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Situé à La Grave dans les Hautes-Alpes françaises, le glacier de la Girose est un site à la fois récréatif et touristique. Pendant la saison hivernale, c’est un espace aménagé pour la pratique du ski freeride grâce à la construction d’un téléphérique en 1978 complété par des téléskis en 1989. En saison estivale, la Girose est un site de tourisme glaciaire, proposant des activités « sur » et « autour » du glacier. Depuis 2020, ce site se retrouve pris dans un conflit territorial lié au projet d’extension d’un troisième tronçon du téléphérique, avec l’objectif de déposer les usager·es au-delà du glacier, à 3600 m d’altitude. Toujours d’actualité en 2023, le conflit crée des tensions fortes dans le territoire. Il révèle une grande difficulté à l’émergence d’un débat public et politique sur la trajectoire du territoire, dans son rapport au téléphérique et au glacier.
Cet article, basé sur le champ émergent de la géologie politique et sur une enquête qualitative menée à la Grave entre janvier 2021 et juillet 2022, analyse le glacier de la Girose en tant que strate glaciaire. Alors que le projet de territoire se structure depuis plus de trente ans autour du téléphérique et du glacier, on observe à La Grave un processus de climatisation non-intentionnelle du territoire, du fait d’un aléa géomorphologique lié aux conséquences du changement climatique sur le glacier, du conflit territorial et d’institutions étatiques.
Si le territoire apparaît comme verrouillé dans son rapport au téléphérique et au glacier, le conflit ouvre la possibilité d’envisager différentes figures de réagencement face à une strate glaciaire qui n’est pas maîtrisable et qui se désagence. Nous décrivons quatre figures de réagencement énoncées par les enquêtés : le climatoscepticisme, l’anticipation de la mise en ressource d’une montagne sans glacier, la réouverture du projet de territoire et la vérité locale de l’aménageur. Finalement, la négociation avec les strates terrestres apparaît comme une stratégie de transition au regard de processus terrestres qui excèdent toujours les projets de territoire.

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Notes de l’auteur

This work received financial support from the French State, managed by the National Research Agency under the “Investments for the Future” programme, reference number ANR-15-IDEX-02. It was also carried out as part of Pierre-Olivier Garcia’s participation in the “Glacier Collective” (2021–2022), an art-science collective led by the artist Olivier de Sépibus, which aims to explore our relationship with glaciers. An art-science residency on the Girose Glacier in 2021 contributed to the development of some of the perspectives presented in this article.

Texte intégral

  • 1 INSEE figures, 2019 census.

1La Grave (479 inhabitants, altitude 1500 m1) is in the Hautes-Alpes department of the French Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, situated in the Oisans Basin. The town is renowned for the Meije summit, which is a high place for mountaineers and a significant landscape resource (Debarbieux, 1995; Laslaz, 2007). Its major tourist infrastructure is a cable car that operates year-round for both winter and summer activities. Since 2020, La Grave has been the scene of a territorial conflict linked to the planned extension of a third section of the cable car.

Figure no 1

Figure no 1

Scheme of tourist facilities at La Grave

2The cable car was constructed in 1976 and has a major impact in the trajectory of the territory. It takes users to the Peyrou d’Amont station (2400 m), and then to the Ruillans station (3200 m) at the foot of the Girose Glacier. In 1989, two ski lifts were installed, providing access to the Lauze dome (3568 m) which overlooks the glacier. Apart from the single blue slope on the Girose Glacier, La Grave resort only offers commercial freeride skiing. Freeride, a skiing subculture imported from the United States, involves skiing off-piste on ungroomed mountain itineraries and off the marked safe slopes (Drouet and Kemo Keimbou, 2005). During summer, the primary commercial attraction is the “glacier tourist site”, which offers activities “on” and “around” the Girose Glacier (Salim et al, 2021). The cable car journey provides a scenic and contemplative experience of the surrounding glaciers and the Meije (3984 m). The Peyrou d’Amont station offers hiking opportunities, and the Ruillans station takes tourists to the foot of the Girose Glacier. At 3200 m, visitors can enjoy activities “on” and “around” the Girose, including a high-mountain experience, a visit to an ice cave (photo 1), glacier hiking and the learning of mountaineering basics. The cable car can also shorten the approach to mountaineering routes (see figure 1). The Girose Glacier is located on the outskirts of major Alpine glacier tourism sites (Salim et al, 2021; 2023), and is considered as a secondary site in the collective imagination (Sanchez, 2017).

