In May 2019, 13 representatives from the University of Colorado Boulder traveled to Chamonix, France to study the policy and science surrounding climate change in the Mont Blanc region. Led by Mark Squillace, an acclaimed professor of natural resources law at Colorado Law, the group consisted of a mix of 12 Masters of the Environment and law students.
For 10 days, the group partnered with a local science non-profit to examine the areas in which the tri-country region has succeeded and failed in addressing a warming future and rapidly-changing ecosystem. The town of Chamonix served as an ideal basecamp from which the team conducted fieldwork, traveled to the alpine tundra, and learned from local experts.
Chamonix is a French town of 10,000 people that sits near the borders of Italy and Switzerland. Residents live in the shadow of Mont Blanc, the highest point in the Alps at 15,781 feet, and its surrounding massif. The mountains serve as Europe's launchpad for alpine adventure, with visitors traveling from around the globe to ski, mountaineer, trail run, ride, and paraglide among the jagged peaks.
Chamonix wasn't always an adventure hub. Prior to the influx of European travelers, Chamonix and the surrounding valley was sparsely populated and mainly used for agriculture. The valley rapidly changed with the arrival of British adventurers in the 1700s, which jumpstarted the area's recreation economy. The town now sees five million visitors every year – roughly the same as Yellowstone National Park, but in a much smaller place.
The Mont Blanc Massif is also unique in its management scheme. Three countries – France, Italy, and Switzerland – all manage significant parts of the range. Because of the separated ownership, coordinating land management is a particular challenge, as each country has different priorities, goals, and history. This has become particularly clear as ecosystems rapidly evolve due to climate change.
Fortunately, several local organizations are working to study the ecological changes occurring in the region, with the hope of educating policymakers in all three countries. The Centre de Recherches sur les Écosystèmes d'Altitude (CREA), or Research Center for Alpine Ecosystems in English, is one of those organizations, as was the leading partner of the Colorado team during their time in France.
Founded in 1996, CREA specializes in the study of natural mountain environments. According to the organization's website, CREA "is a pioneer and leader of citizen science in France and maintains a strong commitment to participatory science, aiming not only to encourage the understanding of ecology, but also to directly involve the public in innovative scientific research."
In their 10 days with CREA, the University of Colorado team studied the organization’s approach to researching ecosystems – both in the classroom and in the field. It also learned how the organization approaches policy not from a place of advocacy, but rather with the goal of providing information to decisionmakers. Throughout the partnership, the visiting students helped CREA brainstorm ways in which to better present information to policymakers and techniques to create meaningful policy action.
Other highlights of the partnership with CREA included the study of frogs, where students confirmed observations of alpine wetlands made through remote sensing. Additionally, students traveled to the Plan de l'Aiguille Refuge for two nights to immerse themselves in the alpine ecosystems they were studying. While the entire landscape was covered in snow, it served as a stark reminder of the harshness and uniqueness of the area.
The University of Colorado also partnered with local alpinist and activist, Zoe Hart. Hart, an ambassador for Patagonia, gave students the perspective of local advocacy organizations. She discussed Patagonia’s environmental work in Europe and the U.S. and how individuals can best create change within their communities.
She also highlighted the conflict surrounding dams and hydroelectric energy production. The student team learned about Patagonia's approach (anti-dam) but also had the opportunity to visit a local hydroelectric project. The Nant de Drance plant, located across the border in Switzerland and currently under construction, will utilize pumped storage to produce energy when production is low across the bridge. While proponents laud its potential efficiency, many believe that new dams are not the answer to a need for clean energy.
After 10 jam-packed days with CREA and Hart, Squillace and the majority of the students traveled to Italy to enjoy a hike to the Refugio di Bonatti outside of Courmayeur. The 14-mile hike provided a new perspective of the massif and a light-hearted conclusion to the course.
Now that the University of Colorado team is back in Boulder, students are taking time to reflect on their experience and record their findings. With many entering future careers in land management and policy creation, they hope their time in Chamonix will provide examples of how science and policy can partner to create outcomes that are in the public interest.
Policy & Climate Change in the Mont Blanc Region is a yearly course offered by the Masters of the Environment program at the University of Colorado Boulder. For more information about the course, please contact Mark Squillace at email@example.com.