If you’ve ever skied, it’s unlikely anyone has to tell you there’s a difference between the way the locals approach the mountain and the way gapers from the Midwest approach it. Locals are often the first on and last off the lift. But the Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition has put a number on one of the things that matters to locals and doesn’t always seem to matter to tourists — the environmental impact of ski resorts on our public lands. The coalition grades ski areas in the western U.S. on habitat and watershed protection, addressing climate change and environmental policies and practices.
“We take it upon ourselves with the coalition to make those standards a little higher, to push those ski areas to be better stewards of the lands that they’re borrowing from us,” says Paul Joyce, conservation associate with Colorado Wild, one of the founding partners of the coalition.
First place, and a score of 89.7 out of 100, went to Squaw Valley in California.
Four Colorado resorts were ranked in the top 10: Aspen Mountain Ski Resort (second, with 86.1 percent); Buttermilk (third at 85.7 percent); Aspen Highlands Ski Resort (ninth, at 80.3 percent); and Powderhorn Resort (10th, at 79.4 percent). Those all count as A grades on the coalition’s report card.
“We’ve curved the heck out of it.
Otherwise everybody gets Fs,” Joyce says. “I don’t believe in Fs. They don’t encourage action or change.”
Breckenridge Ski Resort, Copper Mountain Ski Resort and Winter Park Resort have room to grow. Breckenridge tops the list for worst ski areas, followed by Copper Mountain.
Copper touts its investments in wind energy with signs at the base of the lifts announcing they’ve offset the carbon used to run ski lifts with wind power. The coalition scorecard calls that a start, and points to problems protecting the wetlands and the continuous growth of Copper Village as ways the resort is losing points in protecting the environment.
Breckenridge scored well in recycling waste — all Vail Resorts recycle about 70 percent of on-mountain waste. But new construction, like the relatively recent Peak 8 lift, and the roads and buildings it spawned, cost the area points. The test is weighted so that recent developments and terrain expansions cost an area a lot of points, Joyce says.
“The Forest Service looks at them as a partner in getting people out to enjoy their public lands, and that’s a beautiful partnership,” Joyce says. “But the flip side of that is that in the last decade we’ve seen a real move from the industry, from ‘getting out on public lands and it’s something everybody can enjoy’ to a very elitist, real estate-driven agenda.”
According to the coalition website, since the 1978-79 season, the number of skiers nationally has increased less than 2 percent. But ski areas, 90 percent of which are on public lands leased from the U.S. Forest Service, have continued to expand their terrain. In the White River National Forest, which leases the land used for Vail, Aspen, Breckenridge and Copper, skiers have grown by 28 percent since 1985, while ski area acreage has increased by 107 percent.
“They haven’t been such good stewards lately,” Joyce says. “They do a lot of green-washing to try and save face for a lot of the things they do with the land, but the reality is their impacts are huge, and they’re typically in very fragile landscapes. And they’re using their proximity to those landscapes for revenue.”
More ski areas are hiring environmental consultants, but they’re also leaving hot tubs uncovered, heating sidewalks and driveways, and installing lifts that come right out of hotels. Vail Resorts even has a bill before Congress to permit them to build roller coasters for summer use at the ski areas.
“Embracing conservation and making money aren’t conflicting interests,” Joyce says. “There are ways to attract your customers and make them feel good about their experience, and still charge them an arm and a leg, but have them be less impactful.”
More information is available at www.skiareacitizens.com.