Hazy Shade of Winter
Activists battle to preserve the birthplace of extreme skiing. But will lthe trucks return?
THIS COULD BE THE LAST winter in many moons to see 15,771-foot Mont Blanc and nearby peaks as they appeared back in the 1950s—that is, bright, white, and smog-free. Last summer, the French government announced that the Mont Blanc Tunnel, closed following a tragic March 1999 fire that claimed 39 lives, will reopen in spring 2001, likely bringing back the daily parade of 2,500 to 5,000 heavy trucks that have used the tunnel to pass through the Alps. This is not good news for the tiny town of Chamonix. Experts predict that carbon dioxide emissions there and all over the Alps will increase more than 20 percent if nothing changes in the next ten years. Now, in a region better known for radical couloirs than radical causes, air quality has moved to the top of the agenda.
Last October, the 2,500-member Association pour le Respect du Site du Mont Blanc filed a civil suit against the government-owned company that manages the tunnel. With donations from U.S. firms like Patagonia, which has given some $35,000 to its cause, the no-more-trucks camp— including ARSMB, Chamonix mayor Michel Charlet, and a group called Alp Action—hopes that a favorable ruling in the pending trial will force France's transportation industry to use railroads for commercial shipping. They also hope the trial will calm hot tempers. "People are going to blow it up before it opens—that's how mad people are," says Marie Bouchard, owner of the North Conway, New Hampshirebased climbing gear manufacturer Wild Things and a part-time Chamonix resident. "It's not going to be peaceful." —Eric Pfanner
EAR TO THE GROUND
''People remain very charged up. Especially when they realize that the government doesn't move unless it is confronted with violent action. For the moment, I'm doing my best to temper them.''
—Georges Unia, president, Association pour le Respect du Site du Mont Blanc
''We would like the tunnel to reopen, but in the context of a broader transportation policy that includes discussion of rail.''
—Spokeswoman for the French Transport Ministry
''Something so beautiful shouldn't have to be defended with words in a courtroom. It's outrageous that this site needs a lawyer.''
—Martine Heraud, owner of the Librairie VO bookstore in Chamonix
''France, for the moment, is totally out of step with Europe on transport issues. Not a single decision has been made in favor of rail.''
—Nadege Chable, environmental coordinator for Patagonia's French Alpine region
* Association pour le Respect du Site du Mont Blanc can be found at www.chamonix.org/arsmb.
* Autoroutes et Tunnel du Mont Blanc, the company that manages the Mont Blanc Tunnel, makes its case at www.atmb.net.
* A joint statement by Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, president of Alp Action; Michel Charlet, mayor of Chamonix; and Andreas Weissen, president of the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps, is at www.cyberalps.com/index2.html.
* Tourist information about Chamonix and Mont Blanc is available at www.chamonix.com.
The Alternative: Trucks on Trains
With a single European market fueling appetites for Roma tomatoes and Roquefort cheese, the Mont Blanc Tunnel has become a crucial commercial link. The ARSMB proposes two new tunnels, either of which would keep big rigs out of Chamonix (the group has no boeuf with cars). A new $10 billion, 30-mile railway tunnel under the main spine of the Alps would allow high-speed trains, carrying tractor trailers, to pass far underneath Chamonix. In neighboring Switzerland, one such tunnel is already under construction. Failing that pricey scheme, Georges Unia, the 45-year-old leader of ARSMB, proposes an upgrade of existing crossings (for a cool $1 billion), such as a short rail tunnel in the Maurienne Valley 50 miles to the south. French and Italian leaders have been holding regular meetings in pursuit of an agreement on that proposal. A final deal has proven elusive, though all parties agree that something has to be done. For now, the trucks have been belching through the Maurienne Valley and groaning over a mountain pass near the ski area of Montgenèvre. Sure enough, one town on that route, Argentiere-la-Bessee, is now suffering the same smoggy fate that befell Chamonix. Says Montgenèvre mayor Joel Giraud: "Unless something is done, the tourist industry here is doomed." —E.P.