Ski resorts unite to save the planet?

Last weekend conferences at two French ski resorts looked into the future. Courchevel hosted the International Conference for Durable Development and Avoriaz, Wintersports resorts for a better world. The Avoriaz conference was attended by none other than Betony Garner of the Ski Club of Great Britain. According to the blurb faced with climate change, increasing travel and the need to protect biodiversity and a sustainable management of energy and water, winter sports areas are starting to act to manage the environmental impact of ski resorts and to design the ecological station of the future.

snow canon

Is it just so much hot air? The record of French ski resorts is a very mixed bag, frequently concentrating on big gestures while further colonising the mountains. One commentator has even said that downhill skiing is like Crack for resorts; they are unable to kick their addiction while knowing that the consequences will eventually kill them. Like addicts they can resort to extreme measures to get their fix. Last week the Austrian town of Kitzbühel used a fleet dumper trucks and helicopters to bring snow to cover bare patches on the Hahenkamm race course. Moving over 3,000 m3 of snow all of which melted before the event could be held. La Clusaz was photographed using a helicopter to drop snow on the Dahu run on the 22nd of December. Damn those pesky kids!

The good winters over the last five years seem only to have fuelled this addiction for white gold with a vast development programme at increasingly higher altitudes - Arc 1950, Flaine Montsoleil, Porte des Neiges in the Pyrenees and an estimated 50,000 new beds in the Maurienne encouraged by rural development tax breaks.

The property development leads to pressure to expand domains into virgin territory. Porte de Neiges is intended to eventually link Andorra with Porte Puymorens through a previously untouched valley, home to some rare species of plants and wildlife. The Val-Cenis to Termignon link will extend the lift served skiing to the ecologically sensitive Cléry valley. There are at least a dozen other projects including l’Espace Diamant, Mijanès, Areches-Beaufort (la Batie), la Ratelle…

The fashion for linking of ski domains, encouraged by Tour Operator’s marketing requirements for a minimum of 100km of ski runs, is problematic for wildlife. Ski pistes and man made snow affects the normal life cycle of plants. The noise of snow cannons (frequently running at night due to high daytime temperatures), skiers, lifts and piste preparation leads to high and consant noise levels which can disturb animals during the harsh winter months. Linked resorts leave little room for wildlife to migrate around the mountains undisturbed.

Snow making is a particular bete noire of ecologists. Originally aimed at assuring skiing at the bottom of runs or on certain exposed sections resorts are slowly but steadily equipping large areas of their ski domains. Recently the Pyrenean based la Depeche newspaper described man made snow as “ecological” because it used fresh water and the power to make the snow came from the area’s hydroelectric plants. However the same electricity could supply local homes and factories offsetting their carbon footprint.

Moving snow by helicopter at la Clusaz -

In 2005, 191 French ski resorts were equipped with snow making with a total of 4300 hectares covered, about 18% of the total skiing. 55% of the water used comes from reservoirs, another 30% from rivers and 15% from the mains water supply! Projects are getting more ambitious. There are currently 20 plans for reservoirs in the Northern French Alps. Advocates of snow making say that, apart from evaporation, the water is recycled but this ignores the fact that water stored and extracted in the mountains is not available for other use in the valleys. For example homes in St Gervais below Mont-Blanc were affected by water shortages last winter. To cover one hectare of ski run requires 4000m3 of water and 25,000 kWh of electricity. In many resorts snow making is now a bigger energy consumer than ski lifts.

There is currently no specific legislation in France governing artificial snow and additives. Ecologists were furious when resorts began producing snow early in November, most of which subsequently melted in the warm conditions. Resorts argue that artificial snow helped save their important Christmas holiday period.

More obvious is the terraforming that takes place to ensure that skiers can practise their sport on less and less snow. Dynamiting inconvenient terrain features and grading pistes with gravel is practised by most high altitude resorts in France but the most extreme example in recent years is at Compagnie des Alpes runs the ski slopes at Flaine where limestone features that have taken a million years to form have been levelled over the last couple of years. One local politician has criticized the CdA for being completely profit focused without respect for the mountains and its residents.

flaine piste grading
Flaine - home to the motorway piste

Resorts are diversifying out of traditional lift served downhill skiing but often into areas that are equally damaging for the environment. Heliskiing has been banned in France since 1992. Principally because it is felt that the noise impact is too great compared to the number of people who benefit from the practise in the crowded French mountains. Heliski drops are still practised on, and sometimes a little over the border. Some ski resorts think they have found a way round the law. The act (Mountain Law) specifically bans helicopter drops outside of designated airfields. Instead operators offer back country adventures by using the ski lifts to gain altitude then skiing into wild valleyswhere a helicopter waits to pick up the skiers. They argue that this isnnullt a drop but a pick-up so is not covered. One expert in public law we spoke to felt that this argument wouldn’t fly if it came to court. However the authorities have shown little appetite for prosecuting even flagrant abuses, such as the little extras that heli-taxis offer their clients when they hope that no-one is watching.

