Remodeling The Slopes

The French Alps offered a holiday weekend from hell just days before Christmas. For 24 miserable hours, cars backed up--and piled up--in sclerotic masses clogging the narrow mountain valleys. Trains, too, failed to move. Avalanches thundered, killing one person and injuring more than a dozen others and seriously damaging a small hotel at Val d'Isere. Thousands of hapless merrymakers were forced to sleep on cots far from their pricey, unreachable rooms at some of the Alps' most famous ski resorts.

The source of the problem-a heavy snowfall-could not have been more predictable. The implications of the preChristmas chaos could hardly be more serious: these same jammed roads and rumbling mountainsides around Albertville in Savoy will be the site of the 1992 Winter Olympics, due to start Feb. 8. If regional officials aren't better prepared by then, declared Andre Baudin, mayor of nearby Tignes, "I strongly advise them to postpone the sporting events until July."

Although snow shouldn't come as a surprise in the Alps, it caught many French unprepared, not least those stranded in their cars. For a handful of environmental activists, however, the prospect of calamity was no shock. For years they have warned that Savoy is saturated with ill-conceived ski resorts that threaten the Alps' delicate balance of man and mountain.

With a permanent population of only 340,000, Savoy has built accommodations for another 340,000 visitors over the last few decades. Mountain villages where only a few hundred people live year-round may see their numbers swell twentyfold during the winter season. For the Olympics 1,500 athletes, 7,000 journalists and a million spectators are expected.

The environmental impact of such an influx is sometimes obvious, sometimes insidious. Traffic jams crowd mountain roads. Sewer systems overflow into streams. Beneath the winter snows there is bare rock where once trees and grass held topsoil in place. As one environmentalist puts it, "The ski runs used to follow the contours of the land. Now they remodel the mountain." Under pressure to increase the number of runs, developers have extended them into areas threatened by avalanches, building new barriers on the mountainsides to fend off slides and installing explosive devices for preemptive strikes on accumulating snow. "If you ski in a forest, over the long term, you condemn the forest," says Rene Pinck, a high-school shop teacher from near the resort of Meribel. "For 18 years I've lived here, and for 18 years the building has never stopped."

When the winter-sports boom started to wane in the 1980s, ecologists hoped the mountains might have a respite. Then, with heavy lobbying from former ski star JeanClaude Killy and French National Assembly member Michel Barnier, Albertville won the Winter Olympics. A new boom was predicted, and new construction began. But, as Barnier concedes, "the problems were a lot greater than we anticipated."

"The problem is not the facilities themselves, but everything that is done around them," says Monique Gautier, a biology professor and environmentalist in Chambery. She cites a new resort being rushed to completion on what was once a scenic little road between Meribel and Courchevel. Nearby, 12 acres of forest have been felled and the mountain face amended with vast parking lots to accommodate the Olympic ski jump and expected crowds.

For new hotels and facilities to be profitable, more tourists will be needed over a longer season. To keep the slopes ski-worthy, batteries of snow-making cannons have multiplied on the mountainsides, with little or no study of their environmental impact. Golf courses built for the summer crowds require pesticides and herbicides. And pressure is growing to allow more glacier skiing in the region's protected national parks. "They build the hotels for the Olympic Games," says Gautier, "and then to keep them filled, they propose summer skiing."

Olympic promoters Killy and Barnier argue that every possible step has been taken to minimize ecological damage, and the money invested in infrastructure will net long-term environmental benefits. For the Games, 24-hour road-clearing operations and 1,000 police will be in place to avoid the kind of bottlenecks that tied up the region before Christmas. Even the Games' harshest critics concede that roads and water-treatment facilities have been improved dramatically.

"Savoy as an ecosystem is very fragile," Barnier is quick to say. But until well into this century, he notes, Savoy as an economy was also very poor. Farmers, whose dairy cattle are an integral part of traditional Alpine ecology, were deserting the land. Now income from the seasonal employment on the ski slopes allows many locals to stay. "These resorts, objectively speaking, have saved the region," says Barnier. But some of the installations required for the Games are such potential white elephants-financially as well as ecologically-that even Barnier finds them difficult to defend. The most conspicuous symbol of excess is what Pinck calls "that great snake of concrete," the bobsled run at La Plagne. Built on unstable ground in an avalanche zone (one killed a man before Christmas), it is cooled with 45 tons of volatile ammonia. The final cost-$42 million-is three times the original estimate.

Yet for all this, most Savoyards seem happy the Olympics are coming. "They're proud," Gautier concedes. Activists look on more with despair than anger. Pinck, who lives just minutes from the ice-hockey stadium and the ski jump, says he doesn't plan to attend any of the events. "I hope to go to India," he says, "for a little birdwatching."