Whatever happened to green skiing?

Ecological awareness has diminished, reports Stephen Wood

It is alarming how far some American snowboarders take their respect for wilderness areas. An article on "Low-impact back-country boarding" in a recent issue of Snowboarder magazine points out that a serious leave- it-as-you-found-it philosophy involves "no net trash gain" on the mountainside: its checklist of things you should take away with you includes banana skins, rolling papers and "your own waste (ie shit)".

On toilet paper, which the author warns "will hang around for a surprisingly long time in a cold climate", it suggests that the best practices are to "burn it, pack it in a sealable bag or, better yet, use snow as a substitute. After the initial shock it cleans gently and easily with no paper residue". For further reading on the subject the article recommends a book called How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer (published by Ten Speed Press, if you're interested).

It is equally alarming how lightly British skiers now take the effect of winter sports upon the environment. Andrew Holden, a senior lecturer at the University of North London, has been researching the attitude of skiers to their environmental impact at Cairngorm, in Scotland. Standing at the top of the windswept slope with a clipboard, he asked them whether skiing is harmful to the environment. Only 38 per cent of the advanced skiers thought that it was; among the beginners (still with a lot to learn) the figure was 17 per cent.

Holden was even more chilled by the response to the question "If you knew that by skiing you could damage the environment, would you be willing to ski less frequently?" A large majority of the advanced skiers, who betrayed what Holden calls "a hard attitude" throughout the survey, were unwilling: only 18 per cent would be prepared to cut down on their skiing. Among the bewildered beginners, 29 per cent would do so; the intermediates, at 21 per cent, were intermediate.

Five years ago, such a survey would surely have introduced a different response. In the early 1990s, environmental damage was a big issue. This newspaper devoted a whole page, in December 1991, to an apocalyptic vision of what skiing was doing - and could do - to the Alps. The high-pressure group Alp Action, founded the previous year, drew everybody's attention to the ecological effects of artificial snow-making (prolongation of snow cover to the detriment of plant life; heavy use of water and energy resources), piste levelling (removal of topsoil; destruction of vegetation) and off- piste skiing (damage to young trees; disturbance of wildlife habitats). In those days, skiing seemed a shamefully brutal thing to do in the fragile Alpine environment.

Since then, economic recession has largely pushed green issues off the news agenda. Skiers have changed: now only Cairngorm's advanced (ie experienced) skiers remember the environmental concern about skiing, which came as a surprise to beginners.

The skiing industry has changed, too. The poor snows of recent years have led to a huge increase in the number of snow-making cannons in the Alps, a process which Stern magazine referred to as "tourism's armaments race". But poor snow may also have contributed to the decline in the number of skiers, which has limited expansion at most resorts (thus weakening the environmental lobby, which tends to be mobilised by major developments). And the loss of winter income has led resorts to try to develop their summer business, making them more environmentally aware, at least superficially: slopes scarred by skiers don't appeal to summer hill-walkers. (Perversely, Cairngorm has proposed a major development - a funicular railway for which planning permission has been granted, but is now subject to appeal - yet it is the increased traffic of summer visitors which most concerns environmentalists.)

Andrew Holden's research in Cairngorm suggests that skiers (or at least the British ones) now regard mountain resorts less as a natural environment, more as an environment for skiing - a playground. But some resorts still see marketing potential in environmental improvements, notably Les Arcs. Its agenda has partly been thrust upon it, because it borders a national park; and it partly flows both from the resort's policy decision to develop as a better rather than bigger skiing area, and from its need to cater for the cosmetic demands of summer visitors. But the various initiatives at Les Arcs (burying power cables, limiting off-piste skiing to protect the habitats of the endangered black grouse, banning cars from resort areas) are all laudable - and the most recent is strikingly canny.

This year the resort has stripped a piste of its topsoil, taken out all the rocks to smooth the slope, then replaced the topsoil and planted it with hardy Alpine grass. The result will be a slope which is skiable with only 5cm of snow, minimising any need for snow-making; which is less subject to soil erosion; and which looks great for summer visitors.

Back-country snowboarders will be less impressed by Les Arcs' installation of 10 toilets on the slopes. But ski resorts are in the business of responding to customer desires (market research at Les Arcs showed they wanted toilets). So if customers don't want protection of the mountain environment, the resorts have little incentive to provide it. The same is true - probably more so - of tour operators, to whom skiers actually pay their cheques. Which makes all the more laudable the attempt by the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AITO) to increase environmental awareness among its members' customers. Most of its 29 ski tour operators subscribe to (and publish in their brochures) the "Environmental Skier's Code", devised by AITO and Green Flag International to "conserve the natural beauty of the mountains for the future". Three of them - Le Ski, Simply Ski and Ski Peak - are also participating with AITO this season in an EU-funded project to generate increased income for environmental management in the Alps.

The most troubling thing about Andrew Holden's research in Cairngorm is that the new arrivals in the winter sports market - young snowboarders - show less respect for the environment than any other group, even the advanced skiers. It is a pity they have not learned from their American brethren that we shouldn't shit on the mountains.

For information and brochures on the Association of Independent Tour Operators, phone 0181-607 9080.

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