Other motor sports are also being developed including quad-biking and snowmobiling. Motorized vehicles are banned from using tracks and roads covered in snow but resorts can propose limted circuits. Both Valmorel and le Revard in the Bauges have put in applications for monster circuits.

There are some positive actions. The ski resort of Valloire in the Savoie has become the first to generate electricity from waste water using a micro-powerstation linked to its water treatment plant at the bottom of the valley. The power station will begin generating at the end of January 2007. The idea is already common in Switzerland. It is a small measure, the station can generate 500 kW, enough for 100 apartments and cost 600,000 Euros.

The ski areas of Courchevel, Méribel and Saint-Martin de Belleville have are buying hydropower to run their ski-lifts. We spoke to an EDF (French Electricity Company) manager about this. He was somewhat equivocal that in any event the majority of electricity burned in the Alps and Pyrenees came from hyrdro-electric sources with the majority of French electricity coming from Nuclear which also has a low carbon footprint. More significantly they have introduced low-energy street lighting and fitted solar panels to resort buildings.

Avoriaz, like a number of other resorts, is car free. Val d’Isère intends to go car free for the 2009 World Championships. Professor Martin Beniston, chair of climate research at the University of Geneva thinks that this is little more than a marketing instrument and says that being car-free does not necessarily cut a resort’s contribution to air and noise pollution, since skiers still drive deep into the Alps to reach the car parks outside the villages. There is also an increasing use of private light planes and helicopter to reach resort altiports. Week-end breaks, encourage by cheap low cost flying also increases traffic levels. A study by the Rhone-Alps authorities shows that resorts such as Tignes and Chamonix can be as polluted as city centers. Tignes’ diesel buses, which are inefficient at high altitude, have also been criticised.

The Savoie department is the home to the majority of France’s biggest ski resorts. It is currently building a four lane highway extension from Moutiers to Bourg St Maurice but admits to not having a policy regarding public transport. There is a rail link to Bourg St Maurice which brings tourists directly from Paris, London and Brussels to the Tarentaise. However the link is hamstrung by the single track and tight curves. Hearing a TGV screech around the mountain bends is painful. There have been proposals to add an extra track and straighten the tightest curves since before the 1992 Olympics but there seems to be little motivation to emphasize this mode of transport.

Consumer power is much vaunted. Last year the Ski Club launched its Respect the Mountain campaign which, apart from manufacturing large numbers of green plastic wristbands, has a Green Resort Guide that classifies resorts by recycling, green power, traffic reduction, sewage management, climate policy and green building policy. In France there wasn’t a single resort that was “green” when judge by the Ski Club’s criteria. Although an aid in helping skiers choose greener resorts a Londoner flying to Falls Creek in Australia which ticks all five boxes may be worse than a train ride to Scotland’s apparent environmental black spot, Glenshee. We also wonder how strictly resorts have been judge. Courchevel has ticked the sewage management box despite the fact that the treatment works at Bozel can’t cope during peak holiday periods and regularly discharges raw sewage into the Doron river. Ste Foy decided to build a new ski lift this season rather than install a treatment works. Pas de la Casa in Andorra has installed a modern treatment works, the only problem is that around half the buildings are not connected and discharge directly into the Ariege river (neither Andorra nor Ste Foy ticked this box for the Ski Club).

French group Mountain Riders also have a 65 page green guide (don’t print it!). Which covers transportation, Recycling, Water, Environment and Power. Covering just French resorts it goes somewhat deeper than the Ski Club’s guide but is less user friendly. If you read French it could be a useful complement to the Ski Club’s guide. For example it tells us that Courchevel is building a new treatment works. That a bus is available from the nearest train station taking 30 minutes and costing 11.50 euros. The Ski Club, some airlines and other organisations also offer carbon offsetting. For example a number of trees can be planted to offset the carbon footprint of your journey. The offset merit of trees lies in their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide, the IPCC estimates carbon offsetting could account for over 10% of fossil fuel emissions. However tree canopies are dark so absorb more sunlight counterbalancing the carbon offset. Reforestation in temperate zones may provide little global cooling compared to equatorial regions. Recent studies have also drawn into question forests abilities to absorb carbon with higher temperatures expected from global warming. The offset market is also largely unregulated. The offsetting doesn’t get around the fact that the carbon dioxide was emitted in the first place and some environmentalists have said it is a scheme for assuaging guilt for those who still want to travel.

