The Swiss have long been aware of the need to protect their natural resources. Switzerland's federal forestry law of 1876 is among the world's earliest pieces of environmental legislation. Since 1953, provisions for environmental protection have been incorporated in the federal constitution. A measure creating a federal role in town and rural planning by allowing the central government to set the ground rules for the cantonal master plans took effect in January 1980.
Air pollution is a major environmental concern in Switzerland; automobiles and other transportation vehicles are the main contributors. In 1996, industrial carbon dioxide emissions totaled 44 million metric tons. Strict standards for exhaust emissions were imposed on new passenger cars manufactured after October 1987. Water pollution is also a problem due to the presence of phosphates, fertilizers, and pesticides in the water supply. The nation has 40 cu km of renewable water resources, of which 58% are used for industrial purposes. The country's cities produce about 3.1 million tons of solid waste annually.
Chemical contaminants and erosion damage the nation's soil and limit productivity. In 1986, the Swiss Federal Office of Forestry issued a report stating that 36% of the country's forests had been killed or damaged by acid rain and other types of air pollution.
Important environmental groups include the Swiss League for the Protection of Nature, founded in 1909; the Swiss Foundation for the Protection and Care of the Landscape, 1970; and the Swiss Society for the Protection of the Environment. The principal federal agency is the Department of Environment.
The bear and wolf were exterminated by the end of the 19th century, but the lynx, once extinct in Switzerland, has been reestablished. In 2001, six of Switzerland's mammal species, four bird species, and two plant species were endangered. The northern bald ibis and the Italian spadefoot toad are extinct; the false ringlet butterfly, Italian agile frog, and marsh snail are threatened.
On 1 November 1986, as a result of a fire in a chemical warehouse near Basel, in northern Switzerland, some 30 tons of toxic waste flowed into the Rhine River, killing an estimated 500,000 fish and eels. Despite a Swiss report in January 1987 that damage to the river had not been so great as was first thought, most environmentalists considered the chemical spill a major disaster.