How to Kill a Mountain

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.''  Ed Abbey 

This is the second of 2 posts on environmental impacts seen in the mountains of the Pyrenees.  In the first post I looked at some of the most immediate and personal impacts that we make in the mountains.  We know that backpacking is a lower impact way of experiencing countryside, but as discussed before, we still leave a mark unless very careful.  In this post I'll try to consider some of the more structural impacts of tourism, development and increased access.  

Tourism & Access

Roads and Trailheads
A trailhead allows good access to places of 'natural beauty', or backcountry areas.  It is a road end, usually with turning circles, shops, toilet and refreshment facilities.  This is a trailhead near the highest mountain in the Pyrenees, Aneto.  There's a regular bus service in the summer every 10 minutes.

A conservation based argument for trailheads might run as follows - that they prevent further encroachment of roads into undeveloped areas with associated damage to habitat.  What are trailheads accessing?  In Odessa National Park, huge numbers of people are bused in and out for gentle strolls to the waterfalls and back on a highway of a path.  The paths are uniform, well maintained and wide, and walking off path is discouraged.  Whilst this might prevent further damage to local ecosystems, it does mean the experience is sanitised, medicated, cleaned up - as I wrote as the time, the idea of nature rather than nature itself.  Does this matter if nature is conserved?  Well, for starters, I'm not sure it is - buses, shops, toilets and ease of access mean more people, and more people lead to wider paths and a more frequent bus service with more roads...and so it goes on.  

Then again, a trailhead may prevent what we see below - the colossal carpark at Hospital de Benasque.  The Spanish seem to have a different idea of conservation to the French, one which prioritises access.  In this context, trailheads start to look positively rosy. 

The lakes in the Carlit region are another area easily accessed by road, and have become nature's interzone - overwalked, overfished, the wide paths constantly in need of maintenance due to erosion by massive footfall, spoilt by the spoilt.  This image shows the dam, hotels and trailhead for Carlit.

Taking about access is difficult.  The argument runs, that access allows remote communities to survive, and visitors to enjoy remote places.  A relative lack of access means a completely urbanised population cut off from nature and alienated from its animal self and means of future sustenance.

I'd go along with this, but I think its too simplistic.  My own view is that we're selling ourselves and the natural world short.  By road, its all very pretty but its kept at arms length.  Its too easy, too convenient.  Nature is neither, nature has teeth.  It may be an equally natural impulse for humans to subdue nature, to try and make it safer, but I don't want it sugarcoated.  Places with easy access by road and bus service, with viewpoints and little bridges to prevent wet feet, are the Walt Disney cartoons of the outdoors - perfectly acceptable but ultimately bland and tasteless.  They present us with a sanitised notion of nature and one that insulates us from a full (and sometimes uncomfortable) experience, in turn making further development, pollution and environmental degradation a certain reality.  We need the friction provided by difficult travel, in order to grow as travelers.

We also know that with transport infrastructure, supply feeds demand.  We know this because we have been finding it out all over Europe at least, since the invention of the car.  Build it, and we will come - its a monster that's never fed.  Even trailheads, seeking to control access, may end up compounding the issue by embedding a service which ends up feeding demand and stimulates growth in unsustainable tourism.  This happens not because people from remote villages need to eat and work, but because people from cities like to look at scenery and like to do so in 'style'.  In a tin box, with the windows up and the air con on.  Eye candy.
I don't know what the answer is, but I know it isn't unfettered access.  We can't keep building, or there won't be anything left to visit and get all misty eyed over.  Besides, the access 'rights' of human beings aren't the only thing at stake.


Ski Resorts  are big business and cause massive clearances, road building and widespread destruction of mountain habitat.  Its also the choice of holiday of a privileged few.  This photo shows what it does to upland areas in the eastern Pyrenees - mining for money.