Further Information
Final Solution for Flaine

Posted by davidof on Wednesday, 24 January, 2007 at 08:46 PM

This is a superb report, as usual, which gets through the ‘greenwash’ to the real issues.  I compile the Green Resort Guide on a voluntary basis for The Ski Club of Great Britain.  I also run my own site on which is just about climate change (, recently ripped off by Aspen no less ( !).  The saveoursnow site also has the Green Resort Guide but also summaries of various reports on climate change around the world’s mountain areas and news digest etc.  The points you make about the shortcomings of the Green Resort Guide are very valid.  I basically ask the resorts to tick the boxes or not and they are very general categories.  Renewable Energy User could mean anything from fully wind powered to running one electric snowmobile in La Clusaz.  Basically to do it properly you need someone, probably a team of people, going round checking every resort on a set of detailed criteria trying to take in to account the very many, often complex and conflicting issues you have mentioned.  For example are the 3 Vaslley applauded for using green electricity or criticised for running so many lifts/snowguns with that electricity and dragging in millions of people in cars and planes for being so good at what they do.  Aspen is a similar case - their ski company is very puritanical and proactive in its green credentials but its airport has the highest concentration of private jets anywhere and its executives were interviewed in the local rag in December saying they saw the lack of snow in the Alps as a marketing opportunity to bring in more disgruntled skiers on long haul packages from Europe. 

So the Green Resort Guide and other efforts are far from perfect, my thinking in setting it up a few years ago was to “make a start” and at least attempt to compile information on what was being done.  Even two years ago information generally available was very wooly.  There were bland statements that skiers should “Do more to help the environment” but almost zero information on how/why. Things do seem to be improving on that score, resorts and tour operators do seem to be having more serious interest, no doubt the lack of snow this winter focusing minds, whether that really is global warming or not.  If there’s a ten foot dump next December it will be interesting to see if it is still top of the agenda in 07-08. 

It does in the end to a large extent come down to the crack addiction you mention (another one I liked is that ski resorts and the environment have a suicide pact!).  The very bottom line is that if you follow the logic all development in the mountains should end, all skiing trips (apart from carbon neutral) should end.  But even then most of the warming in the Alps is apparently due to their location surrounded by Europe’s cities, so if we want to save the snow all of those cities need to be carbon neutral too.  So in reality, long term, it doesn’t look great whatever we do.  If you accept that conclusion it’s then a case of deciding whether you carry on regardless or whether you try to do green things in the hope you slow it happening, a bit.

Posted by Patrick Thorne on  Thursday, 25 January, 2007  at 10:21 AM

There have been a couple of the Avoriaz events, I didn’t go to either (I did go to the Ski Club of GB’s litter pick in Scottish ski resorts a few months back though and about 100 people turned up at each ski area to do that). 

I believe the first Avoriaz one was quite well attended, the second less so and I’m not sure if there is going to be a third.  Mountain Riders are talking about setting something up themselves this autumn. 

I think there has been a big change in the way ski resorts look at the environment over the past few years, and whilst on the one hand a lot of it is certainly cynical and the publicised actions are ‘greenwash’, there are a lot of people working in the resorts who are passionate about preserving their local environment and/or doing things in a ‘green way.’

The move to ISO 14001 of so many French resorts in the past year is quite impressive as it does force them to think abiout the environment in the very details of day to day operation. 

I contacted 250 ski areas around the world in the Spring to ask them about their current environmental efforts and a lot are doing impressive stuff and have dedicated environmental staff now - very different to a few years ago when I first tried to get info out of them for my green resort guide on

A lot are interested in exchanging ideas so there is a market for these conferences.  The only question is whether its good for the environment to fly everyone in from all over to attend!

Posted by Patrick Thorne on  Wednesday, 16 July, 2008  at 09:57 AM

This is a fine report and North America (once again) needs to catch up. Global warming will impact practically every aspect of life the world over, and our ski destination plans won’t be our biggest worry.

In the meantime, what can we do right now as we plan our ski vacations? I put together as a website for skiers that helps answer this question.

This site highlights the best trends in green practices within ski industry while keeping an eye out for the “greenwash” that is so common. is way for skiers to share ideas on how we might turn our pursuit of skiing into a vote for colder winters and deeper snow.

Posted by  on  Monday, 29 September, 2008  at 10:13 PM
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