First Resorts

When you’re choosing where to ski or snowboard, follow your ecoconscience

| November-December 2006

High on a mountain, with a dome of blue overhead, rugged peaks all around, and acres of snow-covered terrain underneath, it’s easy for skiers and snowboarders to feel deeply in tune with nature: just them and gravity, a pure sport in a pristine environment. For an increasing number of downhill snow sport lovers, however, it’s impossible to ignore the reality that their good time is actually pretty hard on the natural world.

Many skiers get to the mountains in CO2-burning planes and cars. Chairlifts, grooming machines, and chalets consume lots of energy, as do snowmaking machines, which also gulp huge amounts of water. Ski areas often expand, cutting deeper into wilderness, usually on public land, and proposals are always being floated for new areas. Factor in the relentless real estate development that follows, with its focus on slopeside luxury living, and the downsides are many.

“The environmental effects of ski areas just suck in general,” says Lisa Ruoff, a snowboarder who lives near Carbondale, Colorado, halfway between the ski meccas of Aspen and Vail. “A green ski area is kind of an oxymoron.”

So what’s a green skier or snowboarder to do? Luckily, there are ways to keep feeding your passion while you take action to lessen your impact on those mountains you love.

The best ecoresource for people who ski in the western United States is the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition, a project of several western environmental groups. The coalition evaluates and grades ski areas from A to F based on their environmental policies and practices, and posts results on its website. A key consideration is the size of a resort’s footprint on the land, and terrain expansions are evaluated based on their impact. The coalition also considers such factors as a resort’s energy sources, its water use, its protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat, and its support for “sound” environmental policies.

For nearly three decades, U.S. skier numbers have been stagnant, growing less than one-tenth of a percent a year. And yet what is sometimes called the “ski area arms race” for more terrain continues as resorts try to lure customers with superlatives. A recent newspaper ad for Colorado’s Vail-owned Breckenridge resort touts “150 new acres of expert-only terrain, a new eight-passenger gondola, and the highest lift in North America.” And the resort’s new slogan verges on self-parody: “The perfect mountain town just got more perfect.” The Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition disagrees, giving Breckenridge an F.