Photo no 1

Photo no 1

The Girose Glacier, the remains of the Trifides ski lift (top foreground) and the ice cave (bottom left).

Marie Poulain

  • 2 The principle of “délégation de service public” in French law refers to the delegation of public se (...)
  • 3 Request for a case-by-case examination prior to the possible implementation of an Environmental Imp (...)
  • 4 “Société d’Aménagement Touristique de l’Alpe d’Huez et des Grandes Rousses”, it became in 2021 SATA (...)

3Since 2020, the Girose Glacier and the cable car have been the subject of a dispute over a regional development decision made by its owner, the municipality of La Grave. In 2015, the local authority launched the renewal of the public service delegation2 for the cable car, for a period of thirty years. The specifications for the public service contract include a project to maintain and upgrade the tourist infrastructure: replacing the Trifides (destroyed following the collapse of the Trifide peak in 2008) and Girose ski lifts by extending the cable car to the La Lauze dome (3,568 m). The project also involves the construction of a third section (S3) over the Girose Glacier, the building of a station at 3600 m and the renovation of the other stations, including a new restaurant and the creation of a glaciorium at 3200 m3. In 2017, the process led to the selection of SATA4, a private corporation which already operated the lifts at L’Alpe d’Huez and Les Grandes Rousses. To facilitate the management, a subsidiary was created specifically for La Grave resort, known as the “Société d’Aménagement Touristique de la Grave” (SATG). In 2020, the SATA group also became the manager of the public service delegation of Les 2 Alpes ski resort, cementing their position as a monopolistic operator of the Oisans resorts.

  • 5 For more information on this subject, please visit the website of “La Grave autrement, preservons l (...)

4In the run-up to the 2020 municipal elections, the “La Grave Autrement” (LGA) collective has been established to contest the decisions made by the previous term of office and to open up a public debate on the political and economic future of the territory. To this end, the collective is launching a fund-raising campaign to finance the study of an alternative proposal to the S35.

5The project to extend this cable car, still relevant in 2023, has resulted in a territorial conflict. The term, “territorial conflict” describes situations that constitute a manifestation of protest or opposition” (Melé, 2016). This conflict reveals a mountain territory that is facing the challenge of balancing economic development with climate change. Indeed, like all Alpine glaciers, the Girose Glacier, is being affected by climate change on the cryosphere (IPCC, 2022).

6The goal of this article is to analyse a territorial conflict using the emerging field of political geology. We aim to demonstrate how the Girose can be analysed as a glacial stratum that is disconnecting from the territorial project at a time of climate change. This conflict analysis approach enables the consideration and formulation of ways to reorganise this stratum. A diachronic analysis of the conflict was conducted in terms of the socio-territorial trajectory of the cable car and the glacier. We carried out fieldwork at La Grave between January 2021 and July 2022, the methodology used will be explained below. Four forms of negotiation regarding the glacier stratum (the Girose) will be described: climate denial, anticipating the resource utilisation of the territory without glaciers, reopening the territorial project, and the local truth of the regional developer.

Political Geology: a theoretical framework for analysing a territorial conflict on the Girose Glacier

7The literature discusses the political and social implications of glaciers, including their extractive, cultural, recreational, heritage and scientific dimensions, or as places at risk (Bussard et al., 2021; Carey, 2010; Debarbieux, 2015; Laslaz, 2009; Orlove et al., 2008; Salim et al., 2021). While this literature considers the social construction of these spaces, we propose a theoretical shift by drawing on the work of political geology. This is partly inspired by the debates on the Anthropocene, which address the social dimension of contemporary geological processes. On the one hand, political geology examines the politicisation of subsoil in relation to energy resources and extraction (Arnauld De Sartre and Chailleux, 2021; Bebbington and Bury, 2016). On the other hand, political geology proposes to think about geographical space and environments at the intersection of their volume and politics (Braun, 2000; Elden, 2013; Graham and Hewitt, 2012). This latter perspective, which we have adopted, seems to have considerable heuristic significance for a mountain and high-mountain territory as La Grave. Its territorial project lies on the verticality of la Grave (with a 2100 m difference in altitude between the village and the Lauze dome) but also on its volume (with an arrangement of social practices, material infrastructures, geological, ecological and glaciological processes).

