Responsible skiing vacations

In Austria, most of the ski stations are mid to low level, and in 30 to 50 years, they will all be out of business because the snow will be gone
– Sergio Savoia, Director World Wildlife Fund’s Alpine Programme, interviewed by Leo Hickman for his seminal book, The Final Call
The impacts of downhill skiing can be so heavy, the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA), founded in 1952, has urged the International Olympic Committee to share the Winter Olympics between two or three permanent hosts, and not overdevelop our mountains any more than we are doing already. Because mountain experts take their mountain protection very seriously. Indeed, another international conservation group, Mountain Wilderness, describes skiing as ‘the cancer of the Alps’. Heli-skiing, downhill trampling and energy-eating cannons pumping out fake snow are top sore points. Not forgetting the noise pollution emanating across these blanketed valleys from resorts. Cross country skiing and ski touring in wild places is, without a doubt, a more environmentally friendly way of enjoying some of the most pristine natural environments in the world. It is growing in popularity, however, so it should also be monitored. Because although skiing of all kinds sustains livelihoods for mountain communities, these same mountains must be conserved for the future.

Downhill destruction makes us cross

To tell downhill skiers that their favourite pastime can actually be hugely destructive is like telling a child there is no Santa Claus. It’s the one magical time of year when we get to feel like kids again in the snow, play, get silly, eat, drink and be merry. However, here are some of the major issues with downhill skiing. Apart from that, the good news is that Santa is real. Just go cross country skiing in Lapland and you might just find him.

    Due to climate change, some resorts are being developed at higher altitudes, which just moves the problem to higher up the mountain, rather than higher up the protection priority list. Indeed, the United Nations predicts that Alpine snowlines could rise by 300 metres in the next fifty years.* Many downhill ski slopes are graded and, in order to do this, trees are removed and slopes are flattened. The addition of large pylons and ski lifts creates further environmental scarring. This is not always the case, however, with more sustainable resorts using a flattening method that lifts the top layer of topsoil like ‘turf’ and then relays it, keeping seeds and insect habitats intact. With the surge of interest in cross country skiing, people have been known to partake in illegal ‘glading’: cutting down trees themselves to access pristine landscapes. Another good reason to travel with a responsible vacation company, of course, which will adhere to excellent environmental practices. As a further consequence of climate change the use of snow cannons in downhill resorts has increased. It takes 220,000 gallons of water to cover an acre, which then freeze and fall to the ground as snow. Sometimes the water comes from manmade reservoirs, the rest from rivers and local drinking supplies. With 80 million tourists visiting the Alps every year, for example, compared with a resident population of around 16 million, that’s a lot of adrenaline junkies’ habits to feed. In addition, there are often higher levels of minerals and nutrients used in the creation of artificial snow which then leach back into the soil when it melts – altering the growth of native plants. There are examples of good practice, however, such as Austria, where water has to come from pure water.
    Litter discarded in the mountains does not degrade; even natural waste such as orange peel can take between six months and two years to decompose, and cigarette butts five years to degrade. Water bottles take a hundred years after that. Just like beaches, ski resorts have to do massive clean ups every year – if they can be bothered, that is. Wildlife is disturbed by ski developments and skiers. One example is with birds which are killed or maimed when they collide with ski-lift cables. Or the dwindling Colorado population of the Canadian Lynx is said to be caused by the skiing industry. Also, some animals, such as chamois or hares, injure themselves in soft deep snow, where they would not instinctively roam, in order to escape skiers heading towards them at speed. In the larger downhill skiing resorts, there is a problem with second homes, many of which are left empty throughout the year. This creates resentment in the small mountain communities among residents, where it is felt that the cultural landscape of many mountain villages is being changed by mass tourism.

What you can do
Make sure you travel with a company that has a responsible tourism policy. These experts understand the mountain environments, use highly qualified guides (local ones ideally) and also support small local communities by staying in small, locally owned accommodation and eating in rural restaurants and bars. If downhill is your thing, then consult a sustainable skiing website such as Save our Snow, which highlights which downhill resorts are taking big moves to be responsible and green.

Take all your litter home with you and, if you see litter, please pick it up and remove it.

Respect the natural habitat of mountain animals and plants by taking care not to damage vegetation, knock off branches or damage shoots when skiing. Many areas are out of bounds to protect the natural habitat of animals and plants – not just for safety reasons. And also, support the invaluable work of Mountain Wilderness by following and sharing their pioneering projects on social media/blogs and so on.

*Source: The Final Call: Investigating Who Really Pays for Our Vacations, by Leo Hickman (Eden Project Books)
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Günther Sader] [Intro: PublicDomainPictures] [Downhill destruction makes us cross: Ruth Hartnup]