Super hot skiing

Recently, the ski industry has gotten fired up about global warming. But as resorts continue to carve new runs through the forests, the industry's green image is looking like a snow job.

By Dan Oko
Published January 26, 2007 12:33PM (EST)

The snowy upper ridges of Vail Mountain offer stunning views of the Colorado Rockies. Below, well-heeled skiers get their thrills on tricky black diamond runs such as Dragon's Teeth and Rasputin's Revenge, enjoying the epic terrain that has made Vail a top resort destination for generations. Along the remote crest, there are no signs of the 1998 fires that made America's largest ski resort one of the country's most famous targets of eco-sabotage. In October of that year, a group of radical activists affiliated with the Earth Liberation Front torched patrol shacks, ski lifts and Vail's mountaintop Two Elk Restaurant. The extremists hoped to derail a controversial proposal to expand skiing into crucial habitat for the endangered Canada lynx. The damage totaled $12 million.

While the arsonists drew unprecedented public attention to the negative environmental impacts of skiing, their efforts had little effect on resort practices. In 2000, Vail opened up its Blue Sky Basin expansion and a groundswell of sympathy for the resort helped expand the number of skiers and snowboarders who lined up to explore the 520 acres of new terrain. Although sections of forest were chopped down to make room for three new high-speed lifts and dense woods were thinned to improve skiing, Vail did close a couple of small pockets of wildlife habitat to skiers. The final twist was that the resort came away from the vandalism enjoying a better environmental reputation than those who had long opposed the expansion.

The Vail incident comes to mind today, as the ski industry is undergoing an about-face on the environment that was almost unimaginable a decade ago. In the past few years, Vail, its swanky neighbor Aspen, and many other leading ski resorts, have become a leading force in addressing the biggest potential calamity facing the modern world: global warming. Which, mind you, is no selfless conversion. If the earth is warming and the snow is melting, there goes the skiing. "As an industry, it's certainly on our mind, and the minds of our guests," says William A. Jensen, co-president of Vail Resorts, and chairman of the National Ski Areas Association, a trade group. "As our customers have become more educated, more concerned, and more impassioned about the environment, we have tried to address their expectations. I care personally about being an environmental steward."

Although that sounds like pure P.R., forward-thinking resorts have earned the respect of major environmental groups. "As an industry, they are light-years ahead on the issue of global warming," says Eben Burnham-Snyder of the National Resources Defense Council, which, since 2003, has worked with NSAA on a global-warming education program called Keep Winter Cool. "The ski industry really understands what global warming means for them."

Yet wary environmentalists, mindful of how Vail burnished its green image after the arson, despite plowing down hundreds of additional forest acres, say it's too soon to start singing hosannas to the ski industry. Given the energy it takes to carry skiers and snowboarders to the slopes, and provide them with places to stay, shop, eat and drink, renewable energy programs seem the least resorts can do. As with car commercials touting the fuel efficiency of new hybrid SUVs, it remains to be seen whether the ski industry's new earth-friendly posture is more than just another greenwash.

Global warming predictions vary, but it's clear to all but climate change skeptics that if current trends persist, most of the world's ski resorts may not survive the next 100 years. Warming trends in Europe this winter prompted officials to cancel races on the World Cup circuit, and the United Nations warns that if temperatures continue to rise, by 2050 Switzerland stands to lose $2.1 billion in annual snow-sports revenue.

The Rocky Mountains are thousands of feet taller on average than the European Alps and more likely to withstand the effects of global warming. But on top of struggling with warmer weather this winter, studies reflect that in the past 50 years the East Coast has seen a 15 percent decrease in snowfall. New research on California's Sierra Nevada range, meanwhile, indicates that if spring temperatures rise by a mere 5 degrees on average, and scientists say they've gained more than 2 degrees since 1950, the Golden State may lose 89 percent of its natural snow pack. Aspen and Park City, Utah, have sponsored their own studies that show winter shrinking by about three weeks over the next 50 years, and this too has got them worried.

Skiing is estimated to be a $4 billion annual industry in the U.S. and so the economic stakes are substantial. That goes for the U.S. government as well. Under special-use permits issued by the Department of Agriculture, 190,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land are managed by ski resorts, positioning skiing and snowboarding as the No. 1 recreational activity on federal lands. After a decade with a flat turnout, American resorts set a record last winter with more than 59 million visits across 15 states. Although federal returns have not been tallied for the past year, the U.S. Treasury in 2005 collected more than $24 million in fees from the 134 resorts that operate on federal land, comprising 60 percent of all ski areas in the U.S. By contrast, the national parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, command 84 million acres, and accounted for $160 million in 2005. There are differences in the way facilities are run by the National Park Service, a federal agency, but the fact remains that ski resorts pocket 96 percent of the money they earn from lift-ticket sales.