Territorializing the Glacial Stratum

8The concept of strata enables us to examine the process of soils and subsoil recomposition in a transitional context. Glaciers, such as the Girose in our case, can be considered autonomous entities that form stratified soils and subsoil in volume, in relation to human activities. Nigel Clark defines the notion of stratum as a set of interrelated processes and systems that are stabilised in space and time (Clark, 2016). As Olivier Labussière has demonstrated in relation to the Lorraine Basin, the stratum can be constructed, even if it always escapes intentionality (Labussière, 2021). Additionally, it can also result from autonomous and relatively uncertain processes, such as the glacial stratum on a global scale. Therefore, there is an unconstructible part of strata that exceeds any intentional project (Clark, 2016; Neyrat, 2016). An analysis based on strata should be dynamic and comprehend the relationship between strata through their situated and contingent arrangements. It is based on these arrangements that we can envision “politics of strata”, i.e., ways of acting on the materialities inscribed in the earth-system and which contribute to its geology (Clark, 2016; Clark and Szerszynski, 2021).

  • 6 French town planning code, chapter III, ski area developments (articles R473-1 to R473-6).

9In the case study of La Girose Glacier, we can exemplify at least two forms of glacial stratum policy. Firstly, its mass reduction is a localised instance of the global cryosphere’s actual and future reduction, which is caused by human activities’ impact on the climate (IPCC, 2022). Secondly, the local authority and its development operator establish a relationship with the glacier as a support space for a specific project (Soubeyran, 2010). Indeed, during the winter season, the Girose hosts a ski lift and ski slope that is regulated by town planning laws6. The blue slope is groomed daily, and crevasses are filled in to ensure safety. In the summer, the Girose is home of an ice cave. The glacier is maintained as a stabilised and monitored infrastructure (Barry, 2016).

The Climatization of Glacial strata

10During the Romantic era, glaciers were often depicted as symbols of nature’s grandeur, both imposing and terrifying. However, in the 1990s, glaciers became iconic markers of climate change (Carey, 2007). The glacier is therefore a way of making the climate speak for itself and, by extension, of making claims that are outside this stratum. The cryosphere is considered part of the climate regime (Aykut, 2020; Aykut and Dahan, 2015), which encompasses in the field of international negotiation arenas all treaties, standards, scientific knowledge, and discourses related to climate change and its solutions. The process of climatization consists of “extending the climate problem to other political arenas” (Aykut, 2020, p. 12). While climate change is typically viewed by political scientists as affecting specific sectors of public policy, this concept can also be applied to the process of addressing climate change in local territories. The argument presented here is that La Grave has experienced climate change over the past decade due to a variety of factors beyond the control of local stakeholders. In our case study, the set of factors includes government action, changes in regional planning rules, changes in the glaciers on the north side of the Meije, the weakening of the “all-skiing model” (Bourdeau, 2009), criticism of the model of large modernist resorts, the obsolescence of tourist facilities, and the growing importance of ecological issues.

11In this situation, it is important to focus on the destratification of the cryosphere, which is represented by the loss of mass and surface area of the Girose. This has consequences for its relationship with other strata, including La Grave project. The tourist facilities that structure this relationship are particularly affected. According to Clark and Szerszynski (2021), “Many physical systems in the real world have the potential to move from one state of operation to another” due to the open, nonlinear, and complex nature of terrestrial systems. This study aims to examine the impact of climate change on La Grave, specifically the destratification of the glaciers, which is gradually undermining the structure built around the cable car over a few decades. Inspired by the pragmatist literature in planning theory (Soubeyran, 2015), we describe this process as an unintentional climatisation. According to Kathryn Yusoff, the fragility of equipment extends beyond its intended use, as “our incorporation of the geological will inevitably exceed the uses we had in mind” (Yusoff, 2015). This excess becomes even more apparent during times of climate change.

Fieldwork and Methods

  • 7 Significant events have occurred since July 2022, but are not considered in this article.

12The article presents data from a qualitative study conducted between January 2021 and July 20227. The study methodology involved analysing grey literature and conducting 20 semi-structured interviews.

