Édition #5

Controversies surrounding mountain investment projects

Vincent VINDEVOGHEL PhD student at Grenoble École de Management and the Université Savoie Mont Blanc Interview conducted on 12 July 2023
In recent years, we have observed increasing controversy surrounding mountain investment projects. Regional players are now seeking to understand the origin of these controversies and to overcome them. A certain number of researchers have already looked at this subject, particularly through the concept of social acceptability, which can be defined as the public’s response to a project. This response is both a result and a process. It therefore evolves over time, being influenced by various factors, such as the developer’s legitimacy or the project’s governance.

This is the context for the study being carried out by the Territories in Transition Chair at Grenoble École de Management. The aim of this study is twofold: on the one hand, to gain a better understanding of the specific nature of these controversies in mountain areas; on the other, to study the responses offered, along with their limitations and advantages. Ultimately, this study aims to clarify the situation and share recommendations for overcoming these divisive situations. To do this, we have crossed data from the scientific literature, observations in the field and interviews with those directly involved.

In general, what are the origins and mechanisms of the controversies we observe?

First and foremost, it is important to note that each situation is unique and depends on the local context and specificities. The origins are varied and there is therefore no magic formula for overcoming the controversies. However, if we take a closer look, it is possible to distinguish two broad categories of controversy involving different players and mechanisms:

» Firstly, controversies which we will call “local” oppose part of the population to investment projects that they deem unsuitable or inappropriate. This local opposition has been growing in recent years, particularly with the questioning of investments related to winter tourism. Opposition may be based on environmental considerations, but also on social issues such as access to housing or dependence on a single activity that is under threat. This is often accompanied by the formation of residents’ associations, collectives or electoral lists defending an alternative vision. Facing this opposition, which denounces the excesses of “exclusively for skiing”, there are also opposing movements that challenge plans not to invest or to dismantle facilities that threaten winter tourism. These controversies are above all related to disagreements over local policy and its implications for the region’s future. Companies and investors therefore find themselves more or less welcome depending on the position of the local population and elected representatives.

» Secondly, controversies which we will call “national” are much more global and generally pit associations or players from outside the area against the local authorities and companies involved in the projects. In recent years we have seen a considerable increase in these controversies, made possible in particular by increased media coverage with the help of social networks. The central spot occupied by climate change in the news and its highly visible consequences in the mountains (less snow cover, disappearing glaciers, melting permafrost, etc.), mean that these areas are naturally becoming the focus of lively discussions, which can then go national. In fact, it is not uncommon for a local controversy to become national when local players adopt strategies aimed at publicising the controversy or seeking the support of national associations, for example. In some cases, controversies are also fuelled by players from outside the region who denounce local projects and the more global repercussions they may have.

Where do the controversies start? What is their nature?

Nowadays, all investment projects are likely to give rise to controversy, even if winter tourismrelated projects (artificial snow, inter-resort links, holiday centres, etc.) still receive the most media coverage. This can be explained by the importance of this sector in our mountain regions, but also by the sometimes elitist image of skiing. This can be seen in both national controversies surrounding on-hill reservoirs and local controversies denouncing the housing problems associated with second homes.

Generally speaking, there are two types of controversy:

» Controversies relating to an identified project and often concerning aspects of the project that are neglected or absent, such as the consideration of alternatives, a lack of impact studies or a lack of consultation.

» More global controversies which very often involve total opposition to the proposed strategy, of which the project is only one illustration. This can be the case when the decision is taken to close a resort, or conversely when the decision is made to double the snowmaking capacity. In these cases, the debate is very complicated and the positions adopted by the opposing parties are often seen as irrational.

In both cases, it is important to point out the fact that these controversies are often fuelled by a lack of confidence in the project developers due to a number of excesses over the last few decades, as well as by
unforeseen developments in the context (Covid-19 crisis, the war in Ukraine, etc.), that have rendered certain projects outdated or obsolete.

What impact and issues can controversy have?

There is obviously a risk for the image of certain players, who generally do not wish to be associated with these controversies. For local councillors, it can threaten the region’s attractiveness and put tourists and investors off. The image of businesses can also be damaged and cause recruitment problems. We are also seeing a certain amount of pressure from employees who are increasingly concerned about the future of their industry.

Beyond the image, there is mainly an impact in terms of costs and time. The fact that all these projects are subject to legal proceedings with numerous appeals, the time it takes to prepare applications, the delays incurred and the constraints governing the projects all make them much more time-consuming and costly. This calls for resilience and flexibility and is reflected, for example, in the increased need for project managers in local administrations and the strengthening of companies’ legal departments.

“It now seems essential that investment projects be part of comprehensive and coherent regional strategies.”

Can you give some examples of strategies or reactions implemented in such situations?

Faced with these difficulties, some projects are postponed or quite simply abandoned for fear of being confronted with these controversies. For local authorities, there may be a preference to focus on a small number of solid projects that are key to local strategy. Some companies may choose not to respond to certain calls for tender that seem too risky.

Without actually abandoning projects, this often means reconfiguring them, by favouring renovation over construction, for example, resizing projects to reduce their environmental impact, or favouring multi-use infrastructures. A good example of this is on-hill reservoirs, which can be used for other purposes (farming, recreation, etc.) rather than just to produce artificial snow. This can either be done before controversies arise, to reduce opposition and take into account the interests and claims of other players, or in response to them.

Similarly, companies and project developers try to strengthen their cases and arguments by conducting studies to quantify impacts or collect data, in order to improve the choices and decisions made. The aim
of this strategy is therefore to prepare for potential criticism and to legitimise projects. On a broader level, it now seems essential that investment projects be part of comprehensive and coherent regional strategies. This encourages project developers to think in an integrated way, taking the region’s specificities into account.

Finally, when faced with these issues, a last type of response by the players involved is the desire to work together on these projects. This remains a very effective solution for preventing controversy, particularly at local level, by taking the interests of the region’s different players into account and including them in projects from the outset. However, this seems much more complicated in the case of national controversies, with sometimes dogmatic positions related to incompatible world views. This leads to a logic where each extreme reinforces the other, making discussion impossible. As regards companies, one way of trying to remedy this is to work on their image, by being irreproachable, to restore the trust that has sometimes been lost. This can also be achieved by involving local players to coconstruct the project, or by seeking out a mediator. Unfortunately, this is still complicated and not necessarily a guarantee of success, which leads some players to wait for legal appeals to decide and back
projects, or conversely, to reject them.

On the other hand, controversies are also a way of initiating debate and democracy. What positive points do you see?

First of all, this encourages players to question themselves and to be resilient. It has the merit of forcing companies, local populations and elected representatives to think about the future of these mountain areas and to take the complexity and unique character of each situation into account. This necessarily requires additional time and costs, but it does help to fuel a shared reflection on regions facing a number of challenges that will need to be addressed in the years to come. As these regions are on the front line when it comes to the consequences of climate change, it is also an opportunity to be pioneers and adapt to a changing world. Of course, it is always easier to follow existing models, but the past has shown us that the mountain regions can be a source of great invention and imagination.

A doctoral student at Grenoble École de Management and the Université Savoie Mont Blanc, Vincent’s research focuses on subjects related to transition governance in mountain areas. In particular, he is studying the current dynamics in the Bourg-Saint-Maurice-Les Arcs area.