I realise I'm probably in a minority here, but the effects are just massive.  I'm not talking about the noble art of telemark, or ski touring, self sufficient and low impact and highly skilled.  I'm talking about hotels, restaurants and nightclubs, shops and car parks on the sides and tops of mountains.   I'm also less concerned with 'visual impact' and more concerned with habitat.  There's no room for wildlife here, all of the top line predators - bears, wolves and lynx are extinct from the Pyrenees and there's little possibility of re-wilding because there are no corridors available - so much of the space is filled by resorts and associated infrastructure.  Nothing wrong with skiing, plenty wrong with resorts.  Here's a (hazy) shot of a development in Andorra - how much of the money made from these places even stays in the local economy?

I spoke with 2 French guys qualified to know about the development of skiing in the Pyrenees over the last 50 years.  One worked for CIRED and the other was a refuge guardian and ski patrol worker in the Valle d'Aspe.  Both were adamant that money was the driving force, and that much of the Pyrenees was impoverished as a result, both the people and the fauna.  France is often mocked for its protectionism, but both pointed to the area around Lescun as a good example of resilience in the face of development.  The Valle d'Aspe was almost the sole area along the range that refused the advances of ski resort development in the 60's, arguing that the local economy and therefore culture would be destroyed.  As a result its one of the few areas that still produces its own sheep's cheese (Brebis, food of kings) and still has native shepherds, and a strong, vital cultural history that now attracts tourists.  It was one of the areas trialled for the reintroduction of bears a few years ago.  Elsewhere, shepherds were bought out, heritage demolished and hotels erected.  Places like the Valle d'Aran lost it in the 60s...about which more below.

Vacation homes and other development
Much in evidence across the central Pyrenees, but especially in Andorra, which has fallen on hard times since losing it status as duty free capital of mainland Europe in the 90's.  High up on the tops, Andorra is wild camp heaven, but down in the valleys urban sprawl threatens in the form of second homes for Russian oligarchs and rich Spanish entrepreneurs.  In El Serrat, the highly surreal site of holiday homes at 1700ms surrounded by gardens of AstroTurf only confirmed to me that we are daily becoming more insulated from the realities of nature in all its glory:

AstroTurf.  Development and gentrification was also much in evidence around Salardu in the Valle d'Aran.  Where once this Valley contained its own multi dialect language and a rich culture, evidenced by many unique and ancient Romanesque churches, the opening of the Vielha tunnel put paid to its relative isolation and the developers moved in.  Now its full of second homes, golf courses and ski resorts.  The development continues to this day:

Here's a shot of the Hospital de Vielha which we passed a day or so earlier.  Important to note that these 'hospitals' were medieval places for tradespeople and pilgrims to rest, wayfarers inns, places of refuge.  Now this is just a motorway between France and Spain, the little refuge here closed for most of the year - People pass through, local economies die.  I guess roads aren't working out so well here, then.

Last, but definitely not least, worth of mention are the many border towns that I walked through.  Places like Parzan, Perthus, Hospitalet pres d'Andorre, and Col d'ibardin (shown below) are consumer vacuums or places of transportation only, where locals and tourists alike load up their cars on booze, fuel and perfume, taking advantage of the slightly cheaper sales tax on the Spanish side.  Sometimes, like the example below, these places are completely artificial and only exist as shopping centres, other times, the border/tax equation has ripped the heart out of a thriving community.  Once again, international politics and capital dictate, local culture and the environment pay the price.  Every time.

Signage and interpretation  is obviously essential, in case one forgets where one is:

But seriously, information is power and power is wielded over nature by information.  There's a fierce debate over interpretation in art galleries and museums as it can dictate one's level of engagement or understanding.  Signage outdoors could be considered as equally controversial, as illustrated by the recent debate over the No.4 gully marker on Ben Nevis.  Signs confer ownership and denote importance as well as inform (or not).  I'm glad to see that others found the sign above as absurd as we did, judging by the number of stones thrown at it. 