13Respondents were selected based on their profession to ensure representation of those working with the cable car and/or positioning themselves in relation to S3. We conducted interviews with various stakeholders including the cable car operator, institutional actors, mountain professionals (mountain guides, ski instructors), tourism sector actors (restaurant owners, hoteliers, mountain sports shop managers, tourist offices, tourist agencies) and members of the LGA collective. To ensure a structured interview process, we use a chrono-systemic timeline as an interview medium (Bergeret et al., 2015). The timeline presented a socio-historical trajectory from the 1950s to the 2050s and invites interviewees to envision the future of their territory. To begin, a socio-historical analysis was conducted using existing scientific literature (Bruley, 2021; Fournier, 2018; Laslaz, 2007) and grey literature. The identification of four central themes for understanding the territorial conflict was enabled by this stage: tourism at La Grave, glaciers (distinguishing between glaciers and climate change on a global scale, glaciers on the north side of the Meije and the Girose Glacier), the history of the cable car and territorial issues. The objective was to use the timeline to gain insight into the relationship between the respondents and the territorial trajectory of La Grave. This helped to contextualise their position within the territorial conflict.

14At the same time, we analysed the project’s framework documents, including the Territorial coherence plan, the public service delegation contract, as well as the opinions issued by the institutional authorities (region prefect’s opinion, the regional environmental authority, the advisory opinion of the Ecrins National Park Scientific Council). Additionally, we monitored media coverage of the S3 project, including social networks and local and national media, from January to July 2022.

Examining the territorial trajectory: the interconnection between La Grave and the Girose Glacier

15La Grave finds itself in a paradoxical situation due to its climatization process. In the past twenty years, the territory has transitioned from an innovative ski resort on the fringes to one that struggles to address climate change. A diachronic analysis helps us to recontextualise the territorial conflict surrounding S3.

A Territory Shaped by the Cable Car and the Glacial Stratum

16Historically, the relationship with the glaciers on the north side of the Meije is both scenic and mountaineering oriented. Since the 1970s, La Grave has been developing a territorial project structured around the cable car, which implements a specific arrangement for the glacial stratum and the Girose Glacier. In our interviews, the respondents, regardless of their position in the conflict, did not express any specific emotional or affective relationship with the Girose. This glacier is not depicted as one of the iconic glacial landscapes on the north side of the Meije massif and is, in fact, invisible from the village of La Grave. Therefore, it has no landscape connection with the area, unlike other glaciers that are visible from the village. According to the people interviewed, the glacier stratum at La Grave serves mainly as a skiing area or a passageway to mountaineering routes and is also the support area for a tourism project. Due to a territorial project materialised by the ski lift, which we will describe below, the glacial stratum has been arranged in La Grave through the touristic-oriented infrastructural development of the Girose Glacier.

17The cable car was constructed in 1976 with the aim of developing summer tourism. In 1978, the second section was completed, extending the route to the Col des Ruillans (3200 m), after a bomb attack by opponents of the cable car. However, by 1986, the cable car had not found a market and its cost was deemed too high compared to the revenue it generated. Consequently, the local authority decided to close it down. In 1989, Denis Cresseils, offered to buy it back on the condition that the equipment was extended, which was accepted by the local authority. Under the direction of D. Cresseils, the Trifides and Girose ski lifts were built on the eponymous glacier in 1989. These lifts linked the Ruillans station (3200 m) to the Lauze dome (3568 m). The early 1990s marked a turning point for the region, as the cable car began to operate in winter.

18The winter tourism activities, particularly those related to freeride skiing, lay the groundwork for a distinctive territorial project centred around a niche practice, which in turn relies on the cable car (Fournier, 2018). While there is no physical development or legal registration of the slopes (except for the blue slope on the glacier), this does not imply that they are not being minimally structured as infrastructure. In the 1990s, the excitement surrounding freeriding and the organisation of sporting events such as the Derby de la Meije (a freeride skiing competition encompassing all snow sports) helped to shape La Grave as an internationally renowned area (Desmurs, 2018). The powder snow, a symbol of freeriding, served as a communication tool for the resort. The local Tourist Office thus directed its communication towards qualifying La Grave as the “Mecca of freeriding.” Originally intended for summer tourism, the cable car found its uses in the 1990s, necessitating the development of infrastructure on the glacier.

Weakening of the Regional Project and Unintentional Climatization

19La Grave has become an innovative regional project on the fringes of modern ski resorts due to a contingent arrangement between the Meije with its slopes and glaciers, a niche tourism project, and a transport facility. However, a series of phenomena have led to the description of a regional development project today weakened and exceeded by a process of unintentional climatization. This text discusses the relationship between the territory, the glacial stratum, and the Girose in the context of climate change. Two main issues are described: the impact of the stratum’s disaggregation on the development project and the inclusion of climate change on the agenda by other political actors.

