The land use of the ski areas Pitztaler Gletscher and Rifflsee covers 0.54% of the municipal area of St. Leonhard.
The municipality of St. Leonhard has around 1,400 inhabitants and is the third largest municipality in Tyrol with a total area of 223.53 m2. From lush green meadows up to the eternal ice, the entire Pitztal valley encompasses all vegetation levels of the Alps. The area used for skiing is 0.54% of the entire municipal area and is thus concentrated in a very limited space. “Empty kilometres” and thus unnecessarily developed areas in the form of kilometre-long drag trails hardly exist, if at all, in our areas – the slopes are efficiently laid out for real skiing pleasure. It should not be forgotten that ski areas as a whole only make up a very small part of the alpine landscape. In the entire Alpine region, ski slopes account for only 0.5% of the area, in Tyrol 0.7% is used for skiing areas.
Due to climate change, we are experiencing significant glacier melt. The current area is probably already well below 400 square kilometres. For example, the 46 glaciers in the Silvretta (Tyrol and Vorarlberg) alone lost almost a third of their area between the 2004/2006 and 2017/2018 measurements. Austria’s 900 glaciers are shrinking faster than ever. Even before the end of the summer of 2022, it was certain that there would be negative records on some glaciers in 2022. The ice melt is also so enormous because the winter and spring were particularly poor in snow. By the end of the century, about 700 of the current 4,000 glaciers in the Alpine region will be left, according to the gloomy forecast of glaciologist Andrea Fischer of the Academy of Sciences in Innsbruck. Even our glacier ski area is not spared from the current climate change. A considerable proportion of the ski areas on the Pitztal Glacier are no longer on glaciers. However, glaciologist Andrea Fischer also classifies ski tourism in what may one day be “former” glacier areas as “not unreasonable from the outset”. The high alpine location is to our advantage – there is longer and more snow than in lower areas. Colder temperatures and longer winters would mean that “less energy would be needed for snowmaking”, she cites a concrete reason. Sustainable management also means thinking about future generations. Against the backdrop of climate change, which is already having an impact on our ski operations and poses a number of challenges for us, we see it as our clear responsibility to consider the long-term scenarios and also to think about diversifying our tourist offer. In the medium term, however, skiing will be possible for many more years due to our altitude.
The archaic alpine mountain world of the glacier area clearly shows us humans the natural limits for further tourist development. Any expansion of glacier ski areas in Austria is only possible under strict criteria. If new slopes or new cable car routes are built that take up land, this requires a determination procedure in which the effects of a project on the environment are described and assessed, and on the basis of which a decision is made on the approvability of the respective project by means of a notice.
The Pitztaler Gletscherbahn is one of the leading tourism companies in the Pitztal and is largely responsible for ensuring that tourism and agriculture guarantee a stable and value-creating living space in a high mountain valley. The Pitztal Glacier is a high-altitude ski area that hosts about 250 ski days per year. Especially in times of climate change and all the other challenges we face, we see it as our entrepreneurial duty to identify optimisation potential and to actively shape and secure our future. Together with the population and the tourism businesses of the Pitztal, we want to work on an ecologically, economically and socially sustainable future for our region.
In 2016, the project for the “Pitztal – Ötztal ski area expansion and merger” was submitted to the responsible authorities. The municipality of St. Leonhard i. P. passed 3 unanimous positive municipal council resolutions for the project – the last unanimous positive resolution was in May 2022. In addition, some municipal councillors initiated a referendum on the project “Ski area expansion and merger Pitztal – Ötztal” in July 2022. The result of the referendum was a narrow majority against the project. The Pitztaler Gletscherbahn respected the result of the survey and the procedure, which had been pending with the authorities for 6 years, was withdrawn or discontinued by decision. This means that this major project is off the table. In the meantime, the Pitztal Gletscherbahn has invested 10 million euros in the new comfortable train sets of the Gletscherexpress and the reconstruction of the valley station building. Further alternative visions for the future and possible development steps are being discussed and evaluated with the tourism experts.
In autumn 2018, the Pitztal Glacier came under media scrutiny under the slogan “Mountains are blown up on the Pitztal Glacier”. Symbolic images and videos disseminated by various media did the rest. As a mountain railway operator, one must always pay attention to the safety of the guest. Due to the increasing melting of the glacier on the “Hinterer Brunnenkogel” ski trail, the terrain became narrower and steeper and was too narrow for safe piste preparation on the ski trail. For safety reasons, construction measures in the terrain became urgently necessary. It was assumed that these construction measures would be possible without permission within the framework of statutory maintenance and repair work. In the course of the widening of the ski trail, much more rock than assumed came loose from the ridge forming the horizon – a total of 8,500 square metres of loose rock, which until then had been held together by the glacier and the permafrost. The process, as well as the fact that the construction project would have required approval in advance according to the state environmental authority, caused a great deal of public discussion and criticism. The construction project was stopped, the railway was not allowed to be put into operation and an administrative procedure was initiated. In addition to an administrative fine, we were granted permission for skiing use again in February of the following year, subject to the fulfilment of numerous conditions, such as a blockstone smoothening to create grade resistance in the direction of the summit! The incident was picked up and publicised by many media. In addition to the loss of image, we also had a high loss of turnover due to the closure for skiers.
As Pitztal Glacier, we have learned our lessons from this incident. Together with our employees, we have analysed the “Causa Skiweg Linker Brunnenkogel” in detail and taken steps to avoid a recurrence as far as possible.
The areas that we use for our two ski areas at Rifflsee and Pitztal Glacier are mostly pistes – unsealed areas that are only used during the ski season. In summer, the piste areas at Rifflsee are used for alpine pasture management by the Arzl agricultural community in the Pitztal valley. Where skiing takes place in winter, cows, sheep and horses graze here in summer. Especially in alpine regions, it is important to continue to cultivate these areas, as otherwise the danger of avalanches in the steep terrain would increase considerably.
The fascination of ski touring has gripped many people in recent years and we have also observed a steadily increasing number of ski tourers. “In ecological terms, however, they disturb 60 times more area, as ski tourers pollute habitats with their presence. That is why it is important to bundle these activities and limit them to certain areas,” explained Ulrike Pröbstl-Haider, head of the Institute for Landscape Development, Recreation and Nature Conservation Planning in Vienna in an interview for the Süddeutsche Zeitung in January 2021. From this point of view, it has ecological advantages when numerous winter sports enthusiasts congregate on a ski slope. Large areas remain untouched and wildlife has sufficient quiet zones. On the Pitztal Glacier, we were the first glacier ski area to set up the Ski Touring Park on the Pitztal Glacier together with DYNAFIT – but also to give skiers enough space on our slopes. The touring park helps to concentrate ski tourers spatially and to relieve the rest of the landscape. This also has the advantage that inexperienced alpinists can practise their sport in a secured ski area.