Land-use patterns in Austria change from Alpine to non-Alpine regions. Approximately one-tenth of Austria is barren or unproductive, that is, extremely Alpine or above the tree line. Just over two-fifths of Austria is covered by forests, the majority of which are in Alpine regions. Less than one-fifth of Austria is arable and suitable for conventional agriculture. The percentage of arable land in Austria increases in the east as the country becomes less Alpine. More than one-fifth of Austria is pastures and meadows located at varying altitudes. Almost onehalf of this grassland consists of high-lying Alpine pastures.
Historically, high Alpine pastures have been used during the summer for grazing dairy cattle, thus making space available at lower altitudes for cultivating and harvesting fodder for winter. Many of the high pastures are at altitudes of more than 1,000 meters.
Although agriculture in mountainous areas was at one time economically viable, in recent decades it has survived only with the help of extensive subsidies. A concern of farmers in these mountainous regions is that membership in the European Union might entail a curtailment of these subsidies and the end of Alpine agriculture. If this occurs, many areas will be reclaimed by nature after centuries of cultivation.
Although the Alps are beautiful, they make many areas of Austria uninhabitable. Austria's so-called areas of permanent settlement--regions that are cultivated, continuously inhabited, and used for transportation, but do not include forests, Alpine pastures, or barren land--cover only four-tenths or 35,000 square kilometers of the country. The great majority of the area of permanent settlement is in the Danube Valley and the lowlands or hilly regions north, east, and south of the Alps, where approximately two-thirds of the population live.
In the country's predominantly Alpine provinces, most of the population live in river valleys: Bregenz on the shores of Lake Constance in Vorarlberg; Innsbruck on the Inn River in Tirol; Salzburg on the Salzach River in Salzburg; and Klagenfurt on the Gail River in Carinthia. The higher the Alps are, the less inhabitable they become in terms of soil, microclimate, and vegetation. Conversely, the lower and broader the Alpine valleys are, the more densely populated they become.
Tirol illustrates most clearly the relationship between Alpine geography and habitation. As the most mountainous province (less than 3 percent of the land is arable), it is the most sparsely inhabited, with an area of permanent settlement of only 15 percent.
Because of the Alps, the country as a whole is one of the least densely populated states of Western and Central Europe. With ninety-three inhabitants per square kilometer, Austria has a population density similar to that of the former Yugoslavia.
Austria's national borders and geography have corresponded very little. Since the fall of the Roman Empire, the Alps and the Danube have not served to mark political boundaries. Even within Austria, provincial borders were only occasionally set by the ranges and ridges of the Alps.
Although the Alps did not mark political boundaries, they often separated groups of people from one another. Because in the past the Alps were impassable, inhabitants isolated in valleys or networks of valleys developed distinct regional subcultures. Consequently, the inhabitants of one valley frequently maintained dialects, native or traditional dress, architectural styles, and folklore that substantially differed from those of the next valley. Differences were great enough that the origins of outsiders could easily be identified. However, mass media, mobility, prosperity, and tourism have eroded the distinctness of Alpine regional subcultures to a great extent by reducing the isolation that gave them their particular character.
Despite the Alps, Austria has historically been a land of transit. The Danube Valley, for centuries Central Europe's aquatic link to the Balkan Peninsula and the "Orient" in the broadest sense of the word, has always been an avenue of eastwest transit. However, Europe's division into two opposing economic and military blocs after World War II diminished Austria's importance as a place of transit. Since the opening of Eastern Europe in 1989, the country has begun to reassume its historical role. By the early 1990s, it had already experienced a substantial increase in the number of people and vehicles crossing its eastern frontiers.
Within the Alps, four passes and the roads that run through them are of particular importance for north-south transit. The Semmering Pass on the provincial border of Lower Austria and Styria connects the Viennese Basin with the Mürz and Mur valleys, thus providing northeast-southwest access to Styria and Slovenia, and, via Carinthia, to Italy.
The Phryn Pass between the provinces of Upper Austria and Styria and the Tauern Pass between the High Tauern Range and the Low Tauern Range of the Central Alps in Salzburg, provide access to the Mur Valley in Styria and the Drau Valley in Carinthia, respectively. The highways that run through these passes are important northwest-southeast lines of communication through the Alps. The Phyrn highway has been nicknamed the "foreign workers' route" because millions of "guest workers" in Germany use it to return to their homes in the Balkans and Turkey for vacation. Many Germans and northern Europeans also use it in the summer months to reach the Adriatic coast. After the outbreak of hostilities in Yugoslavia in the summer of 1991, however, a substantial amount of this traffic was rerouted through the Danube Valley and Hungary.
The most important pass in the Austrian Alps is the Brenner Pass, located on the Austrian-Italian border in Tirol. At 1,370 meters, it is one of the lowest Alpine passes. The Inn Valley and the Brenner Pass historically have been an important and convenient route of north-south transit between Germany and Italy, and they provide the most direct route between Europe's two most highly industrialized regions--Germany and northern Italy.
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