The cancelling of a proposed connection between the Tirol’s Pitztal and Oetztal valleys has become something of a line in the sand for future ‘marriage’ proposals between municipalities whose reliance upon tourism and in particular winter sports has become excessive.
It was perhaps surprising that opposition to the connection which was to include new lifts and restaurants also came from within the Pitz valley. I say surprising as the area has long been seen as having comparatively missed out on Austria’s alpine gold rush which has made many people and areas very rich from opening up new ski areas accompanied by scenery-changing infrastructure. When though the plans were assessed in greater detail, it soon became obvious why seasoned naysayers and those opposed to the building of more or less anything in the high mountains were joined by the likes of the WWF, and ethical clothing manufacturer Patagonia in speaking out against one of the last pristine areas of Austria being brutally assailed in the name of just another ski area.
Despite being sited at its highest extent above 3,000 metres above sea level the scheme included a huge, asphalted water reservoir from where snow cannons would draw their resources to make artificial snow. This itself is egregious; if it doesn’t snow in sufficient quantities at 10,000 feet then those involved need to wake up and smell the coffee. In recent years alpine farmers have during drought conditions been deprived of water for their livestock for it instead to be ‘set aside’ in man-made storage ponds so snow-less mountains can be ski-ready. Other appalling aspects of the proposed Pitztal-Oetztal scheme included the ‘remodelling’ of a mountain summit, in other words to cut it to size, as well as the levelling and removing of ice on permanent ice fields.
The one ironic theme of the proposal that stood out to me was the Oetztal, specifically the area above Soelden, does not need this connection. Representing a huge expanse of high alpine territory, there are already numerous lifts of all descriptions and varied skiing terrain attached to what is a very sophisticated operation. It would seem that those behind the Oetztal side of operations just want(ed) a few euros more but in reality, they don’t need it. In my experience of the restlessness in the Alps attached to never being happy with what you’ve got, it would seem that being content with an already excessive amount of permanently changed landscape pockmarked with man-made features is rarely sufficient. Far from bleating on about livelihoods depending on an alpine world forever changing at the hands of man, there are many people and families within the Tirol who are sitting extremely well financially because of decisions made that have negatively altered the landscape in perpetuity.
It is a truism that Austria is synonymous with the winter-sports industry but as winters become milder and snow days less frequent, diversification is the only way to mitigate against meteorological changes that are out of man’s control but who has actually brought about such events. Winter hiking does not have the glamour and panache attached to it that skiing does, but to keep the tills ringing all year around it is just one such example that needs to be pursued as an alternative revenue stream. It should be remembered that snow cannons are useless if temperatures are insufficiently low to produce artificial snow…
A lack of snow at lower-level resorts will though trigger two environmentally damaging options currently available to those within the industry. Firstly, to keep winter sports’ afficionados visiting the likes of Alpbach, the Glemmtal, and Kitzbuehel more and more water will be needed to feed snow cannons pumping out artificial precipitation. As water becomes scarcer due to drier and hotter summers in Europe’s alpine regions, allocating such a finite resource for commercial use cannot be justified. The mountain landscape cannot just become a patchwork quilt of cableways, pylons, and tunnels blasted through the rock but must also be a welcoming but viable landscape for farmers to keep their livestock. It is far preferable to have sheep and cows on alpine slopes than at valley level where they may be permanently couped up, and also allows food miles from field to plate to be the bare minimum.
The second aspect of diminishing snow levels at lower altitudes is that it will simply chase skiers higher up to glacial areas that are equipped for winter sports. I have never agreed with skiing on permanent ice fields, but it might only be at these heights where winter sports will eventually be possible. How soon ‘eventually’ will be is subjective, but the higher the terrain is the more access roads and alien edifices will be needed amid otherwise pristine landscapes. This though cannot simply be reason enough to justify the likes of a Pitztal-Oetztal connection, even if in theory lower resorts were remediated to dial back landscapes to a time before forests and pastures were lost in the name of commercial gain.
There is not a single, magic solution as to how Austria but also France, Switzerland, and Italy should approach Climate Change from a winter sports’ perspective. There will be the financially driven who just so happen to be climate sceptics that wish to pursue an aggressive line of expansion as well as modernisation of what is already in situ, whilst others will wish to see a permanent moratorium on any future projects and even push for an outright ban on activities reliant upon snow, artificial or otherwise. Neither polar opposite approach is realistic, but where the middle ground exists especially when nature will ultimately have the final say is almost impossible to discern.
As resorts slowly unwind from the now retreating tentacles of Covid they now must seek a unified, not unilateral, approach to identifying an approach fruitful for those involved within the industry, and the natural world on which it relies. Higher energy prices will also have a huge bearing on future operations, especially for resorts coming to the end of long-term deals which will be dwarfed by new tariffs. This will impact on lift operation schedules, how many users can be accommodated at any one time and per hour, and the speed in which they are conveyed. I wonder – will this impact upon lift passes which the likes of the Oetztal, Glemmtal, and the Wildschoenau offer free to overnight guests in the summertime?
Solar and hydroelectric power offer two energy solutions within the Alps, but neither are without controversy. If a lift company can harness the sun as a hybridised approach to powering its operations, that can only be a positive. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single meteorological scenario that can be relied upon in the Alps, but the alternative of positioning large solar farms at valley level or at altitude would be a large aesthetic mistake. Equally, whilst melt water sadly emanating from retreating glaciers could be exploited to generate power, to do so involves the building of infrastructure at odds with the alpine environment and can involve the diverting of water from natural watercourses. There is also the moral dichotomy of generating power from water that has been extricated from ancient glaciers because of man-made Climate Change.
How Europe’s high Alps approach their future must be deliberated on a collective basis, with the European Union at the forefront of discussions. The party for some is surely over but it need not be for the majority if they are willing to look again how money can be made in the mountains through sustainable practices. This is not a time for lip service or to look the other way, but for firm action to secure wonderful landscapes and its precious wildlife for future generations.
Further information and source material: