Alpine region forges future |

Alpine region forges future

Bob Berwyn

The view from the Wildspitze, Tirol’s highest peak, encompasses wrinkled glaciers and innumerable toothy peaks, including several summits in Italy and Germany. Indeed, for many years, the alpine spine of Western Europe marked political borders, and even not-so-old-timers can recall the days of showing a passport at some of the ski regions spanning the divide.But in its most recent configuration, much of Europe has adopted an open border policy. Gone are the guard posts and fenced border crossings, replaced by souvenir stands and other signs of the thriving international commerce spawned by the political and economic union.The new order reflects the wider globalization trend that has spread around the world, and has contributed to an unprecedented level of prosperity for some regions that for centuries seemed almost untouched by progress including tiny sleepy alpine villages suddenly staring a ravenous international tourism dragon.A common currency makes things convenient for travelers, to be sure. But with their newfound mobility, disposal income and demand for vacation experiences, Europeans have also triggered an intense development race among alpine resorts in Austria, France, Germany and Italy. Ski areas are building bigger, better, faster and higher lifts, and once-rural valleys are quickly filling with hotels and resorts.&quotIn Austria and France, many of the mountain valleys use ski tourism as their economic engine, period,&quot said Vail Mountain chief Bill Jensen.Though the U.S. in some ways considers itself a high-tech temple, Jensen said he’s nevertheless in awe of the sophisticated trams and gondola systems used to span harsh alpine terrain and provide skiable connections between far-flung towns and resort villages.&quotOur recreational development is more focused,&quot Jensen said, contrasting Colorado’s well-defined resorts with the valley-to-valley concept that in part defines an alpine ski experience.Those same trams, however, represent an unwarranted intrusion into the alpine landscape for Josef Essl, an environmental planner with the Austrian Alpine Club, a group that has its roots in the mountaineering tradition but has also become the leading voice for environmental and cultural preservation in the region.Essl recited a list of recent actions he characterized as egregious assaults on the natural environment, including plans to build lifts across natural areas set aside as preserves.Tackling challenges that are regional or global in nature requires a broad approach, he said, outlining the terms a recently ratified treaty, the &quotAlpine Convention, that establishes a supra-national management framework for the region.The treaty provides common ground for sustainable economic growth, preservation of cultural resources and protection of natural resources, Essl explained. The hope is that, if resort communities across the region all have the same goals in mind when as they plan for the future, they will adopt complementary policies. Along with protecting the few remaining undeveloped areas, the Alpine Club advocates for the development of sustainable tourism, as well as for the preservation of local agricultural and cultural traditions.The alpine treaty is anchored to a growing international recognition of the fragility of mountain ecosystems and their importance as water sources for population centers far away. The United Nations marked 2002 as the International Year of Mountains, and at the UN’s Sustainable Development Summit in Johannesburg last year, the final action plan included a reference to the importance of preserving mountain regions across the planet.As Essl outlined the issues, his remarks seemed to echo a conversation I had with a Colorado-based EPA official who reviews environmental studies for ski areas and other projects across the Rocky Mountain region. Like in Europe, competition among resorts and tourist destinations is spirited, to say the least, here in the U.S.Resorts in Montana and Utah might point to developments at Vail or Summit County as they push for approval of a new lift or, as in the case of Snowbird, a plush new mountaintop lodge. While separated by thousands of miles, the developments all have similar impacts, while officials have little idea what the cumulative effects might be in the long-term.Some environmental groups have called for the U.S. Forest Service to take a comprehensive look at ski and resort development with a programmatic study to answer some of those questions. Local Forest Service officials have countered that such a study would be too broad to address site specific impacts. And the agency already has national policy guidelines in place to guide local jurisdictions.But such a broad-based effort could at least acknowledge that what is happening at resorts in Utah and California is likely to affect future plans at Colorado resorts.There has also been a long-standing push to pass a Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, legislation that could force decision-makers to take such a wide-angle view when considering impacts. If that measure ever is approved, a similar effort could take place in the Southern Rockies.There has even been some nascent discussion of a Mountain Ecosystem Protection Act, perhaps modeled after federal and state laws designed to protect coastal ecosystems. Advocates say such a measure is overdue. It might not be the most flexible tool for local decision-makers, but could spark awareness of the fact that mountain regions across the country face some of the same challenges.

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