Nature Conservation in Ski Country? The Vanoise National Park

by Isabelle Mauz
Arcadia, 2014, no. 2

View of the Grande Casse in the Vanoise National Park

Created in 1963 in the northern French Alps, the Vanoise National Park derived from three projects with very different origins, scopes, and aims. From the 1940s onwards, a renowned naturalist and mountain game hunter, Marcel Couturier (1897–1973), endorsed a project inspired by Gran Paradiso National Park in Italy. Like its Italian model, the goal of this project was to create a sanctuary for ibex; its proximity to Gran Paradiso National Park increased the wildlife conservation benefits.

In the 1950s, Gilbert André, deeply impressed by the lifestyles of the people he met during months of wandering through the French Alps, set out to save this Alpine civilization by creating a large “cultural national park.” He chose the upper Arc and Isère valleys for its site. At the same time, mountaineers and natural scientists made proposals for a much smaller park next to the Italian border.

Together, the three projects convinced policymakers of the need for a park in this area, which would, at last, endow France with its first national park. The person in charge of drafting a design was an urban architect, Denys Pradelle (1913–1999), who was also deeply involved in the creation of ski resorts. Skilfully, he combined the initial projects: the park would comprise a core zone delineated for the ibex, a buffer zone roughly inspired by the “cultural national park,” which was to promote local heritage and tourism, and strict nature reserves for the natural scientists. This spatial configuration influenced the 1960 French law on national parks, which was elaborated by the influential water and forest administration. Yet, the law introduced important differences. In particular, the park was given little power in the buffer zone. And the decree creating the park was resented locally, as the inhabitants felt that nature conservation had largely prevailed over the development dimension.

Despite these early tensions, the first years of the park were busy with hiring and training the staff, building the paths and cabins to welcome the visitors, and helping the ibex to colonize this newly protected territory.

Meanwhile, the ski resorts developed at high speed in the buffer zone. In particular, the upper Isère valley soon gathered one of the world’s highest concentration of ski resorts. The first major difficulty appeared in 1969, when a property developer embarked on building a ski resort in the core zone. Scientists and nature protectors led an intense two-year battle, at all levels, to “save the first French national park.” Known as “the Vanoise affair,” this episode marked the beginning of the environmental movement in France.

Ibex at the Col de la Vanoise

The conflict was settled by the government’s decision to reject the resort project. But the promoters obtained the permission to install ski facilities elsewhere in the core zone. From then on, the national park and the ski resorts, although born together, have existed in a state of constant tension with one another. And to this day, the Vanoise National Park seeks a tenuous balance between nature conservation and a booming tourism economy.


How to cite

Mauz, Isabelle. “Nature Conservation in Ski Country? The Vanoise National Park.” Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia (2014), no. 2. Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

ISSN 2199-3408
Environment & Society Portal, Arcadia

Further readings: 
  • Laslaz, Lionel. Vanoise: 40 ans de parc national; Bilan et perspectives. Paris: L'Harmattan, 2004.
  • Mauz, Isabelle. “Regional Development and the French National Parks: The Case of the Vanoise National Park.” In Protected Areas and Regional Development in Europe: Towards a New Model for the 21st Century, edited by Ingo Mose, 115–28. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.
  • Mauz, Isabelle. Histoire et mémoires du parc national de la Vanoise, 1921–1971: La construction. Grenoble: Revue de géographie alpine, 2003.
  • Mauz, Isabelle. Histoire et mémoires du parc national de la Vanoise. Trois générations racontent. Grenoble: Revue de géographie alpine, 2005.
  • Selmi, Adel. Administrer la nature. Paris: Editions de la MSH, Quae, 2006.