In Switzerland, nature and landscape protection are set in the Federal constitution, and cantons are in charge of enforcing laws accordingly. The Federal Office for the Environment, together with its partners, works to protect and promote nature and landscape as a whole, in their diversity and in harmony with man. To this aim, several instruments exist, among which: protected areas, parks of national importance, UNESCO biosphere reserves and world heritage sites. The youngest instrument so far is the legal basis for the creation of parks of national importance, in force since December 2007.
Underlying such legal basis - the partial revision of the Federal Act on the Protection of Nature and Cultural Heritage (NCHA) and the Ordinance on Parks of National Importance (Parks Ordinance, PO) is a broad-based national and regional commitment to facilitate and support the development of parks in Switzerland. The federal authorities only recognize parks that are based on regional initiatives and enjoy the support of the local community. Regional initiatives are to be supported and overseen by the cantons concerned.
In order to be awarded with the park label, and receive financial support, fundamental criteria must be met: high natural and landscape values and minimal impairment by infrastructure or land uses, together with democratic legitimation; in addition, spatial planning safeguards and financing must be assured over the long term and a park management structure must be in place. During the establishment phase, park projects receive the provisional candidate label on request.
There are three categories of parks of national importance, designed for different needs and uses.
A national park is an extensive area, divided into a core and a buffer zone. In the core area there are tight restrictions on production operations and human activities, to offer intact habitats for indigenous flora and fauna and allow nature and landscape to evolve spontaneously. The buffer zone is an area for the local population to live and work in. A national park also serves purposes of recreation and environmental education for the public, as well as scientific research.
A regional nature park is an extensive, partly populated rural area characterised by high natural and landscape values. It promotes sustainable development, preservation, upkeep and enhancement of the natural and cultural heritage and of a harmonious rural area with landscape-typical settlement.
A nature discovery park is an area situated in a densely populated region, offering intact spaces for local flora and fauna and improving the life quality of the urban population. It is divided in two zones: in the core zone, access for the public is regulated; the transition zone is designed for preservation and enhancement of natural and landscape values, and allows the public to experience nature and receive environmental education.
Parks of national importance are grouped in the Swiss Parks Network (www.paerke.ch)