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The little resort with big ideas about going green

Skiing plays havoc with the environment, but some Alpine resorts are striving to curb its excesses, says Simon Birch

Any skier will tell you that whizzing down a sparkling alpine piste is one of the best feelings in the world.

But there's a price to pay for that adrenaline rush, because skiing just happens to be one of the most environmentally destructive sports on the planet. Why? Well how about the habitat-trashing ski lifts and their monstrous pylons that stomp across the mountains; not to mention the pine forests that are bulldozed to make the pistes in the first place (did you honestly think that the pine trees decided not to grow in the middle of your favourite red run?). Then there are the energy-guzzling ski resorts themselves that have turned once isolated farming villages into an ever-growing concrete sprawl of over-heated hotels and thumping bars. Suddenly, that alpine idyll is looking less than picture-postcard perfect.

There is, however, good news emerging from this eco-carnage because a growing number of resorts are waking up to their environmental duties and are working hard to reduce the environmental impact of skiing. Like Les Gets, the pocket-sized resort in the massive Portes du Soleil ski region of the French Alps.

"We're working on sustainable development and environmental policies for future generations because the mountains are our most important resource," says Gregory Delachat, the town's deputy mayor. Les Gets embarked on a 10-year sustainable development programme back in 2003 and is now widely acknowledged as one of the most environmentally proactive ski resorts. So what's been achieved so far?

"There's nothing sexy to see, like a line of wind turbines," admits Delachat, who has demonstrated his green credentials by installing a renewable ground-source heating system in his own hotel. "Instead, what we've done is lots of little actions."

These "little actions" include pedestrianising a large portion of Les Gets's village centre, providing free shuttle buses, using only biodegradable oil in its piste-bashers, and reducing the brightness of the street lights to save energy. One of the most impressive projects is that almost all of Les Gets' public buildings, including its police station and church, are now heated with renewable energy provided by a woodchip boiler fuelled by wood sourced from local forests. Plus, as a signal of its commitment to a sustainable future, Les Gets has appointed an environmental manager to co-ordinate all its green policies.

Other resorts which are just leaving the starting blocks in all this include Méribel. "We've always cared about the environment," claims Francois la Chéré, the manager of parks at Méribel, the most popular ski resort in the Alps with Britons. Since it was founded in 1938, Méribel has enforced a strict building code which has saved it from the concrete horror that has blighted other resorts.

Méribel also provides free buses, has extensive recycling and has recently won a national award for the management of waste water from its mountain restaurants and ski stations. However, it is still to adopt an overall environmental management plan and has no one person in place to co-ordinate environmental policies.

The most important thing that a resort can do to reduce its environmental impact is "sort out its transport", says Stewart Sheppard from Mountain Riders, the Grenoble-based green campaign group. Two years ago, he says, Mountain Riders carried out the first carbon audit of a ski resort. It showed that 75 per cent of the greenhouse-gas emissions arose from transporting skiers and boarders to the destination, as well as from servicing the resort with everything from beer to bed linen.

"Climate change is already a reality here in the French Alps, with scientists recording 40 per cent less snow at an altitude of 1,300 metres since 1960," says Sheppard. "If we're going to have snow to ski and board on in the future then it's vital that the ski industry reduces its greenhouse gas emissions, like any other industry."

Mountain Riders is encouraging ski resorts to look at ways to get skiers to travel in by public transport rather than private cars. Both Les Gets and Méribel score high because they are just a short distance from mainline train services. Les Gets is already looking at introducing a discount on lift passes for skiers who arrive by train.

Launched eight years ago, Mountain Riders is made up of French skiers and snowboarders who are passionate about their sport but alarmed at the lack of environmental awareness within the ski industry. The group has grown rapidly and is now helping to set the environmental agenda within the French ski industry.

In a move to get ski resorts to adopt more environmental measures, Mountain Riders now produces an annual guide to the environmental record of 250 ski resorts around the world. Information is provided on more than 40 different environmental issues, ranging from a resort's policy on recycling to climate change. "The aim is to drive up standards by highlighting those resorts that are working hard to protect the environment," says Sheppard.

But even if a resort adopted all 40 recommended measures, can it ever truly be green? Andreas Goetz, from the Lichtenstein-based alpine environmental campaign group Cipra, is unconvinced. "We don't know any green ski resorts. Some are better than others, but in general ski resorts are bad news for the environment."

Sheppard accepts the argument that skiing can never be green. "However, we can help to reduce the impact of skiing," he says. "For example, we can take the train to the Alps rather than flying and turn down the heating in our chalet."

Betony Garner from the Ski Club of Great Britain agrees with Sheppard that skiers must be aware of their environmental responsibilities. "As skiers and boarders, we need to think about how we can lessen our impact on the environment individually, and then think how the resort can ensure that it's sustainable," says Garner, who helped to launch the Ski Club's own environmental campaign, Respect The Mountain.

"We're all passionate about skiing and boarding, so we need to ensure that there will be snow left to ski on and mountains on which we can enjoy our sport."

Compact Facts

How to get there

Simon Birch travelled to the French Alps with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk), which offers returns from London to Cluses (for Les Gets) from £99 for daytime services and £124 overnight in a six-berth couchette. Return train fares from London to Moutiers (for Méribel) start at £99 for day services and £124 for the overnight, again in a six-berth couchette. A week in Les Gets, staying at Chalet Bluebell with Ski Blueridge (00 33 450 75 86 69; skiblueridge.co.uk), costs €399 (£364), fully catered, with free transfer from Cluses station. A week at La Boua chalet in Méribel with Snowline VIP (0844 557 3118; snowlinevip.com) costs from £449 per person.

Further information

Mountain Riders (00 33 954 66 86 83; mountain-riders.org); Ski Club of Great Britain (020-8410 2000; skiclub.co.uk/skiclub/respectthemountain/default.aspx).