The French and Spanish approaches are very different.  Below, the Spanish interpretation boards around Parzan, an ancient mining area still being dug up for its extensive water resource:

Large and obtrusive signs describe the human influence in this part of the world - the mining history, the economics, and so on.  Once again, the mountains are illustrated only in as much as they have instrumental value, their use for human exploitation.

Perhaps the most bizarre was a whole board describing where all the other boards were, which is what philosophers call a tautology and made me cross eyed.  There's an extract shown above.

In contrast, on the French side around Portillon, things are handled with a little more tact.  Single posts, which are weather worthy and double as trail markers in snow, which contain both local, natural and even mountaineering history.  Here, the mountains have both instrumental and inherent value - notice is given, quite literally, to ecology and natural systems as well as human, and the area has value in and of itself - its not to be exploited but it is to be enjoyed by all its inhabitants and visitors.

Am I being picky here?  Maybe, but I think these signs are important, because their purpose is education.  People look to them to instruct, inform and sometimes to navigate, so the emphasis they place and how they sit in the landscape is really significant. 

Lastly, then, to the types of development that are older than tourism.

Farming  has taken as severe a toll in these hills as in the uplands of the UK.  Land is cleared and soil is eroded.  Muir called sheep 'hooved locusts' and I'm inclined to agree.  Here you can see the damage caused to a hillside near Pic d'Orhy in the Basque, by overgrazing. 

There's nothing wrong with sheep or cattle farming, per se, but where, when and how much are the critical questions.  At the moment a balanced ecosystem is absent in many mountain regions of Europe - certainly there is a monoculture of grazing animals right across the high Pyrenees.  In parts of France where wolves have been re-introduced, shepherds are suffering heavy losses to their flocks due to over predation.  Wolves will choose easy pickings in an environment that is bereft of other prey due to a decline in habitat brought about through farming and over development over generations.  What else would you feed on, if the hill looked like the one above, cleared of all foliage that would provide home to other species and food sources?  I met a shepherd working in one of the affected areas who had returned home to the Eastern seaboard - the region had lost 300 sheep to wolves that summer, and he was crestfallen.

Supper's ready...

The same situation applies in the Pyrenees with regards to the much mooted Slovenian bear reintroduction program:  twice tried, and twice failed, most shot by farmers.  Its hard to blame the farmers in isolation, its their livelihood at stake, although they are compensated for flock kills by predators throughout France.  There are rumours of the odd bear still lurking in the foothills, but its probably wishful thinking.  These tangled webs show its difficult to parachute a rewilding program in, out of context of entire ecosystem management, and especially in areas of high population/industrial density, because its a direct challenge to our current dominance.  Hard to do at all, let alone do well and without conflicts of interest - where does one start?  I wonder if we shouldn't eat less lamb and beef and more rabbit and marmots, address the supply chain and deal with introduced species?  Incidentally, the symbol of the French National Park system is, um... a bear. 

Energy:  By far the chief resource extraction in any mountain range is energy, be it mining of rock, mineral, but mostly, water.  Its our most precious resource and mountains are full of it.  Mountains are the home of watersheds and controllers of climate on a global scale.  We extract water in vast quantities and the Pyrenees is no exception.  Below, the tapping of mountains at Refuge de la Soula:

and at Hospitalet pres d'Andorre, a transport hub and power station on the border.

In most cases, the water is used to generate electricity.  Cheap and clean?  Its cheaper and cleaner than coal, oil or nuclear, that much is certain.  But what happens to the water table, the river habitats and the plants and animals that depend on them?  In common with the UK, many of the lakes in the Pyrenees are also dammed.  We really have it covered, if you'll pardon the pun.  Dams mean drowned valleys and the destruction of more habitat.  Water exploitation is severe and has changed the landscape dramatically.

