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For glaciers without a circus

Kaspar Schuler is the Co-Managing Director at CIPRA International. (c) CIPRA International

The largest glacier ski resort in the Alps is to be built in Tyrol, Austria - on already melting glaciers. The planned connection of the ski areas in Pitztal and Ötztal goes against all reason, says Kaspar Schuler, Co-Manager of CIPRA International.

The drama began in 2009, when Hans Rubatscher, king of the gondola's and regional property owner from Pitztal in Austria, convinced his business rival Jack Falkner, similarly, emperor of the gondola's from Sölden in neighbouring Ötztal, to collaborate. Since then, they have been planning to merge their two gondola empires on a huge, undeveloped glacier.

The mountain near the Wildspitze, the second highest peak in Austria, is to be unrestrainedly constructed upon. With five cable car sections, a blasted ridge including a ski tunnel, snowmaking facilities, levelling and excavation dumps. This will create 64 hectares of new slopes, even under terrain, which is highly susceptible to avalanches. This will create one of the largest glacier ski resorts in the Alpine region.

Indisputably thoroughly planned, the "very sensitive original" landscape would be "massively irreversibly" destroyed, according to the environmental impact assessment. The project requires 132 million euros in investments and disregards the Alpine Convention in general as well as the articles of its protocols on tourism, landscape protection and transport.

Why the madness? The two tourism regions want it that way - so far, the devil is in the balance.

The municipalities and the regional parliament are standing firm. In the past, this would have been enough for a clear official decision. But since 2014, Austria has also had a two-tiered jurisdiction, which is truly independent of politics. Up to now, planners have not cared much about this. however, the environmentalists were up in arms and 157,000 petition signatures were collected. As the Tiroler Tageszeitung, an Austrian newspaper from Tirol found out in January, 70 percent of the people questioned were against it.

It is still very quiet up there. Other rulers are enthroned in the mountain wasteland: the great Mittelbergferner, Karles- and Hangender Ferner. Glaciers that once grew for an eternity are now disappearing in the summer, melting rapidly year after year. In 30 years, it is possible the glacier could disappear within the area they plan to construct upon. They will turn a glacier filled with tender life into a pond. This is where the "centre" is projected to be built, a three-storey hub of the new ski area and also including a reservoir.

On the 16th of January 2020 it was announced that the first instance hearing on environmental compatibility would be postponed indefinitely. The President of Pitztal and Ötztal got cold feet after all and applied for the proceedings to be suspended shortly before the end of the hearing. They want to conduct "further necessary surveys on site - even when there is no snow". Does this show insight or do they just want to reshape their plans? According to the Tyrolean state government, the project is to be revised. The most ludicrous damage could be done to Austria's tourism industry by its own tourism industry, to break the Alpine Convention, which may have been recognised. The topic has not yet melted off the table.

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