"Mountain Wilderness", an association that dismantles and cleans French mountain ranges

“Mountain Wilderness”, an association that dismantles and cleans French mountain ranges

For over twenty years, the Mountain Wilderness association has been organizing projects to dismantle obsolete and abandoned facilities in French mountain ranges.

We’re almost there! With their hands in the soil, Caroline, 44, Louis, 28, and Isabelle, 57, join forces to pull out, as best they can, a piece of wire mesh stuck in the ground. This Sunday morning, the heights of Prémanon (Jura) disappear under a thick fog and the rain is soaking even the undergrowth. But nothing discourages the thirty volunteers who have come to take part in the worksite of Mountain Wilderness, a mountain protection association. Their mission? To dismantle a 1 km long and 2.50 m high fence, as well as 150 wooden posts. Installed in the early 1970s, it was used to pen a herd of reindeer used for sleigh rides. But in 1995, the founder of this tourist attraction filed for bankruptcy and the park closed its doors, leaving the facility abandoned. “Since then, it has been a real environmental disaster: we have found trapped chamois and hares and the fence was starting to damage the trees!” says Christophe Vincent, the association’s delegate in the department.

The operation is part of a campaign launched in the early 2000s, in response to a phenomenon observed almost everywhere in the French mountains: the abandonment, in the middle of nature, of facilities that are no longer used and are not maintained. “We find everything: tourist attractions, but also small ski resorts that have become unusable due to the weather conditions, remains of barbed wire or military munitions dating from the Second World War, agricultural or forestry structures in poor condition…”, lists Carmen Grasmick, head of the operation. Since the law does not require them to be dismantled, these facilities are converted into large-scale waste that disrupts the fauna and flora, and is sometimes even dangerous for visitors.

More than 300 sites listed

Although it is difficult to assess the extent of the problem today, an interactive map managed by the association gives an idea: more than 300 obsolete installations, mainly in the Alps, have been reported. “Since no one was concerned, we had the idea of ​​organizing construction sites by calling on the general public!” explains Carmen Grasmick. Since then, 78 sites have been cleaned. Last year, for example, an airplane wreck was removed in the Canigou massif (Pyrénées-Orientales), and rain gauges, a ski lift and an illegal dump, totaling 15 tons of scrap metal, were dismantled in Longviry (Jura).

Each operation is preceded by a long preparation phase: you have to obtain the authorization of the owners and the municipality, but also follow the recommendations of the administrations in terms of the environment – Dreal (Regional Directorate for the Environment, Planning and Housing), Natura 2000, etc. – or heritage, such as the Drac (Cultural Affairs). In Prémanon, if the alert was given in 2021, everything settled down a few months ago, when the son of the original owner, Alain Baud, inherited the land and gave his agreement. This time – this is far from always the case – a local craze immediately followed: some residents helped with the preparation of the site – in particular to clear the land – the town hall offered the aperitif and should even grant, with the community of communes, a small subsidy.

Change the law

In addition to funding the equipment and logistics, the initiative relies mainly on the motivation of volunteers, between 15 and 60 depending on the scale of the work. This morning, some have come from Savoie, Haute-Loire, Saône-et-Loire, and even Switzerland… Laurent, 58 years old and long involved in environmental protection, appreciates the very “concrete and satisfying” aspect of the initiative. “We also come for the moment of conviviality!” confides Michel, a 70-year-old former mountaineer and marker, as he fastens his helmet. They all have the same message. Dismantling these installations is “far from being that complicated”.

Mountain Wilderness has even come up with a “methodology sheet” so that citizens, beyond members, can get involved. “Our ambition, in the long term, is to raise awareness among as many people as possible and put pressure on the legislation to change,” recalls Carmen Grasmick. And it’s moving forward: in 2016, the association helped introduce an amendment to the Mountain II law requiring the dismantling of ski lifts at the end of their operation. A small step, but if you want to climb a mountain, you start at the bottom.

Recipes for success

  • Wide-open The projects do not require any DIY skills and the handling of specific tools is reserved for regulars: everyone can therefore volunteer.
  • Anti Waste The collected materials are most often distributed to scrap metal dealers who melt them down and reuse them. When the volume is large, professionals often pay a contribution.
  • Phase The association is working more and more with natural areas, such as the Écrins National Park, which allows for better identification of sites and coordination of their operations.

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