When the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) voices its concerns over what they consider to be an ‘arms race’ between competing alpine resorts, and countries, it ostensibly highlights that the latest global ecological battleground has shifted to Europe’s highest climes, as the insatiable tentacles of man threaten to spread over the last untouched terrain in the Alps.

Succinctly describing the stampede to compete with neighbouring resorts, regions, and countries, the WWF outline the ultimately futile economic aim of remaining one step ahead of competitors by throwing what are astonishing amounts of money at an industry that has surely reached its saturation point. Continually carving an extra slice into a cake that remains the same size only serves to diminish returns and further pressurize ski resorts into investment they can ill afford, at a time when climate change threatens to precipitate winter seasons more green than white. Inevitably pushing winter sports to higher altitudes where natural precipitation is more abundant, and temperatures enable the production of artificial snow, hitherto undisturbed areas of the Alps and the habitats of rare native species are needlessly compromised.

Few areas of the western Alps are now jealously guarded by locals more concerned with their natural environment than profiting from the unique surroundings. The recent prohibiting of linking Kappl with St. Anton am Arlberg was a rare victory, with the nearby Jamtal area close to Galtuer in the Silvretta range continuing to maintain its stance of not permitting development of cable railways. These examples are though the exception to the rule in an industry that seemingly presupposes that granting permission for its next big scheme is a mere formality.

Provoking a response from a global organisation specializing in the field of wilderness preservation gives the uninitiated some idea of the remoteness of the terrain in question. Although overwhelmingly within Swiss territory the proposals to construct up to four lifts within the Samnaun ski area also straddles the Austrian border, linking the two countries at the Paznaun valley resort of Ischgl, marketed as the Silvretta Arena amongst its eponymous massif. What particularly highlighted to me the enormity of the proposals was just how small the inhabited part is amongst the overall vastness of the region. For such schemes to be approved by the state they first must be put to the local population in a plebiscite, of which the outcome will go a long way to determine the plan’s eventual destiny. The motion to enhance two lifts already in situ and the construction of two brand new devices was carried by 276 votes to 133, representing a two-thirds majority of the 80% of the electorate who voted. It can be vigorously argued either way whether a proposal of this magnitude should be accepted or rejected by such a small amount of people, although the effects a project worth €80 million will have on what is a sparsely populated, remote region are in little doubt.

The knock-on effects will also be felt on the Ischgl side of the border, part of a relatively remote region itself but greater developed than its Swiss counterpart. Already a popular area, peak daily usage can equate to 20,000 on the slopes, a figure frighteningly large that could increase, but only by drawing patrons from other resorts who will in turn feel the need to enhance their existing cableways. Creating new winter sports opportunities doesn’t bring more people to the Alps per se but moves them from one region to another as fresh developments dictate. Upgraded lifts or brand-new devices will inevitably see an initial spike in patronage before leveling out or dropping, depending on the activities of neighbouring resorts or countries. In what is therefore already a highly volatile industry perpetually chasing lift-pass euros(€), the prospect of global warming in effect pulling the plug on operations at lower altitudes highlights the need to reassess viability of future projects, and whether the shear amount of water needed to create artificial snow can continue to be justified.

Offsetting the financial perils commensurate with ‘green’ winters can be achieved by the opening up of more existing lifts during the summer hiking season. So often cableways operate a reduced service of only a few days per week and in many cases, lie dormant outside of the winter season. For a few dollars more on their lift passes or tourist taxes most visitors would be thankful of having the full gamut of upward momentum devices at their disposal.

The Alps do not fall under the jurisdiction of a single nation and are therefore characterized as an individual entity stewarded by a diverse cabal of states whose attitudes to their topographical environments subtly contrast. Switzerland and Austria both seek to justify that the financial benefits outweigh any ecological damage caused by construction and operation, an argument that will always be leaned on in areas where tourism revenue is regarded as essential. Subjectivity of what constitutes an acceptable encroachment into the local environment will also hinder those tasked with seeing off further developments, with schemes such as the Kappl-St. Anton link hardly setting a precedent by which future proposals can be measured. Remaining a sector very much to be judged on a case by case basis, the singularity of the Alps as an entity, but at the same time its regional variations ensures that a decision in one district can have little influence on those in another.

A process of disarmament, by way of modernizing what one already has instead of uglifiying further landscapes with an army of pylons and associated infrastructure, seems as far away as it ever has been. It should though be at the forefront of the minds of lift companies and municipalities that the landscapes by which their own area of the Alps is known will soon be compromised in perpetuity, in essence undermining the reason most, if not all visitors venture to the eight countries through which the range stretches. Building more and more, with an attitude of ‘build it and they will come’, will in the end be counterproductive, with over-developed resorts turning off, not enticing, those it seeks to attract.

Those charged with deciding the fate of major alpine infrastructure projects invariably go weak at the knees when the projected sums required to bring schemes to reality are used to underpin their supposed virtues. Seduced by investment potentially creating wider wealth and reflecting confidence in a region and the sector as whole, the failure to consider the bigger picture is hardly surprising. If one resort’s plans trigger others into further inward investment, cannot that only be good? Hardly. This unsustainable model of boom and bust increasing engenders a remorseless mindset of greed and insatiability, with the desperation to become richer-still overlooking the Alps’ fragile ecology, without which there would be few visitors to ring the tills. Skiers may think that nature’s white coat hides a multitude of humanity’s sins, and it does, but viewed once the snow has melted the hideous acts of indifference perpetrated by man against an environment on which it so relies cannot be justified or ignored.

It is impossible to even begin to believe that consensus could be reached by the eight European alpine nations over nature protection, and where the saturation point for development should be. The Alps’ strength of spanning through so many jurisdictions is sadly also its downfall, with only vague memorandums of understanding ever likely to be signed by all parties. The battle for the green lobby to repudiate demonstrable, justifiable need insisted upon by developers will go on, although those with a vested interest in upping the ante in the Alps’ very own arms race will not go down without a very real fight.

Source material and further information:

WWF – Gries/Graubunden: http://www.wwf-gr.ch/service/news/detail/1/keine-neuerschliessung-der-ravaischer-salaas/

ORF: https://tirol.orf.at/news/stories/2953763/

Tiroler Tegeszeitung: http://www.tt.com/politik/landespolitik/15134550/klare-mehrheit-fuer-ausbau-der-skiarena-samnaun-ischgl

Hotelrevue(CH): http://www.htr.ch/story/stimmbevoelkerung-befuerwortet-skigebietserweiterung-in-samnaun-22522.html