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The Nature of the Dolomites - UNESCO World Heritage

Life transformed into stone


“Come to think of it, if we had a time machine and went back several hundred million years, we might find ourselves thrown from the Dolimites into the bottom of the ancient ocean of Tethys that separated northern Africa from Europe and Asia. Or, if we went back even further, we might find ourselves in the middle of a world dominated by dinosaurs. The long ‘history’ that the Dolomites reveals makes this landscape even more interesting and beautiful...wouldn’t you agree?” (Andrea Irsara)

To understand the above passage, it is important to recall that the Dolomite landscape was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009 not only for its exceptional natural beauty but for its earth science values, as well. In fact, aesthetic and landscape values aside, the Dolomites include several important stratigraphic type segments and rock formations that provide evidence of a long geological history and of the evolution of life on earth that can be ascribed to at least 250 million years ago. Life in the Dolomites is actually preserved in stone: this includes fossil records, living beings that, through a process lasting millions of years, have turned into stone.

 Dolomiti strati geologici

To understand how the complex formation of mountains and oceans lasts tens and hundreds of millions of years, we must first consider that the earth’s crust is composed of many continental plates that are constantly moving: when the plates move apart, they create new oceans; when they converge, they create mountains. 

Conchiglia Fossile

Two hundred sixty million years ago, the earth’s surface formed a single supercontinent called Pangea that was surrounded by an ocean known as Paleo-Tethys. During this geological period, the area that later became the Dolomites was covered by an arid desert and was roughly at the level of the equator. Then, the ground in this geographical area slowly dropped and a shallow tropical sea full of life, little by little, submerged the entire region.
About 252 million years ago, at the end of the Permian period, a series of huge volcanic eruptions caused a devastating mass extinction that almost terminated all life on earth. Life in the seas resumed very slowly.


The skeletons of limestone algae and sponges started depositing and accumulating at the bottom of the sea, becoming gigantic reefs like those corresponding to the barrier reefs we have today in the tropical seas. The Sciliar, Odle, and Sasso Putia mountains are what remain of these ancient reefs.

fossili foglie

The growth of the reefs was interrupted roughly 235 million years ago by new immense volcanic eruptions that created volcanic islands which, together with the reefs, created a landscape similar to present Seychelles or the Maldives. The Sassolungo, the Sella Massif, and the Gardenaccia plateau are remains of this ancient archipelago composed of reefs similar to atolls. The invertebrate fauna remains from the San Cassiano Formation that includes excellently preserved fossil shells and is one of the best known in the world for its extremely diverse species and form, dates back to this period. 
The “dolimite” islands, on the other hand, enjoyed tropical climates and were populated by many land and sea reptiles. Isolated remains of these reptiles such as the pelvis, the spine, and a femur of a Nothosaurus have been found in the San Cassiano Formation.


Over the course of millions of years, the shallow sea basins filled with debris, creating a broad partly coastal and partly lagoon flat expanse hospitable to many dinosaurs. This is when the sequence of the Dolomia Principale Formation that includes the Tre Cime di Lavaredo and the bases of the Sasso della Croce, Conturines, and Lavarella started.


Halfway through the Jurassic period – about 175 million years ago – the entire dolomite area that was composed of sedimentary and volcanic rock collapsed hundreds of meters to form the bottom of a deep ocean. Sediments accumulated on the seafloor, as well as the Rosso Ammonitico – a reddish rock that gets its name from the numerous ammonites it contains. Hence, the rocky mountains that today offer us a spectacular sight beyond comparison were once lying at the bottom of the Tethys Ocean. This is when the rock formation cycle ends and orogenesis – the primary mechanism by which mountain ranges are built – begins.

Strati Dolomia con Via Ferrata

The Dolomites began “emerging” from the richly stratified seafloor during the Cretaceous – roughly 100 million years ago – due to a collision between the African and European continents. The folds and uplift caused by the convergent movements between the two plates created the Alps and the formation of the Dolomites. This uplift still continues today.


Nature parks


“Shouldn’t we be thinking that future generations will be grateful for what we could’ve built, but didn’t, rather than being grateful for what we built? Particularly in those places where nature is still unspoiled by man.” (S.O.S. Gherdëina ’95)

The booming economic affluence in the Dolomite Ladin valleys and the unrelenting drive to continue building, increasing uphill lifts and ski lifts that began in the early 1950s have decisively transformed small mountain hamlets and the surrounding countryside. In order to limit the negative effects of being solely dependent on tourism, associations, groups, and organizations concerned with the environment and its protection were formed. These groups focus on raising awareness among the population, businessmen, and potential investors of the value of nature. Even though environmentalist groups have not been completely successful in averting the negative effects of mass tourism, various political parties, including the Green Party, have slowly adopted their ideas and their way of perceiving nature into their programs. Consequently, provinces and regions have created nature parks – an important step towards safeguarding and protecting the Dolomites’ natural heritage.

Lech Vërt Fanes

The “central” Dolomites is home to three nature parks that have been established by environmental protection legislation: the Puez-Odles Nature Park (also known as Puez-Geisler) founded in 1970 and expanded in 1978; Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park (also known as Fanes-Sennes-Prags) founded in 1980, and the Nature Park of the Ampezzo Dolomites founded in 1990.

