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Can we adjust to protect our Alpine playgrounds?

Posted: Jan 2, 2013

The inky shadows of the Alps stretch icy fingers into France, Germany, Italy, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Slovenia and Switzerland. Known as ‘water tower’ of Europe, this mountain range is a precious and volatile environment which encases a variety of natural resources and a contention of interests.

The Alps have drawn visitors since the 19th century with their Lorelei-like appeal of both beauty and danger. Hazy peaks and glaciated valleys have tested the physical limits of mountaineers, walkers and skiers for over 100 years. Today nearly 14 million people live in the region with around another 120 million guests visiting each year. Yet, this magnificent environment is displaying the effects of extensive travel, over use and wasteful behaviour.

On high mountain faces, motorway pistes criss-cross the eye-line. Rivers are diverted from their natural course-ways to the low lands and into reservoirs. From here the water is fed into the ever hungry ski industry, as artificial snow or energy. As the tourist industry booms this will continue to have a crucial influence on the overall water balance of Europe. For the alluring ridgelines, tumbling faces and glacial strong holds, that attract winter sports enthusiasts, are the source of melt water that the valleys rely on in the spring and summer.

Agricultural areas and the populated expanse below rely heavily on the quantity and condition of the water that seeps through the land’s capillaries. The importance of this life line downstream is recognised in many areas such as industry and tourism, forest fire prevention, the quality of soil conditions and maintaining biodiversity.

However, the demand for prime ski conditions compels resorts to regularly use snow cannon to cover bare slopes in films of rough water crystals. The use of artificial snow to combat unreliable snow levels requires the retention of water and, as a consequence, an increase in energy consumption. In the face of climate change and receding snowlines this pressure will only increase.

Furthermore, with the premium cost of ski holidays the need for energy, to heat hotels and chalets, run ski lifts, rescue services and transport systems, continues to grow. In response to this demand, resorts rely on Hydropower which depends on the extraction of water from Alpine river systems. Hydropower is the most reliable and flexible of the renewable energy systems but it leads to the construction of extensive dams to retain water. The effect is unavoidable damage to the landscape, disruption to natural water ways and their ecological environments.

As energy needs climb, it will become necessary for the industry to produce more power plants and more reservoirs. Sadly, the risk is that, even if they do and the total remaining potential of hydropower generation was exploited, the energy produced would only cover the increased demand for a few more years. We will be left with little but the ecological consequence of building the additional facilities, a costly impact.

Although there have been moves to protect against the negative marks on the environment through the construction of water retention systems, as well as pump and Hydropower stations, consideration for ecologically sensitive and endangered habitats will conflict with the financial benefits of the tourist industry. Inevitably money is a strong voice in any committee making further construction inevitable.

These localised pressures only add to the already devastating effect of climate change felt acutely at the earth’s peripheries. Glaciers are receding, rapid changes in snowfall are recorded and warmer winters threaten. One of the Alps’ most famous glaciers, the Mer du Glace is a constant reminder of this inevitability as it disappears at, on average, an estimated 7.5m every year.

With a thriving contemporary culture and extensive history of Alpine tourism it is difficult to imagine abandoning our mountain playgrounds. However with greater demands made upon resources, conflicts of interest will increase between the tourist industry, conservation and water utilisation.

As responsible tourists we can play an influential part in protecting this hot bed of natural resources. As consumers we have a voice and ability to compromise and adjust our attitudes and behaviours in respect for the Alps and their dependents. There are many ways to lessen our impact, implemented from the design to the destination of our winter trips. Transport, accommodation and recreation are some of the main areas in which we can adapt.

Through planning a self drive holiday or taking the train your carbon footprint is considerably lessened. With airplanes arguably causing over five times the amount of Carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, per person, than the train, this is a good start. For people travelling from Britain the most economically and environmentally conscious ski destination is the French Alps which can be accessed easily by the Euro star from London. There is a direct Snow Train to Moûtiers, Aime-la-Plagne or Bourg-St-Maurice that can get you there over night or through the day. It is also possible to get the Euro star to Paris and then pick a TGV to other destinations in the Alps.

Having your own car means you are freer to pick less popular destinations for your holiday or to stay out of busy resorts in lower towns. You will not be obliged to join the congested weekend traffic that relies on organised transfers and your custom will support independent businesses and the local communities, rather than larger expatriate companies. To help you plan at trip the web site www.greentraveller.co.uk can show you the most efficient rout to a destination without flying, as well as advertising ‘green places to stay’ across the UK and Europe.

Your choice of accommodation is likewise important, and easier than you would imagine. A trip to the Alps doesn’t have to be a package chalet holiday or rely on an energy guzzling and suffocating apartment. Instead look out for companies that offer alternative approaches, such as winter yurts and eco houses. One such as ‘Whitepod’ a Swiss ‘eco-camp’, or The Belvedere, a B+ B in the Italian Alps, accessible by train to Turin, which promotes alternative alpine activities such as snow-shoeing and cross country skiing.

Using the resorts, ski lifts and motorways pistes is also not essential if you wish to have a snow filled adventure. One alternative is a snow shoeing holiday. Every Alpine region will have guides that can take individuals or groups into the icy hills to explore the quieter regions. Away from the hubbub you can have a unique experience, but in a safe environment!

The hardier could employ a local ski touring guide to head deeper into the inky depths. These guides will know the terrain well and will be able to avoid protected areas and nesting grounds. It is in fact possible to avoid ski lifts all together as you slowly work your way up into the heights on paths of varying difficulty. A journey can cover both huge assents and descents, making you truly appreciate the vastness of this spectacular area.

On longer trips you will be able to stay over night in refuges. Your visit will allow you to experience the mountains at there purest whilst giving support to the small businesses. It’s not all hard work, with evenings under the stars supping a beer or a alpine vintage and eating hearty winter meals with other adventures.

Both the difficulty of the terrain and the quality of catering in the back country can be chosen to suit. If you wish a challenge then head out over the glaciers of France’s Haut rout or if comfort is a higher priority then ease your way to the Italian Bonatti hut in Val Ferret where good food and amazing views assail the senses.

Ski touring has risks; therefore taking a guide is important if you are just starting out. They will help you learn how to protect yourself and the environment you are in. Once you have experience then it is possible to buy guide books for the areas you visit. These will direct you through routs, for day trips or week long adventures. The information contained will also cover; difficulty, gear needed, best time of year, refuges and danger level.

If a resort holiday is still the thing for you then instead make use of the ‘Green Resort Guide’ ) to find information on which resorts recycle, have proper sewage management or a green building policy. Alternatively the informative, not for profit organisation, Save Our Snow provides information on environmental concerns in the worlds snowy peripheries. From resort to Polar Regions, they promote alternative attitudes and approaches to winter travel.

Exploration to the Alps is an exhilarating and mind opening experience, regardless of how many times you have been beneath their icy shadows. If we want to this pleasure to continue, for us and the next generation, then we must do what we can to protect these natural monuments. By building awareness and leading through action, we can help relieve the strain on the places we enjoy.

Author: Miriam Willis is a freelance writer on tourism and sustainability

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