Mountain Forests & Risk Management

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July 1 to July 9, 2017 | Tamina Valley, Pfäfers | Switzerland

Volunteers building wooden tripods on the steep slopes of the Swiss Re protection forest (Photo: Bergwaldprojekt)

The ETH Sustainability Summer School 2017 goes back to the roots of the term sustainability: into the forest. More precisely, into the Swiss mountain forest.

You and 31 other students from all academic levels, disciplines and cultures will get the unique opportunity to understand and experience mountain forests as environmental systems from an inter- and transdisciplinary perspective.

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Mountain forest protecting the settlements and infrastructure of the Tamina valley against natural hazards like avalanches (Photos: Stephan Birrer)  
Mountain forest protecting the settlements and infrastructure of the Tamina valley against natural hazards like avalanches (Photos: Stephan Birrer)

Mountain forests provide a multitude of services on which mountain inhabitants as well as downstream communities depend. They supply timber, store carbon, regulate climate and offer recreational opportunities. Furthermore, they protect settlements and infrastructure from natural hazards such as avalanches or rock-fall.

Mountain forests are fragile: Only few tree species thrive under the harsh high-elevation conditions, soils often are shallow and prone to erosion on steep slopes, and biotic processes are slow due to short growing seasons. For example, the natural re-growth of forest after a blow-down event may take many decades. In addition, chronic anthropogenic changes of the climate as well as changes to the frequency and severity of extreme events (e.g. wet snowfall episodes, wind-throw) constitute considerable hazards to these ecosystems.

Managing mountain forests and risks is a long-term and costly process and everything but trivial. In order to maintain the functionality of forest ecosystem services, economical, ecological, social and engineering perspectives need to be considered. The ETH Sustainability Summer School aims to integrate all these perspectives.


Case study work and practical work in the forest  
Case study work in the seminar house and practical work in the mountain forest (Photo left: ETH Sustainability , Photo right: Stephan Birrer)

The Summer School 2017 will last 9 days and will offer you a balance of theoretical input, case study work and hands-on experience in the forest.

In the theoretical part of the course, you will receive input by experts from academia, the private sector and NGOs that will cover all different expertise. The following experts will contribute with lectures:

  • Prof. Dr. David N. Bresch (D-USYS, Institute for Environmental Decisions)
  • Dr. Jochen Ruben Breschan (D-USYS, Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems)
  • Prof. Dr. Harald Bugmann (D-USYS,  Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems) - Summer School Lead  
  • Monika Frehner (D-USYS, Institute of Terrestrial Ecosystems)
  • Prof. Dr. Adrienne Grêt-Regamey (D-BAUG, Institute for Spatial and Landscape Development) 
  • Norbert Knechtle (Swiss-Re) 
  • Dr. Eva Lieberherr (D-USYS, Institute for Environmental Decisions)
  • Prof. Dr. Renate Schubert (D-GESS, Chair of Economics)
  • Dr. Pius Krütli (D-USYS, Co-Director Transdisciplinary Lab, TdLab)

The acquired knowledge will be the basis for discussions within your case study group and also with local stakeholders.

In the practical part of the Summer School, you and your fellow students will experience three days of “hands-on” work in a Swiss mountain forest, i.e. the realities of practical forest management work, and will be better able to assess the ecological, economic and engineering challenges that are important in the context of mountain forest management.

A one-day excursion will conclude the course. We will visit and discuss mountain forests “in action”, either by visiting a forest enterprise (Tamina Forst), or a primeval forest (Scatlè, Breil/Brigels).

Course location is the mountain seminar house Piz Alun in St. Margrethenberg ( close to Pfäfers, a mountain village in the Swiss Canton St. Gallen.

Preliminary course program  
Preliminary course program


Case study work 2012
Case study work during the “Eating tomorrow” summer school 2012 (Photo: ETH Sustainability)

You will work in an interdisciplinary team on one of the following case study topics:

  1. What should future natural hazard mitigation look like: natural mountain forests vs. artificial structures?
  2. What is the future of economically marginal mountain settlements? How can the cost of maintaining human livelihoods in the mountains be reduced?
  3. Will we need “climate-smart” forest management that adapts to a changing climate and to changing demands for ecosystem services by humans, or will current practices suffice?
  4. What will be the role of hunting to manage game populations in order to protect mountain forests against game damage, and is the re-immigration of carnivores like wolves and lynx a sustainable way to handle tree-herbivore interactions?

Tutors will assist you and your team with your case study.