Lilium Martagon

The Puez-Odles Nature Park extends over an area of 10,196 hectares belonging to the municipalities of Badia, Corvara, Funes, San Martino in Badia, Ortisei, Santa Cristina, and Selva di Val Gardena. The protected area is delimited in the north by Passo delle Erbe and the slopes of the Odles di Eores; in the south by Sassongher, Sas Ciampac, and the Pizes de Cir that dominate above the Passo Gardena; the park extends eastward up to the Antersac Valley and to the foot of the Gardenaccia rock walls, and it reaches west up to the Funes Valleys and to Vallunga (next to the Gardena Valley). Its rare natural beauty derives from a variety of spectacular geological formations such as amphitheaters, caves, natural arches, pinnacles, and distinctive sculptural forms – one of the park’s most interesting attractions. Plant and animal life typical of the Dolomites is also well represented. In lesser-visited areas such as the Antersasc, it is not uncommon to come upon chamois, marmots, and – with a bit of luck – golden eagles. There are many well-marked hiking routes throughout the park, making it easy to visit. One of these is the famous Dolomites High Route (Alta Via) no. 2 that crosses the park from north to south. Another fascinating trail is the Günther Messner High Route (a via ferrata – fixed rope route) named after the late mountaineer from Val di Funes; Günther was the younger brother of Reinhold Messner who perished during their Nanga Parbat Expedition in 1970.


The Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park extends over an area of 25,680 hectares and is perhaps among the most attractive mountain landscapes. The area is delimited in the north by the Valdaora Dolomite slopes; in the east by Valle di Landro; in the south by the watershed that divides the rivers of Rienza and Boite; and in the west by the Val Badia mountain ridge, between Piz da Peres and Conturines. There was much controversy over establishing the park, particularly from those who saw the move as detrimental to the development of the tourism industry. After initial skepticism, opposition groups have begun appreciating the positive impact that the park has had on the area and today favor its protection and conservation. Fanes, Fodara Vedla, and Senes are the nucleus of this nature park that includes ample territory in municipalities neighboring Marebbe: Braies, Valdaora, La Valle, and Badia.


This unique landscape is worth seeing up close: aside from its geological importance and the wildlife and plants that make their home in the park, it has breathtaking scenery such as the Green Lake on the Fanes alps (where the limestone amphitheater surrounding it reflects in its dark, cool waters) and the regular terrace formation of the legendary “parliament of marmots”. It is a hiker’s paradise. Some of the world’s most beautiful peaks can be found here, as well as easy-to-reach rolling pastures such as Armentara with a rich variety of flowers and plants.
The park has well-marked hiking trails and well-located mountain huts to facilitate visitors and hikers in their walks through exceptionally stunning nature. The Dolomites High Route (Alta Via) no. 1 – also known as the “Classic High Route” because it was the first route marked out – goes through the park, as well.

Potentilla reptans

The Nature Park of the Ampezzo Dolomites was established by the Veneto Region with the approval of the General Meeting of the Regolieri. The “Regole”, or Family Mountain Communities, are age-old land managing bodies made up of the native families of the early settlers for the joint use and administration of pastures and forests. The park extends over an area of 11,200 hectares to the north of Cortina d’Ampezzo on the border with Alto Adige. It encompasses the ancient property jointly owned by the Regole d’Ampezzo comprised within the boundaries of the municipality of Ampezzo. The protected area is V-shaped with two side branches and it spans northward up to the Fanes-Senes-Braies Nature Park; the total combined territories equal roughly 37,000 hectares and share homogeneous environmental features.



World Heritage

The Dolomites - UNESCO


The Dolomites were inscribed on Unesco’s World Heritage list on June 26, 2009. News of the event circled the globe quickly and soon millions of people knew about the Dolomite’s unique and spectacular landscape, as well as the often-overlooked geological and geomorphologic values that render it of global significance.

Tre Cime di Lavaredo

Gone are the days of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries when scientists, geographers, geologists, Alpine mountaineers and aristocrats were the only visitors in this region. They were the lucky beneficiaries of its magnificent scenery – now officially acknowledged to be “among one of the most beautiful mountain landscapes in the world.” Some of them also spent lengthy periods of time studying and annotating results for important reports that today increase our wealth of knowledge and appreciation for these mountains.


Since then, the Dolomites have become an area with a dynamic tourism industry. Although all the site’s nine components inscribed on the World Heritage List are not directly neighboring, they are considered as a whole and their addition to the Unesco list cannot but increase their public image. The list as long captured the collective imagination and despite the fact that few people really know what Unesco is and does, the places from around the world that are listed fuel our imagination, convincing us that we must visit them to experience their unique, mythological grandeur.

Silouette Dolomiti

We must keep in mind that inscription on the Unesco list required years of coordinated effort and was achieved with the support of the technical and administrative offices of the five provinces concerned: the Province of Belluno in the Veneto Region; the Provinces of Pordenone and Udine in the Autonomous Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia; the Autonomous Province of Bolzano and the Autonomous Province of Trento. Scientific contribution by experts and scholars in the fields of geology and landscape science was also crucial.


Inscription of the Dolomites on the World Heritage List is an extraordinary achievement but in addition to the honor of the award, it entails adequate management and protection services as well as sustainable development of this magnificent Alpine region.


Given these conditions, this important accomplishment should produce a new balance in terms of tourism and economic development. According to the values for which the Dolomites have been inscribed, the local governance arrangement is committed to ensure the protection and management of land use, the regulation and management of human activities to maintain its values, and the presentation and promotion of the World Heritage site in order to the preserve the qualities of its natural landscape. Meeting these requirements is essential to maintaining World Heritage status.

Tofana de Rozes

An equally important result of the Unesco award would be a qualitative improvement in the tourism industry – if the Dolomites were not only considered as an “amusement park,” but as a fascinating “place of meditation, study and research.”




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