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Snowboarders take lessons in ecology

Not alone. Wildlife tracks accompany snowboarders to the summit. WWF Snowdays

The Swiss branch of the WWF is taking an unusual approach to teach young people about the fragility of alpine ecosystems.

This content was published on February 16, 2005 - 10:25

The environmental organisation is encouraging snowboarders to make backcountry tracks while showing them how to safeguard the flora and fauna as well as their lives.

“In my opinion, freeriding [backcountry skiing or snowboarding] has a smaller impact on the environment than snowboarding in ski resorts,” explains Florian Haenggeli of the WWF.

“Especially when you take into account how much energy is required to operate the facilities in a resort, and the other negative consequences for the countryside.”

There has been great demand for the two-day courses Haenggeli runs, which combine backcountry snowboard instruction with an environmental awareness programme.

Each of the five courses in 2004 were sold out, which encouraged the WWF to offer three more this year.

The first took place in early February in the Rosenlaui valley between Grindelwald and Meiringen in the Bernese Oberland.

Like many of the locations chosen by the WWF, Rosenlaui has no ski lifts, making it popular among backcountry skiers and snowboarders.

Threat to wildlife

According to the WWF, skiers and snowboarders often unintentionally infringe on wildlife habitats. This was one of the main reasons why the WWF initiated the unique course.

“We teach them about flora and fauna,” says Haenggeli, who entrusts much of the work to trained mountain guides, who have received additional instruction on wildlife and alpine ecology by the WWF.

The guides lead the course participants slowly up the slopes on snowshoes, taking time to give an introductory lesson on avalanche risk before covering very different ground with a talk on wildlife.

With the sun glistening on the fresh impressions left by the snowshoes, the young people learn about the animal tracks often hidden in the shadows of the tall fir trees.

The snowboarders find evidence of a mountain hare only a few hundred metres from their base camp. “In which direction was it moving?” asks the guide, pointing to the tracks.

“We tell them about the kinds of animals they may encounter and how sensitive they are to human disturbance, and therefore why it’s necessary to avoid their habitats,” says Haenggeli.

While avalanches pose the greatest risk to freeriders, it is the skiers and snowboarders who threaten wildlife.

A chance encounter with an ibex or chamois can send the animal scurrying for cover, forcing it to use 60 times more energy than normal. That can lead to exhaustion, robbing the animal of valuable reserves needed for survival.

“We show them how to read animal tracks left in the snow and to recognise excrement so they realise there’s a lot of wildlife about even if they can’t see it,” Haenggeli adds.

Act responsibly

“Most young people taking this course have heard about the environmental problems facing the Alps through the media, but this is a chance to learn first-hand about alpine ecology, and how they can act responsibly while in the outdoors.”

“It’s important to know how to freeride safely,” says 25-year-old Marcel Jost, one of the older members of the group.

Like many of the participants, Jost has taken advantage of the WWF offer to get a backcountry course at about half the price charged by Swiss snowboard schools.

Yet he says he has been impressed by what he has learned about nature.

“I think it’s good that we’re learning how to act, what to do and what not to do. The course is interesting because we’re getting more out of it than we would in a normal freeriding course,” he says.

“Many people taking the course are from urban areas and they simply aren’t aware of the rich fauna in the mountains,” says guide Peter Gujan.

“I don’t think many teenagers respect nature,” says a visibly impressed Manuele Schaefer. The 17-year-old is on her first backcountry trip.

Rubbish

In the second part of the course, the WWF tries to convert the youth to travel to their backcountry destination by public transport, to reduce the impact on the climate.

The course wraps up with a lesson on rubbish.

“A discarded banana skin can affect the fragile ecological balance as much as a cigarette butt,” the organisation warns.

Now in its third year, the innovative course has received a positive response from the hundreds of participants who have taken it so far.

Nearly half of those surveyed say they now use public transport to travel into the mountains and about 90 per cent said they tried to avoid freeriding through forests out of respect for the flora and fauna.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in the Rosenlaui valley

Key facts

The two-day freeride courses devised by the WWF are led by experienced mountain guides, combining lessons in snowboarding safely and responsibly, with regard to the environment.
The courses are held at different locations throughout the Swiss Alps.
Key partners are the retail chain, Migros, the Swiss Federal Railways and the Swiss Alpine Club.

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