20The Girose’s blue slope development and maintenance rely on fragile arrangements, now impacted by climate change. The Trifides ski lift is anchored to the wall of Pointe Trifide (3450 m), while the Girose ski lift is supported by mobile pylons, allowing for adaptation to the glacier’s movements. Additionally, grooming machines operate daily to secure the site, filling in crevasses on the glacier. In 2008, a rockfall on Pointe Trifide disrupted this arrangement, which caused the collapse of the eponymous ski lift (see n 1). Rockfalls on such walls can be linked to mechanisms associated with rock fracturing, permafrost degradation, and the effects of glacier retreat, with the latter being the most likely factor in this case. Climate change increases the likelihood of rockfalls occurrences, especially on this type of wall (Duvillard et al., 2019). As a result of the rockfall, the obsolescence of the ski lift no longer allowed skiers to reach the dome of La Lauze. A temporary solution was implemented, which remained in use as of 2023. Currently, a grooming machine shuttles skiers in groups of fifteen between the Ruillans station and the departure of the Girose ski lift (photo no. 2).

Photo no 2

Photo no 2

Th grooming machine that links the Col des Ruillans to the departure of the Girose ski lift, an alternative solution following the collapse of the Trifides ski lift in 2008. In the background, the Girose ski lift and the blue slope on the glacier. February 2022.

Marie Poulain

21This rearrangement is not satisfactory for the local authority and its operator. In fact, this is one of the key arguments for the construction of the S3, partly conceived by the project’s leaders as a rearrangement with respect to the glacial stratum because it will fly over the Girose Glacier with a single pylon, placed on a rocky spur, between the two stations. It would no longer be directly dependent on the geomorphological processes of the glacial stratum. For us, the S3 is a way to immunise the touristic project against the changes of the glacial stratum while guaranteeing the continuity of the project.

  • 8 Collective Tribune, “Penser les glaciers comme des acteurs d’un monde que nous habitons en commun”, (...)

22The regional project was undermined by political and institutional actors when the “La Grave Autrement” (LGA) collective, formed in 2020, opposed the S3 project. Beyond local support, LGA leverages media support, giving national visibility to the project. For instance, LGA published a collective tribune in the national French newspaper Le Monde8 opposing the S3 project. Corporate foundations such as Petzl and Patagonia also provided financial and media support. Another strategy of LGA’s opposition is the establishment of crowdfunding for an alternative study from a consultancy firm on the viability of the project, territorial diagnosis, and prospective study. Opponents want to put a debate on the future of the territory in the political agenda.

  • 9 Opinion of the Scientific Council of the Écrins National Park, 18 December 2020.
  • 10 Opinion No MRAe 2021APPACA18/2786 of 25 March 2021 of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) Regiona (...)

23Furthermore, several institutions opinions led to delays in the implementation of the project, initially planned for 2021. In general, institutional actors expressed reservations and highlighted weaknesses in the impact study regarding its assessment of climate impacts. The Scientific 9Council of the Ecrins National Park expressed concern about the contradiction between the “soft” development model claimed by the municipality of La Grave and this project, which aligns with the pursuit of a traditional resort economic model. The Regional Environmental Authority Mission emphasised the “substantial shortcomings in the impact study”, particularly in terms of “taking account of climate change issues”10. This is significant because, in the interviews, respondents, particularly project leaders, categorise neutral or nuanced opinions as negative or hostile towards the project.

24At La Grave, we observe an unintentional climatization process of the territorial project. This project, structured since the 1990s around the cable car and freeride, is weakened by the materiality of climate change, a conflictual situation, and state institutions demanding consideration of climate change. While conflict sometimes generates innovations (Gal, 2016), for now, we observe a territory that was once innovative but now finds itself in a situation where its arrangement with respect to the glacial stratum is locked by the cable car.

Negotiating With the Glacial Stratum: Four Approaches

25The article begins by stating that climate change is causing irreversible and largely unpredictable changes to the glacial stratum. Nigel Clark argues that this excess of the stratum requires a shift from a government of terrestrial processes to negotiated arrangements with the strata (Clark, 2016). Consequently, any discourse of rearranging the glacier can be analysed as a political proposal for negotiation with the stratum.

26The conflict situation resulted in a confrontation between different governance systems, values, and knowledge (Bruley, 2021). In our interviews, stakeholders were prompted to clarify their arguments considering the territorial trajectory illustrated by the chronosystemic timeline. The conflict situation requires stakeholders to specify and sometimes change their argumentative framework. We observed different argumentative frameworks related to the glacial stratum, aiming to move beyond the binary positions in a highly divided territory. Here, we propose a description of four reorganisation figures facing this stratum, accompanied by significant verbatim which we consider important in the context of the conflict and the role played by the Girose Glacier.

