mood was dire. But that changed quickly. The weather improved and the prospective builders started working under the guidance of an experienced foreman. They renewed the plaster in the cheese cellar, cast concrete in a solid slab in the entrance area, set up a separation system for the sewerage system, passed the sewage into the slurry pit and the clean water into the stream, etc. Vanja, Ilaria and Shkurta, the three young women in the team, made sure that nobody had to suffer from hunger or thirst and that the prospective building craftsmen were well looked after in the evening, and as business school apprentices they also formed the editorial team, which impressively documented the whole week in their apprentice newspaper. On the last day, their employer Mr Wiederkehr came for a visit. He was proud of his troop. They had provided construction services worth over 50,000 francs. After a week, everyone returned home with the feeling that they had taken part in something great and done something valuable for the commune and for Switzerland.


Today the alp is in good condition. In August 2019, President of the Foundation Mr Vögeli once again invited the donors to a meeting on the alp – on the occasion of the “Älplerchilbi”, an alpine fair which takes place every year. The foundation wants to maintain contact with the donors and inform them about their joint project. Quite a large group was waiting down in the valley near Rüti. It was cold and raining, so nobody really wanted to tackle the 500 metres uphill to the alp. No problem – the fire brigade from Glarus South helped out with their all-terrain cars.
The Alp Vorderdurnachtal is much more modern today than at the time when the Foundation was set up. It boasts of solar panels and a modern stable. The couple Rebekka and Martin Zimmermann have been running the alp for eleven years. Martin is responsible for the outdoor area, the cows and the stable, Rebekka for the cheese production.
In some places, remote alps have not been touched in recent years. An alp cannot survive on its own on the yields from cheese or milk. The expenses for maintenance and infrastructure are considerable. For this support is needed from the population and also from the state. This is not just about money. Above all, people are needed who care about such projects and who support them.
What has become of the protagonists from the time when the Foundation was set up? The people have repeatedly confirmed Rolf Widmer as a member of the cantonal government, and the cantonal assembly has elected him chief magistrate of the canton. “Acting and not just talking, that’s how we move forward,” he says on his homepage. That is what he, as well as Mathias Vögeli, Heiri Hösli and the numerous helpers not mentioned here, have certainly done. Today Rolf Widmer is the oldest member of the cantonal government.
Mathias Vögeli has been the communal president of Glarus-Süd for ten years now and leads the large commune with the numerous villages with flying colours – together with Heidi Seibert, the former clerk of the commune of Rüti. Heiri Hösli runs and cares for his home on the Ennetberge.     •
Short Portrait of the “Schweizer Patenschaft für Berggemeinden” (Swiss Sponsorship for Mountain Communes)
The Swiss Sponsorship for Mountain Communes was founded in 1941. It aims to promote solidarity and to help ensure that our mountain regions remain habitable and are cultivated and farmed. Every year, the Sponsorship examines around 500 applications from communes and corporations. After careful clarification of the projects, it seeks donors and persuades them to support a commune in realising its project. Such assistance can consist of a one-off sum of money or annually recurring payments. Often a friendly and personal relationship develops between the participants.

A short portrait of the Swiss Sponsorship for Mountain Communes

The Swiss sponsorship for Mountain Communes was founded in 1940. Its purpose is to encourage solidarity and assistance so that our mountain regions remain inhabitable and maintained. Each year, the sponsorship investigates around 500 communes applying for support such as corporations. After thorough evaluations of the projects, the sponsorship searches for an appropriate sponsor and encourages him to support a commune. Such help can be given through a one-time sum of money or from annual services. Usually a friendly and personal relationship develops between both parties.


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