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Skiing like you care in the French Alps 15.12.06

Alpine downhill skiing is my passion. It is a passion I share with over a million Brits who go to the French Alps every year. Yet there is no greater clearer link between sport and the environment than skiing, a mere one degree temperature rise will make over 160 European Alpine ski-resorts unviable.

Take a beautiful pine covered mountain, bulldoze pistes through the forests, install energy chugging, environment scarring ski-lifts and water sucking snow cannons, build high altitude restaurants, throw up huge centrally heated accommodation blocks, swimming pools, bars and saunas and then build a road for access and voila you have an alpine ski resort. All you now need is to fly the clients in so they can ski off piste and destroy the young trees and drop litter all over the mountain to poison the land and the wildlife. What could be more fun?

Not only do ski stations damage the natural beauty and environment of the mountains their long term viability is under threat from the very environmental change they help create. In a report to be published in February 2007 the OECD report that of the 666 medium to large Alpine ski resorts already 10% are running in less than viable climates, less than viable meaning under 100 days of skiable snow per year. A one degree increase will add another 100 to that number, two degrees pulls the figure to around 400 viable resorts, while four degrees leaves a mere 200 resorts in a viable state.

The French call snow “white gold”, the decline in Alpine agriculture and the rise of ski tourism has had a huge impact on the Alps, revitalising rural communities, providing work locally instead of the rural exodus seen in other parts of the country. On the flip side it has created a mono industry in many places, as one study claims “there is no real alternative”, the related manufacturing industries are increasingly seeking low cost Eastern European and Asian workforces over French based factories as with the recent proposed closure of the Salomon ski factories. This reliance on one industry has meant that the economy tends to be placed before the environment as ski resorts seek to extend their season and hold off the effects of climate change. Artificial snow is the main strategy, blasting out snow the moment the temperature drops below -4 day and night to bring the season forward and push it backwards, opening up regional airports to low cost airlines such as Ryanair to Grenoble and St Etienne, linking up high resorts into mega ski factories such as the Les Arc La Plagne Vanoise Express link up and of course seeking to open up higher and higher runs.

However all is not doom and gloom, a number of resorts, particularly in the Isère Department are looking to move there resorts to more sustainable models.

Take Val Thorens, the highest of the Trois Vallees, and part of the biggest ski resort in Europe. It’s lifts are now entirely powered by renewable energy, in this case hydro, it has planted over 200,000 trees in the last 20 years, all municipal vehicles, including piste bashers, are moving towards using bio- diesel. It has rebuilt its sewage system to prevent pollution- a big step as most resorts still use the over stretched local village systems, its street lighting now uses low energy bulbs, it has replaced the on-piste toilets with organic toilets, it is planting its pistes with tough grass to avoid soil degradation, municipal building are moving towards solar power. Wild life areas to protect black grouse are in place, ski lift cables marked to help avoid birds from flying into them. It has joined up with Mountain Riders the French skier and snow boarder environmental group to run environmental awareness traing for visitors and staff alike. It has a long way to go but a start is being made.

What can we do as skiers and boarders?

The first thing to think about is where to go, the Ski Club runs an information service on “Green resorts”, well greener than some resorts would be more accurate. When booking your holiday check up on the resorts environmental record and plans.

How you get there

The usual Saturday to Saturday flying schedule normally means that in effect you get 6 days on the slopes and eight hours in various airport queues and three hours with your knees being crushed on a charter plane. The Rail Europe’s ski train on the other hand leaves on Friday night arrives Saturday morning and leaves the following Saturday night- that’s eight days, yes eight days, on the slopes for the same accommodation costs.

When you are there

Try and book locally owned accommodation, so your money stays in the area, use local guides, buy local produce (one of the joys of being on holiday anyway), support locally owned shops, bars and cafes. When you are on the mountain respect the pistes, off piste ski-ing is fun but it can damage the plants under the snow, particularly knocking off the tips of young trees in forested areas, leave no litter whether it be organic or not, orange peel takes two years to decompose and on glaciers it never does. If you smoke take your dog ends home with you, cigarette butts take five years to decompose, and each butt can pollute up to a cubic metre of water poisoning the summer pasture. In Val Thorens alone they counted 30,000 cigarette butts at the bottom of one lift. Most French resorts have recycling bins, find where they are and use them.

To stay up to date you could subscribe to the Mountain Riders English e-newsletter.

This season I am going to try my hand at cross country skiing, and maybe a bit of snow shoe walking. For me on of the great pleasures of skiing is just being in the mountains, what could be more wonderful than being hopelessly lost in a cold forest with no hot chocolate in sight. Cross country skiing does not rely on lifts, pistes or snow cannons. Allegedly it is very good physical exercise as well and no expensive ski passes. If this site goes off line it is because I have got lost in the mountains or have had a heart attack from all that unusual exercise.

Peter Shield

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Related links

Ski Clubs Guide to Green Ski resorts

Mountain Riders -French with english newsletter

Ski Clubs Seven Steps to Preserve the Mountains

Snow Trains

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