Climate Denial Rhetoric

27When we asked two elected representatives about the future of the glaciers and their impact on the territory, the first responded that “currently, this is where the controversy arises, we don’t know the real impact of humans on global warming, because it’s a bit like in the Middle Ages, we have geophysics that cause global warming, but it may also be due to the position of the planets. […] At the moment, no one can quantify the human contribution to global warming”. The second responds as follows: “On this point, I totally agree with [XX]’s analysis. We must take measures to protect the environment, but after that, we cannot do more”. For the municipality, the glacial stratum should be considered as a regulatory parameter of the development project, but it is not a strong initial condition. In this situation, climate denial means that we cannot think and act in terms of the disintegration of the glacial stratum. Similar studies conducted in other mountainous territories show that denial towards climate change is common among decision-makers and tourism stakeholders (Clivaz and Savioz, 2020; Trawöger, 2014).

Anticipating Resource Development in a Territory Without Glacier

28When the respondents were encouraged to imagine the future of La Grave, some projected the future destratification of the Girose. However, the three types of actors we will present have divergent imaginaries about the future of the mountain without the Girose, based on their values, identities, representations, and relationships to the area. This is what Pachoud, Koop and George (2022) refer to as the ideal dimension of the territory.

  • 11 Refer to the aforementioned collective tribune.

29A first modality of reorganisation though anticipation is proposed by the anthropologist Nastassja Martin, who suggests seizing upon the demise of glaciers to break away from a single modern and utilitarian relationship and instead pluralise our relationships with these entities11. Although this proposal for a significant reorganisation with the glacial stratum was echoed at the national level, notably with the article published in Le Monde, it has not been highlighted by the local respondents in our interviews.

  • 12 According to the Sports Code, Article A212-1, Annex II-1—C.5, ski instructors are not permitted to (...)

30A second form of anticipation was mentioned by a ski instructor, in a foresight exercise we asked him to engage: “I don’t really know how things might develop, but it’s true that in the perspective where the glacier melts, it will certainly be a pity for the landscape, but perhaps ski instructors will be able to access places they can’t currently”. The ski instructor, interviewed because of his profession, has a corporatist interpretation of the disappearance of the Girose Glacier. Only mountain guides are allowed to accompany clients on the glacier12. This example reveals perceptions regarding the adaptation of the ski instructor profession to climate change. Thus, imagining La Grave without the Girose involves reconfiguring the ski instructor profession in this area, providing new opportunities for the profession.

31A third approach to anticipation was put forth by the former mayor of La Grave. This involves envisioning a project still based on a cable car ascending to 3,600 m, but focused on contemplative high mountains in 50 years: “In summer, in 50 years, there won’t be glacier hikes anymore, there won’t be any ice caves. We’ll reach 3,200 and it’ll be a scree slope. There might still be three patches of snow in one corner. People here are amazed because for the Meije and the glacier. But I think that when the glacier is gone, we’ll have to take them to a place with a landscape […]. We’ll need a product”. The stakeholder combines various constraints and political choices to justify S3 as an anticipated reorganisation for a territory without the Girose, but with the cable car.

Reopening a Mountain Territory Project

  • 13 Between 1992 and 2010, Les 2 Alpes and La Grave had a commercial agreement that allowed skiers to t (...)
  • 14 A “communauté de communes” is an intermunicipal structure in France. It is an association of severa (...)

32Opponents of the S3 propose the possibility of reconsidering the territorial project in La Grave by offering an alternative solution and a different development model. The conflict surrounding the cable car extension has sparked a political debate on the future of La Grave. For opponents, the current trajectory clashes with the imagination and practices associated with freeriding and mountaineering, which make La Grave an alternative model to the one that predominates in the skiing world. This perspective is backed up by refusal of a situation that tends towards SATA’s monopoly in the Oisans resorts. Indeed, when SATA took over the management of Les 2 Alpes ski resort in 2020, it became quasi-monopolistic in the Oisans. The LGA collective is concerned about the situation of monopoly in the area and a potential future link between La Grave and Les 2 Alpes, given the proximity between the highest points of two resorts, the Lauze dome in La Grave and Mont de Lans dome in Les 2 Alpes, which are only 500 m apart13. This concern also stems from the 2018 Territorial Coherence Scheme (SCoT) of the “Intermunicipal community of Oisans”14 which mentioned a link between the two domains.

