In Saint-Firmin, in the Hautes-Alpes, the small ski lift built in 1963 has been dismantled. With climate change, snow, once abundant, has become rare. In addition, the tastes of skiers as well as standards have evolved.
At the signal, the volunteers pull hard on the rope and the first pylon comes down to cheers: in a few hours, the Saint-Firmin ski lift (Hautes-Alpes), abandoned to rust for fifteen years, will have completely disappeared.
One by one, the eight pillars fixed on a mountainside at the gates of the magnificent Valgaudemar valley (Écrins massif) are unbolted with a thermal grinder and fall heavily into the grassy slope. They are cut up and then evacuated by the services of the town hall. In total, approximately eight tons of steel will be recovered by a local scrap dealer.
“Global warming has happened, and that’s what has changed our vision of this site,” Didier Beauzon, 63, a longtime resident of Saint Firmin and elected to serve in the village, told CNN. “Well, we had to give it back to nature,” he added.
Clean up mountain sites
The ski site was originally built in 1964 to help village children learn to ski somewhere close to home before tackling more challenging runs all around the Alps. On this almost tropical day in October, it is obvious that the small ski lift built in 1963 had no hope of recovery: the snow, once abundant, has become scarce there due to the southern exposure and the low altitude (1,550 meters at the highest). And the tastes of skiers and standards have also evolved.
According to its census, at least 3,000 installations rust peacefully in the French mountains, including more than a hundred ski lifts sometimes literally forgotten.
There is also countless military, industrial, forestry and agricultural waste (skidding cables, avalanche barriers, old fences). Some are dangerous, like World War II barbed wire that injures wild ungulates and grazing sheep.
Taking it all apart would be a daunting task. “We know very well that we will not be able to remove this by ourselves”, explains Carmen Grasmick. Above all, the sites have symbolic and educational value, including with decision-makers, she underlines. Global warming and soaring energy prices should “further accelerate the movement”, she hopes.
Restore natural space
The French branch of Mountain Wilderness, a non-governmental organization (NGO) born in 1987 in Italy and which has since extended its activities to ten countries in Europe and Asia, has already moved the lines. In 2016, it obtained the vote for an amendment to the Mountain 2 law, making it mandatory to dismantle disused ski lifts.
The ambitious objective is now to make this provision retroactive and to extend it to all types of waste. “Mountain Wilderness is not an association of mountain garbage collectors whose role is to walk behind everyone with a garbage bag to pick up. Everyone is responsible”, argues Nicolas Masson, administrator of the association. Restoring the natural space after use “is the ba-ba of sustainable development but unfortunately, sometimes it does not go without saying”, he notes.
Currently, 62% of the French population is exposed to “significant” or “very significant” climate risks, according to data from the French Ministry of the Environment.
France could also face a much tougher future as temperatures are set to rise by 3.8°C by 2100, and even 6.7°C in the worst-case scenario, according to a study published by researchers from the French national meteorological service Météo France in October.
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