First Resorts

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Image by Flickr user: Skistar Trysil / Creative Commons

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.

Local residents are often the most acutely aware of the effects of ski areas on the environment and on mountain communities, says the coalition’s research director, Ben Doon. The group taps and shares that expertise.

“They’ve grown up in the area and seen just how much it’s changed,” he says. “For example, the Vail Valley was essentially nothing but lettuce farms until 1962, and now it’s one of the more urban corridors in all of Colorado. And that’s happened in just 40 years.”

The U.S. ski industry’s umbrella group, the National Ski Areas Association, has its own environmental program called Sustainable Slopes. Resorts join the program by signing a charter spelling out environmental goals. But the six-year-old program has come under fire from the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition and other critics for being purely voluntary and lacking incentives or penalties.

“Basically, the ski areas don’t have to lift a finger in order to display that Sustainable Slopes logo,” Doon says. “All they have to do is say, yeah, we believe in the principles of the environmental charter, so we’re fully accredited.

“Sustainable Slopes is a set of decent ideas that certainly would be nice if ski areas all implemented them, but beyond that it has nothing. It has no teeth, no reward system, no punishment system. It recognizes everybody as the same, when different resorts clearly are doing different things.”

Doon gives more credit to a different National Ski Areas Association campaign, Keep Winter Cool, which aims to raise awareness of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. While studies have shown that skiers place a higher priority on the environment than the general public does, the Keep Winter Cool campaign reinforces the message that skiing itself is at stake. “The biggest impacts are likely to be felt where it matters most for winter sports: at higher elevations and northern latitudes,” the website warns.

Unfortunately, there’s no watchdog like the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition that provides similarly detailed evaluations for ski areas in other parts of the United States. But the Ski Club of Great Britain has launched a Respect the Mountain campaign and an accompanying green resort guide that gives at least a glimpse of the ecofriendliness of ski resorts around the world.

While these websites are useful tools, concerned skiers can use their own heads and guts, too. Ruoff, the Colorado snowboarder, grew disenchanted with Vail Resorts about 10 years ago when the ski conglomerate expanded its flagship Vail ski area into an area that environmentalists said was habitat to the endangered lynx.

“Vail went against pretty much every environmental policy they could to become the biggest ski area in this nation,” Ruoff says. “It’s on public land, and they’re making a fortune on it, and they’re doing whatever they want. They have a ton of room now, but no matter how much you pay, you still can’t ski all of it in one day, so it’s kind of pointless. I just stopped going.”

Ruoff won’t patronize any ski areas owned by Vail Resorts, which now comprise nearly every resort on Colorado’s Front Range. Instead, she goes to small, independently owned local resorts or to ones owned by the Aspen Skiing Company.

Ruoff says she has gotten “a load of crap” from friends when they want to go to a Vail area and she puts her foot down. She isn’t sure she’s changed any minds with her anti-Vail stance, but she thinks she may have at least opened some ski pals’ eyes to the reasons behind it, and she feels better giving her money to ski areas that are more in sync with her views.

“I like to think that I’m making some sort of a difference,” she says, “but I can only be accountable for my own actions.”

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