Feeling the heat
Editor’s note: Vail Trail correspondent Bob Berwyn spent 10 days ski touring and mountaineering in the Tirolean Alps in late May, and also devoted some time to exploring environmental, social and economic issues that parallel some of the challenges facing our local resort communities. Part two of this three-part series takes a look at some of the issues surrounding ski area expansions in Austria.Climate change is driving many of the challenges faced by environmentalists in Austria’s Tirol, an alpine region laced with more than 1,200 ski lifts. By some measures, Tirol is one of the most intensively developed mountain areas anywhere, especially with tourism-related facilities.As scientists track rapidly receding glaciers and warn of shorter ski seasons and higher snow lines, the pressure to develop high-altitude glaciers for skiing has grown, according to Josef Essl, an environmental expert with the Austrian Alpine Club. That growth threatens to “inhale” some favored backcountry terrain, he adds.One of the at-risk areas from the perspective of backcountry access are the glaciers I’ve come to explore, the massive icecap encircling the Wildspitze.The glacier ski area here faced considerable opposition when it was first proposed in the 1970s, when mountaineers and other residents rallied to try and preserve the area as an undeveloped high-mountain sanctuary.Now, plans to develop additional terrain in the area are again drawing fire. Ski area operators want to build new lifts on as-yet undeveloped lobes of the glacier and blast a return trail back to the valley floor, as well as create a lift-served link with the adjacent Oetztal.But those projects would change the backcountry character of the approach to the Wildspitze from the Braunschweiger Hut, a traditional staging area for tours in the region.In an adjacent valley, the Kaunertal, a similar battle is looming over an expansion on to the Gepatschferner. But not everyone thinks the expansions are bad. After touring to the Wildspitze and skiing a couple of high alpine lines, I thread my way back between crevasses to the ski area’s summit restaurant, where Barbara Gastl is pouring cold drafts.Along with her boss, Reinhold Schuetz, Gastl says the intense competition among ski areas means the Pitztal must keep pace with its neighbors.”It’s eat or be eaten. That’s how it is in nature. Everybody survives,” Gastl says.According to restaurant manager Schuetz, criticism of the ski area and the current expansion was centered on few local hotel owners.”They said let’s save the valley for our children. They didn’t like the fact that outside investors financed the development,” he says. Other than that, the opposition came from outside environmental groups who aren’t dependent on the tourism the ski area brings.Schuetz has other concerns. He recognizes that the glaciers are melting quickly, but claims the ski area operators may be slowing the process by grooming and compacting the snow cover, making it more reflective and dense.And he complains about jets flying overhead that may be spraying a fine mist of jet fuel onto the ice as they prepare to land at one of the many nearby airports.Schuetz also compared his valley favorably with the Mediterranean resort island of Mallorca, which he says is marred by “unhealthy” tourism.The comparison may be somewhat ironic, since the Pitztal, from all appearances, seems to be headed down the very same path of intensively developed, industrial-strength tourism practiced in many of the world’s economic sacrifice zones.Essl charges that the Tirolean government caved under pressure from economic interests and recently weakened an environmental law that was originally passed to protect glacial reaches.”We advertise that we protect our glaciers, but the political reality is different,” Essl says.In one case, a well-documented fight over a ski lift connection in the vicinity of the Krimml ski field, the mayor of a local town influenced the pro-expansion decision. But along with his civic duties, the mayor is also the major shareholder in the corporation that runs the local ski lifts.According to Essl, as many as 80 percent of local residents oppose additional glacier ski area developments, a figure he says is supported by repeated surveys. But instead of listening, the region’s leaders are practicing politics as usual, he says.Fear of economic and political reprisals has silenced some critics, who look to the Alpine Club to represent their interests, But expansion plans have also spawned some grassroots actions, with valley residents blockading roads and backcountry skiers holding placard vigils in threatened areas.”People are calling (the Alpine Club) and asking us to recommend ski areas where there is no snowmaking, and where the villages have retained some of their alpine charm,” Essl says.Resort development is also driven by unrelenting international competition across the Alpine region, and even internationally a byproduct of globalization, Essl says. Some Tirolean ski companies even point to U.S. resorts when they push for more lifts and terrain. The only way to address that pressure is with a trans-national planning system that enables mountain communities in different countries to work within the same framework, Essl says.With little in the way of regional planning, villages in the same valley compete with each other in the short-tem by building new ski resort facilities without considering long-term demand, according to Essl.Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz acknowledges the intense competition, but also notes that the Austrian resort have joined together to finance regional marketing campaigns in the face of global competition.Next week: New alpine treaty sets planning framework.