At any rate, the resorts are indeed intent on becoming better stewards on the climate change front. This fall, Vail became the nation's second largest corporate buyer of renewable energy (the largest is Whole Foods), purchasing enough wind power to run 100 percent of its operations, from high-speed chairlifts to condo lighting. Vail will buy about 152,000 hours of wind energy this year, enough power to run 14,000 homes. This past December, the resort received an early Christmas present from the Environmental Protection Agency, which granted it one of its Green Power Leadership Awards.

Similar energy deals are under way at two dozen ski areas in a move to offset carbon emissions, which contribute to global warming. On the East Coast, Sugarbush Resorts in Vermont -- once known as "Mascara Mountain," and a favorite haunt of the Kennedys and their ilk -- has installed energy-efficient nozzles on snow-making equipment, and the resort boasts a "Green Team" to teach skiers about woodland ecology and wildlife.

Aspen has been an industry leader in environmental affairs for close to a decade. On top of being one of the first ski companies to purchase renewable energy to offset its carbon output -- Sugar Bowl in California was the first to attain the goal of buying 100 percent green energy -- Aspen has installed solar panels at one of its slope-side patrol shacks and currently runs its snow-grooming machinery on biodiesel to help minimize toxic emissions. This past September, it joined 12 states and three environmental groups in a Supreme Court suit against the EPA, requiring the agency to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. It also launched an ad campaign called Save Snow, featuring a gloomy magazine ad labeling snow an endangered species, touting its environmental achievements and encouraging skiers to take political action to battle global warming.

As Aspen's director of environmental affairs, Auden Schendler is not fazed by the greenwash label. "We worked for 10 years getting our own house in order before taking this campaign public," he says. "If you know what we're doing, you can't truly understand what we're doing and still call it a greenwash. Some of us are like moles inside this corporation driving these changes, and what we're trying to do is fix an economic system." Schendler is realistic about the effect of recent green developments. "I don't think that putting in rinky-dink solar panels and buying renewable energy is what's going to necessarily make the difference," he says. "We need to use the power of our industry as a platform to do the sorts of things we're seeing the state of California do, in terms of carbon taxes and lobbying the federal government on regulatory controls. Ski resorts need to continue to do these other things on their own, but this is the direction the industry has to be moving in if we're going to make a real difference. We're part of this environmentally damaging business but we're trying to do business in a less damaging way."

Joining the fight against global warming, however, does not absolve resorts from dealing with their impacts on local watersheds, air quality or the land itself. As a former contributor to the glossy Ski magazine, Hal Clifford knows well the damaging legacy of ski area development. Currently the executive editor of the national environmental journal Orion, Clifford is also the author of a damning 2003 book on the industry, "Downhill Slide." Citing a range of sources, Clifford unveils a laundry list of complaints against ski areas.

"Whether they're bunny slopes or double-black-diamonds, ski runs are permanent clearcuts," he writes. "Air quality in car-dependent mountain towns has often failed to meet federal clean-air standards. Biodiversity in woodlands surrounding ski areas drops significantly as a consequence of year-round disturbance. And snowmaking creates or exacerbates drought conditions in mountain streams."

It's not just eco-journalists who worry about these issues. In a recent report on the impact of resort development in the Sierra Nevada, the California Alpine Resort Environmental Cooperative, a business partnership that counts several ski areas as members, states that sediment stirred up by development, including of ski resorts, is a major water pollutant. A standard high-speed quad chairlift pumps 200,000 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere annually (according to Aspen Ski Co. statistics), and there are around 2,000 lifts nationally. Snowmaking depletes seasonal streams, the majority of grooming machines still chug diesel smog into the otherwise fresh air, and resort expansion and aggressive real-estate development pose a major threat to pristine landscapes.

Fifty-four American resorts do rely on renewable energy to cover at least a portion of their electricity needs, and 22 of these are offsetting 100 percent of their carbon emissions, or the rough equivalent of 147,000 round-trip flights between New York and San Francisco. Yet the fact remains that of the 300-plus resorts that belong to the National Ski Areas Association, fewer than 30 participate in a voluntary environmental program run by the NSAA called Sustainable Slopes.

Resorts that sign the Sustainable Slopes charter promise to be good stewards and use renewable energy, conserve water, dispose of waste, ease traffic congestion, and protect wildlife habitat. Easier said than done, admits Geraldine Link, public policy director for the NSAA. She explains that most resorts simply can't afford to go green. "You have to keep things in perspective," she says. "It takes money for a lot of resorts to sign on, and the fact that not everyone does, to me, says it's an onerous program. I have to respect that. I represent the industry, and the bottom line is that not everyone can be an Aspen."

Meanwhile, even some of the resorts that have signed on to Sustainable Slopes face criticism. "What we see are the resorts that are often the biggest purchasers of wind power are a lot of times the worst environmental offenders," says Ryan Bidwell, director of the Colorado nonprofit Citizens Ski Area Coalition, which produces a yearly environmental ranking of resorts across the West. "Our point is not to say this is necessarily greenwashing by the industry. But we want skiers to understand that just because a resort buys green energy does not mean it's an environmentally friendly company."

