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
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
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
Data as of December 1993