More details on the case studies will follow soon.


Volunteers building wooden tripods on the steep slopes of the Swiss Re protection forest (Photo: Bergwaldprojekt)
Volunteers building wooden tripods on the steep slopes of the Swiss Re protection forest (Photos above: Bergwaldprojekt, below: Stephan Birrer)

The practical work will take place in a protection forest in the Tamina Valley in Canton St. Gallen.  Located within Pfäfers municipality, this forest prevents avalanche release, soil erosion and rockfall that otherwise would hit the road linking the villages of Pfäfers and Vättis, the settlements of Ragol and Vadura, or the Mapprag power plant. In 1990, the winter storm “Vivian” ravaged the Tamina Valley and severely damaged the protection forest. Due to its steep terrain and few roads, this forest cannot be managed cost-effectively. In order to maintain its protective function, the Swiss NGO Mountain Forest Project “Bergwaldprojekt” ( runs a volunteering-program together with the Swiss Re Foundation.  

The ETH Sustainability Summer School 2017 partners with the Mountain Forest Project to offer a unique learning experience:  theoretical knowledge gained via scientific presentations and group work will be complemented by the realities of practical forest management work.

Therefore, you will spend three days in the Swiss Re protection forest where you can experience this mountain forest and its ecosystem services with all your senses. Under the guidance of trained forestry workers of the Mountain Forest Project and the Tamina Forest Service, you will be active in planting, clearing, building snow and wildlife protection measures, constructing footpaths and maintaining avalanche and torrent controls. Experiencing the effort to work in harsh terrain under difficult conditions and discussing the work with local stakeholders will enable you to better assess the ecological, engineering, economic and social challenges that are important in the context of mountain forest management.

The practical work is strenuous and partly will be in steep terrain, but it is doable for almost all fitness levels. The work will be under guidance of trained forestry personnel. All participants will receive safety instructions and are required to wear solid hiking boots with grip sole (no running shoes).

We will work outdoors in most weather conditions. Please bring clothes that can get dirty and rain gear.

Volunteers building wooden tripods on the steep slopes of the Swiss Re protection forest (Photo: Stephan Birrer)


Excursion during Summer School 2011 (Photo: ETH Sustainability)
Excursion during Summer School 2011 (Photo: ETH Sustainability)

We will travel collectively by public transport from Zurich to the seminar house on July 1st 2017 at 10:45. Please plan your arrival in Zurich accordingly.

The return journey on Sunday July 9th will be organized after the excursion in the late afternoon.   

You will be accommodated in simple multiple-bed-rooms (2, 4 or 6 beds) and will need to bring a sleeping bag and a towel.


ETH Zurich (Photo: ETH Zurich)

The "Mountain Forest" Summer School program is organized in collaboration between ETH Sustainability, the central hub for coordinating sustainability activities at ETH Zurich, the Chair of Forest Ecology at the ETH Department USYS and the Swiss non-governmental organization Bergwaldprojekt (mountain forest project), which is  funded by the Swiss Re Foundation.


Final presentation 2014
Final presentation at the end of the “Future Health” summer school 2014 (Photo: ETH Sustainability)

The ETH Sustainability Summer School 2017 will be open to 32 Bachelor, Master and PhD students from ETH Zurich and other universities from a wide range of nationalities and disciplines such as Architecture, Biology, Earth Sciences, Engineering, Environmental Sciences, Geomatics Engineering and Planning, Management, Technology and Economics, Public Policy, Law, Spatial Development and Infrastructure Systems, Computer Science, or Modelling.

The course aims to ensure a well-balanced mixture between science, technology and social sciences. Candidates will be evaluated on their academic record, previous work experience, their readiness to work actively in the mountain forest, as well as their dedication to sustainability topics and interdisciplinary work. Prerequisites are excellent English skills in speaking and writing.

The ETH Zurich accredits successful completion of the course with 2 ECTS (European Credit Transfer System) points. Acknowledgment of the points in your studyprograms at other institutions is your own responsibility. We expect you to attend for the entire course period.


Preparations for final presentation 2011
Last preparations for the final presentation of the “All just rubbish?” summer school 2011 (Photo: Philippe Neidhardt)

The course fee is CHF250, and includes accommodation, breakfast, lunch and dinner, the travel from Zurich to the seminar house and return as well as local transport in the mountains.

Please note that health, accident and private liability insurance coverage is your own responsibility.

Deadline for application: expired
Notification of admission: April 28, 2017

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Wed Jul 26 06:52:03 CEST 2017
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