The story of any conservation movement is the story of resource exploitation and a story of attrition: enclosures, clearances, overgrazing, forced planting, hydro electricity, nuclear, wind.  Its easy to point the finger, and naive to suggest we can't do without at least some of this energy.  But the elephant in the room is how much we use, and the fact that there is almost no concession to the environmental damage caused by such intrusions.  An increasingly small monopoly of companies are quite literally making a killing.  Nature labours, and our markets and institutions exploit, and that means ultimately we are paying...why, so a shareholder can buy a second (or third, or fourth) home?  Possibly in Andorra, surrounded by astroturf, on concrete foundations laid over small, local and culturally diverse communities.  To what end, gluttony or happiness?

Whats left?  
I may have painted an overly bleak picture of the Pyrenees.  It is a stunningly beautiful place still, you should go there, travel lightly and quietly, by foot.  In many places there were examples of nature resisting our worst attempts at destruction.  A few days before Hospitalet pres d'Andorre and a depressing resupply, camped in the S bend of a motorway, I walked into a verdant valley full of crickets and butterflies, bees and wild flowers, so busy it was difficult not to tread on the insects filling the path.  They were everywhere.  It was a chattery, joyful paradise.  Just by the dam shown above, the railway line that helped engineers build the dam was slowly being reclaimed by the forest, the iron railings rusting and contorted, the sleepers rotting away to nothing.  High above Lescun, the Isards played off trail in large groups, highly adapted with powerful front legs, covering ground that would take a walker 15minutes in a matter of seconds.  I pushed on through alpine pasture without water and a little lost, my way carpeted in wild flowers.  There is stone that imitates wood when wet and flowers that grow on stone without soil.  There is talus, rubble the size of buses and cars that stretches out for half a days walk, reminders of an endlessly changing geology.  Bullet hard granite smoothed by glaciation over unimaginable timescales, surreal limestone dreamworlds, milky white quartzite crests and waves, the solid in motion, frozen, incomprehensible and bewitching.  There are salamanders, snakes and frogs, and black carpenter bees and rare jersey moths.  Buzzards, eagles, kites and vultures fly patrol.  The water is plentiful, mostly, and clean, nearly always.  The weather is wild and changeable.  There is peace and there is quiet, and there is adventure and humility.

It really is special and the French National Parks system, in particular, is trying to learn from past mistakes and keep it that way.   I had the sense they 'get' conservation in a way that many of the parks on the Spanish side did not - the natural world has an inherent value, regardless of how humans exploit it for themselves.  We do not just hold this in trust 'for future generations' to enjoy, we hold it in trust because it is unique, magnificent, intricate, dazzling, and full of wonder.  I think its worth looking after even if I could never visit again.  Its way beyond us, hugely reductive to see it merely as a tourist or energy resource.
But the encroachments of humans are serious and long term, and things I saw on the HRP are mirrored elsewhere too.  Humans are rapidly and systematically reducing the number of flora and fauna on the planet, we have reversed evolution, the drive to diversify, and have installed monoculture and inbreeds everywhere with horrific results.  It's genocide on a massive scale, largely through habitat destruction, and driven through development.  We are not, as I've mistakenly written in the past, the keystone species, we are much more like parasites - consume all, move on. 

Closer to home, people have said to me, ''motorway laybys, wildest places in Britain, Dave'' with an air of patronising smugness, as if they talk to a romantic Essentialist or a Luddite who wants to deliver them back to feudal times.  Clearly they haven't read the manual.  And this, to quote a friend, sees us "damned by faint praise''.  Is that the sum of our ambition, are motorway laybys the best we can do?  Is that now the wildest it gets?

So, how should responsible, conscious parasites act?  We need to legislate to protect whats left of our wild land, and we need to do it now.  Without full legal protection for places we agree to keep free of development and resource exploitation, there can be no freedom or equality - for animals or for people.  These places are sometimes called 'wild', and we need more of them not less, so we should be attempting to reverse engineer our more recent excesses and reclaim spaces for nature, before we lose them forever, and ourselves into the bargain.  There's alot at stake, and nobody else in charge.  We are the only stewards, and its our coffin too.