Effects of ski piste preparation on alpine vegetation.
Ski resorts increasingly affect alpine ecosystems through enlargement of ski pistes, machine-grading of ski piste areas and increasing use of artificial snow. In 12 Swiss alpine ski resorts, we investigated the effects of ski piste management on vegetation structure and composition using a pairwise design of 38 plots on ski pistes and 38 adjacent plots off-piste. Plots on ski pistes had lower species richness and productivity, and lower abundance and cover of woody plants and early flowering species, than reference plots. Plots on machine-graded pistes had higher indicator values for nutrients and light, and lower vegetation cover, productivity, species diversity and abundance of early flowering and woody plants. Time since machine-grading did not mitigate the impacts of machine-grading, even for those plots where revegetation had been attempted by sowing. The longer artificial snow had been used on ski pistes (2-15 years), the higher the moisture and nutrient indicator values. Longer use also affected species composition by increasing the abundance of woody plants, snowbed species and late-flowering species, and decreasing wind-edge species. Synthesis and applications. All types of ski piste management cause deviations from the natural structure and composition of alpine vegetation, and lead to lower plant species diversity. Machine-grading causes particularly severe and lasting impacts on alpine vegetation, which are mitigated neither by time nor by revegetation measures. The impacts of artificial snow increase with the period of time since it was first applied to ski piste vegetation. Extensive machine-grading and snow production should be avoided, especially in areas where nutrient and water input are a concern. Ski pistes should not be established in areas where the alpine vegetation has a high conservation value.