For the past six years, the coalition score card has offered a critical snapshot of the ecological effects from resorts spanning Washington, Utah, California, Colorado and other Western states. In addition to energy concerns, the coalition looks at specific expansion plans, real-estate development, habitat preservation, environmental building technology, transportation and water conservation. This year, the best grade went to Aspen, while efforts at smaller ski areas such as Bogus Basin, near Boise, Idaho, were also rewarded. The lowest grade went to Breckenridge in Colorado, a Vail-owned resort that has asked the U.S. Forest Service to approve a plan to develop 4,000 acres on public land, despite protests about effects on endangered species such as the white-tailed ptarmigan and Canada lynx, the critter at the heart of the 1998 arson. Docked for its lack of recycling programs, and proposals to increase its real-estate offerings and open up more than 100 acres of new ski terrain, the oldest resort in the country, Sun Valley, Idaho, received a lowly D. Due to financial constraints, the coalition does not grade East Coast resorts.

A skier himself, Bidwell insists the goal of the report card is not to keep people from skiing but simply to educate them. "Our intent is not to make skiers feel guilty," he says. "Our intent is to provide skiers with information so they know that not all ski resorts are created equally. The Forest Service, EPA and local governments need to hear from the public that letting the ski resorts have their way on public lands is not appropriate."

Retired U.S. Forest Service recreation planner Scott Phillips, who during his 26-year career worked on master plans for resorts on federal lands across Idaho, Wyoming and Nevada, agrees that ski resort development has gotten out of control, and needs to be reined in. "Don't we have enough downhill ski areas to satisfy current demands?" says Phillips. "Downhill skiing has provided wonderful opportunities for the past 50 to 60 years but things have gotten out of hand, a little crazy, if you ask me."

It's easy to admire the ski resorts for their efforts to stem global warming but difficult to see how it offsets their continued desire to expand. And expansion, declares author and environmentalist Clifford from his home in Massachusetts, rules the day. As with most corporate endeavors, he says, the need to fatten the bottom line and serve stockholders has left the industry without a moral, much less ecological compass. "Business is amoral," Clifford says.

Rather than embrace ethical business models favored by conservationists, many resorts have become fixated on terrain expansion, carving new runs, installing new chairlifts and upgrading snow-making capacity. As a result, wildlife suffers, forests get logged, and despite vows of energy conservation, electricity bills continue to soar. Beaver Creek in Colorado, also owned by Vail, even has heated sidewalks. Consequently, resorts demand higher prices for lift tickets, while trying to entice more out-of-state and international skiers to fly in, pushing second-home sales and real-estate schemes whenever possible; in fact, a scan of resort Web sites reveals that real-estate shares billing with environmental education and skier safety campaigns.

"Every year, there needs to be something new," says Clifford. "The model is all about play. Year after year, the resorts want to be seen as a shiny new toy." Clifford admits that he still skis, albeit infrequently, drawn by the beauty of the mountains and the playfulness of alpine sport. The rush of cool mountain air still has the capacity, he says, to stir a sense of wonder and excitement, and alpine sports provide families a chance to engage in a wholesome group activity and get some exercise. It's an idealized way to view skiing, he admits, one that does not reflect the forces at play in a highly competitive resort marketplace. Ultimately, every eco-aware skier has to face the cruel contradictions of participating in an environmentally damaging sport.

The resorts themselves, having staked their claim on addressing global warming issues and improving energy conservation, remain largely conventional in their views on development. Even Schendler, director of environmental affairs at Aspen, is unequivocal about the need for ski resorts to expand. Despite having instituted companywide recycling programs for construction material and green building codes that require new housing to have efficient heating and heavy-duty insulation, Schendler does not see any end to the building itself. "Development and continued resort expansion is pretty much the price of entry for being in this business," he says. "That said, I think that industry should be using absolutely the best practices when it comes to expansion, using the latest technology, and resorts should certainly avoid environmentally sensitive areas. But there's no way around it. Expansions are part of the way we do business."

Steve Smith, a Denver representative of the national Wilderness Society, has tangled with Aspen and other Western resorts over development in the past. He acknowledges that the industry deserves credit for raising the profile of climate change issues. But for Smith, that's not the end of the story, especially when it comes to the threats expansions pose to federal lands. "The generalized notion that 'we're a business, and we're obliged to expand the company' is itself naive," he says. "At some point, whether these companies like it or not, they will have to adjust their business plans to work within the constraints of the natural environment. In the end, it is not enough to improve energy efficiency."

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.


Dan Oko

Dan Oko is a freelance journalist based in Austin. His work has appeared in Outside, Mother Jones, Audubon and Skiing.

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