Austria postpones plan to sell mountain peaks
VIENNA – An Austrian government agency abruptly pulled two sky-high pieces of real estate — majestic peaks offering stupendous alpine views — off the open market Tuesday after an outpouring of national outrage over the perceived sellout of the nation's heritage.
BIG, the agency that purchases state property and manages it in the public interest, announced the decision after discussions between Economics Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner and top officials in charge of the agency.
"We have suspended the sale to evaluate alternative possibilities," agency spokesman Ernst Eichinger said. He said the transaction would likely go ahead but buyers would be restricted to "Austrian institutions" instead of the highest free-market bidders.
The peaks are in the easternmost part of Tyrol province, home to some of Europe's highest mountain ranges.
The "Rosskopf" is 2,600 meters (over 8,500 feet) high, the "Grosse Kinigat" nearly 2,700 meters (8,800 feet). They are on offer for euro121,000 — nearly $175,000 for both. Of the two, the less picturesque Rosskopf is a relative steal at euro29,000, or nearly $42,000.
Austria is fiercely proud of its alpine ranges. Its national hymn begins with the worlds "Land of Mountains," its history is replete with the heroic exploits of rugged mountain men — and news over the weekend that the two summits were up for sale next month quickly went viral.
First local and then national politicians spoke out against the deal as the wave of indignation grew. Eichinger said that over the past three days his office was bombarded with calls and e-mails with contents ranging from "indignation to abuse."
"Whoever wants to sell our mountains seeks to sell the soul of our country," warned "Buergerklub Tirol," an association of provincial parliamentarians, while Gerhard Hausser, who heads the Tyrol branch of the rightist-nationalist FPO party, said such a deal would be "a cheap step toward the sellout of our homeland."
The frenzy was fed by strange queries — and stranger offers from potential buyers.
Eichinger told the daily Die Presse of a call from a South Korean government agency asking whether Austria "was selling mountains to balance its budget." Josef Ausserlechner, mayor of Kartitsch village at the foot of the peaks, was cited by other Austrian media as saying that the owner of a German software firm offered to buy the property and give it to the hamlet of 800 people — on condition the peaks be renamed after his company.
On Tuesday, the mountains were still on offer on BIG's website, complete with photos and a text describing the "Grosse Kinigat" as "one of the most beautiful observation points of the ... Alps." But Eichinger said the deal, originally set for July 8, was suspended pending discussions on selling the 1.2 million square meters (nearly 300 acres) of rock and sand.
Any future buyer will be bound by a large range of restrictions on use, meant to allow vacationers free access to the peaks. As well, local authorities have wide jurisdiction prohibiting future owners from displaying offensive advertising or erecting buildings that do not fit the region's character.
"The privatization of the mountain peaks makes no sense," Mitterlehner said in a statement. "I therefore support keeping the East Tyrollean mountains 'Grosser Kinigat' and 'Rosskopf' in the Austrian and public sector."
The statement said that preferred buyers would be Tyrol itself, Kartitsch village, or the Austrian federal forestry authority.