33The LGA collective then launched a participatory funding process for a study on a diagnostic and prospective of the territory. This contestation strategy allows opening a public debate through participation and the circulation of contradictory views, gaining credibility on the economic dimensions of the project, and bringing the notion of territorial project to the public debate.

  • 15 Website of “La Grave autrement, préservons la Meije”. Home page “the manifesto”. https://lagrave-au (...)

34By constructing an argument focused on an open territorial project in its future compared to a vision that they consider solely equipment-oriented, the LGA makes possible a tourist project without a S3 and with an unequipped Girose glacier, which would be reserved for discovering the high mountains, as described by LGA on their website “Let’s dream a little […] an interpretation centre for glaciers, a mountain hut for overnight stays, a beautiful layout with wooden walkways allowing for a 20-minute loop walk…”15. In this argumentation, we observe a climatization (Akyut, 2020) of the glacial stratum. It is because of this effective climatization process in La Grave that the current territorial project is weakened. In the transition literature, this stance is referred to as “creative action” defined by P. Bourdeau as an “ethical voluntarism and a search for existential coherence in line with a set of values of environmental and social responsibilities” (Bourdeau, 2021).

The Regional Developer’s Local Truth

35During the study, we observed a strong circulation of a “local truth”, where a set of statements produce a truthful effect in a given space. This local truth was extensively used by the respondents.

36According to the local authority and SATG, the local economy heavily relies on tourism revenues, accounting for 90% of its income. Thus, the financial equilibrium of the cable car, both now and in the future, depends on its ability to transport customers up to 3600 m during the most lucrative days of the winter season. This reliance is primarily justified by the presence of the blue ski slope on the glacier, serving according to the SATG as a “spatial distribution tool for skiers on busy days”, contributing to 20% of the company’s revenue. In other words, without the blue slope in the Girose Glacier, SATG’s balance sheet is negative. Consequently, the construction for the S3 is deemed essential by the project stakeholders. They argue, “the question is: should we maintain the cable car or consider La Grave without the cable car? It’s on-off. If there isn’t a S3, I’ll give the cable car 10 years, and then it will close”. SATG’s stance illustrates a common argument used by winter sports actors who reason in terms of “total substitution or nothing” (Bourdeau, 2021). In this context, opposing the S3 equates to opposing the cable car and, consequently, economically opposing La Grave. The statement dismisses any nuance or possibility for contradictory debate.

37Geographically, it is crucial to note that the discussion does not revolve around the glacier as a natural environment with its own dynamics, but rather as a space supporting an economic development project. The project’s proponents view this support area as indispensable and do not consider any alternatives. Beyond the current conflict and the involved stakeholders, it appears that the territory’s trajectory leads to a limitation of potential redevelopment options for the glacier. It has become a crucial element of the territorial project, making it extremely challenging to envision it differently and, consequently, explore new possibilities.

Conclusion. Socio-Ecological Transition as Negotiation with Strata

38Initially, we introduced the application of the theoretical framework of political geology, derived from the field of cultural geography in Anglo-Saxon literature, to the issue of glaciers.

39By reconsidering the strata, traditionally perceived as energy and extraction resources, we have opened new perspectives by conceptualising glaciers as strata. The analysis has also shown that climatization offers an approach to understanding the process of placing climate change on the agenda in territories. This process of climatization manifests itself in La Grave through a territorial conflict. It reveals the weakness of the arrangement of the territorial project with the Girose Glacier.

40Within a territory defined by its tourism and economic infrastructure, socio-ecological transition emerges as a delicate and contentious process. The territorial conflict has brought to light several proposals of rearrangements with the glacier stratum: climate denial rhetoric, anticipation of the mountain as a resource without the Girose, revision of a territorial project and the local truth of the developer. These representations demonstrate that the transition does not occur without tension, raising questions about the future of tourism in the face of the climate crisis.

41Finally, more broadly, the central question remains: how do we create territory with strata that have become autonomous? The environmental history of the 20th and 21st centuries demonstrates that stable infrastructures, in other words, socio-technical strata, have been erected to support productive human activities such as ski resorts. Today, the climatization of these strata calls into question the ability of territories to continue to create territories with these autonomous and relatively unpredictable strata. To put it another way, the case study of the S3 is just the tip of the iceberg. Climatization impacts all mountain territories, forcing them to rethink their territorial projects and their relationship with glacial, given the irreversible nature of climate change. All types of mountain development are at stake here, not just skiing facilities on glaciers. For instance, in the Oisans, the Pilatte mountain hut was definitively closed in summer 2021 due to the destratification of the bedrock on which it rests (Duvillard et al., 2018). Therefore, negotiating with terrestrial strata appears as a transition strategy in light of terrestrial processes that always exceed territorial projects.

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Notes

1 INSEE figures, 2019 census.

2 The principle of “délégation de service public” in French law refers to the delegation of public services by a public authority to a private entity. This delegation grants the private entity the responsibility to manage and operate a public service. The private entity typically assumes the financial risk associated with providing the service and may be remunerated through user fees or subsidies from the public authority.

3 Request for a case-by-case examination prior to the possible implementation of an Environmental Impact Assessment, “Project for the construction of the third section of the glacier cable car from La Meije to La Grave with renovation of the starting station of the section”, 28 January 2020.

4 “Société d’Aménagement Touristique de l’Alpe d’Huez et des Grandes Rousses”, it became in 2021 SATA Group.

5 For more information on this subject, please visit the website of “La Grave autrement, preservons la Meije”. Home page. https://lagrave-autrement.fr/ (accessed on 14 November 2023).

6 French town planning code, chapter III, ski area developments (articles R473-1 to R473-6).

7 Significant events have occurred since July 2022, but are not considered in this article.

8 Collective Tribune, “Penser les glaciers comme des acteurs d’un monde que nous habitons en commun”, published in the newspaper Le Monde on May 6, 2021.

9 Opinion of the Scientific Council of the Écrins National Park, 18 December 2020.

10 Opinion No MRAe 2021APPACA18/2786 of 25 March 2021 of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (PACA) Regional Environmental Authority Missions. This authority is responsible for assessing the environmental impact of public projects like the cable car.

11 Refer to the aforementioned collective tribune.

12 According to the Sports Code, Article A212-1, Annex II-1—C.5, ski instructors are not permitted to supervise activities in unmarked glacial areas, as this is a responsibility reserved for mountain guides. At present, ski instructors are only permitted to take clients on the ski slope of the Girose Glacier and not beyond it.

13 Between 1992 and 2010, Les 2 Alpes and La Grave had a commercial agreement that allowed skiers to travel between the two resorts with a shared ski pass. A tracked vehicle was used for this purpose. Although the commercial agreement was discontinued in 2017 during the change in the resort’s concession holder, the groomed passage is still available for skiers to use. Additionally, rescue services use the passage to evacuate skiers from La Grave to Les 2 Alpes more quickly.

14 A “communauté de communes” is an intermunicipal structure in France. It is an association of several municipalities that decide to cooperate to manage certain local public services and to carry out projects for economic, social, or environmental development on a common territory. The SCOT serves as a strategic planning document for land use planning.

15 Website of “La Grave autrement, préservons la Meije”. Home page “the manifesto”. https://lagrave-autrement.fr/ (accessed on 12 December 2023).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure no 1
Légende Scheme of tourist facilities at La Grave
URL http://journals.openedition.org/rga/docannexe/image/12850/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 240k
Titre Photo no 1
Légende The Girose Glacier, the remains of the Trifides ski lift (top foreground) and the ice cave (bottom left).
Crédits Marie Poulain
URL http://journals.openedition.org/rga/docannexe/image/12850/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 724k
Titre Photo no 2
Légende Th grooming machine that links the Col des Ruillans to the departure of the Girose ski lift, an alternative solution following the collapse of the Trifides ski lift in 2008. In the background, the Girose ski lift and the blue slope on the glacier. February 2022.
Crédits Marie Poulain
URL http://journals.openedition.org/rga/docannexe/image/12850/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 691k
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Référence électronique

Marie Poulain et Pierre-Olivier Garcia, « Negotiating the Climatization of the Glacial Stratum. A Study of La Grave Cable Car Third Section Development Project »Journal of Alpine Research | Revue de géographie alpine [En ligne], 112-1 | 2024, mis en ligne le 14 avril 2024, consulté le 19 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/rga/12850 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/rga.12850

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Auteurs

Marie Poulain

University of Geneva, Department of Geography & Environment

Pierre-Olivier Garcia

Grenoble Alpes University, PACTE, Laboratory of Social Sciences

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