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Ski Areas Graded on Environmental Practices

ENS) – Skiers have a choice this winter between truly environmentally friendly resorts and those whose "green" practices are more of a snow job. A coalition of grassroots conservation groups on Wednesday released a "scorecard" report that grades commercial ski areas throughout the west on a host of environmental criteria.

The groups, known collectively as the Ski Area Citizen's Coalition (SACC), say the scorecard is designed to give environmentally conscious people the information they need to plan a responsible skiing or snowboarding vacation.

"The ski industry itself continually informs us that skiers are environmentally inclined," said Darcy Thompson, a SACC member who coordinates the Crystal Conservation Coalition in Washington state.

"Yet until now, there has been no means for skiers or snowboarders to make recreation choices based on their concern for the environment."

Topping the SACC's scorecard of the most environmentally friendly ski areas is the Sundance Resort in Utah. Sundance, owned by actor and activist Robert Redford, earned an "A" letter grade with its 90.5 percent score.

Rounding out the top five ski resorts on the coalition's scorecard are the Timberline Ski Area in Oregon, the 49 Degrees North Mountain Resort in Washington, the Aspen Highlands Ski Resort in Colorado and the Sun Valley Resort in Idaho.

The west's worst destination ski resort in terms of environmental practices is the Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Colorado, the coalition's scorecard reported. Copper Mountain, owned by the Canadian based Intrawest Corporation, earned an "F" letter grade with its 19 percent score.

Rounding out the worst five ski resorts on the SACC scorecard are Snowbasin Ski Resort in Utah, Keystone Ski Resort in Colorado, The Canyons Resort in Utah and Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado.

Each ski resort on the scorecard was graded according to 11 "clearly defined criteria," the SACC said. The criteria include:
  • Avoiding expansion of developed skiing acreage into undisturbed forest
  • Avoiding commercial or residential development on undisturbed lands
  • Avoiding real estate development in conjunction with terrain expansion
  • Avoiding terrain alteration in environmentally sensitive areas
  • Undertaking new snowmaking activities
  • Avoiding water degradation from resort activities
  • Environmental policy positions and public disclosure
  • Wildlife habitat and forest protection
  • Containing impacts within the ski area boundary
  • Recycling, water conservation, energy conservation and pollution reduction
  • Traffic and emissions reduction
The group analyzed compliance with the criteria by sending each ski area two comprehensive surveys and three letters explaining the process. The group also gathered information by reviewing public documents, such as environmental impact statements, expansion proposals, forest plan revisions and formal opinions drafted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

In some cases, the group filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in order to identify ski area practices.

The coalition's members insist that they are not opposed to all ski areas in every instance. Jeff Berman, who sits on the coalition's steering committee, said that some ski resorts make "caring" environmental management decisions and should thus be patronized by the public.

But many ski resorts adhere to a "develop at all costs" philosophy regardless of environmental impacts or public opposition, in a reckless and short sighted attempt to keep up with their competition, Berman said.

"The scorecard clearly delineates which resorts fall into each category," Berman said.

About 90 percent of all ski areas in the western U.S. are on public lands leased from the U.S. Forest Service, Berman noted. He argues that since 1997, consolidation of the ski industry has driven many ski areas to expand in an effort to "keep up with the Joneses."

Much of that new expansion has little if anything to do with skiing, Berman said. In the last 20 years, Berman notes, skier numbers have increased less than one-tenth of one percent per year, while ski area expansions are proceeding at unprecedented rates.

Ski areas located in the White River National Forest in Colorado - which include well known destination resorts such as Vail and Aspen - illustrate that point, Berman said. Skier visits to resorts in that area have increased only 28 percent over the last 20 years, yet skiing acreage has more than doubled in that same time period, he noted.

Berman said the expansion drive is due to the pressure that ski areas feel to market share in the competitive destination ski resort industry. He says the phenomenon is often fueled by the U.S. Forest Service, which frequently approves ill conceived expansion proposals to the detriment of forest and wildlife health.

Berman said that in Colorado's White River National Forest, no amount of scientific evidence or public outcry has ever convinced the Forest Service to deny an expansion request.

In Colorado, the ski area expansion push has been largely driven by an effort to jack up property values of privately owned real estate, Berman said. Some ski industry companies, he noted, have purchased lands adjacent to proposed expansion sites located on public lands. Sometimes these properties are acquired through land exchanges with the Forest Service, Berman said.

Ski companies then propose that ski lifts and other infrastructure be built near these newly acquired lands, which can dramatically increase the property value of the company's privately held lands.

A portion of the Vail Resorts 1997 annual report clearly illustrates that point, Berman noted.

"To facilitate real estate development, Vail Resorts Development Corporation (VRDC) invests significant capital for on-mountain improvements, such as ski lifts, trails, and snowmaking. These improvements enhance the value of the company's real estate holdings. Following this strategy, VRDC invested significant capital to develop the Bachelor Gulch ski terrain. This investment ... also allowed VRDC to contract to sell 101 ski-in/ski-out homesites adjacent to the Bachelor Gulch ski terrain for an average of $750,000 per homesite," the company's report declared.

Such practices unfairly impact public lands, Berman said. Berman's group, Durango based Colorado Wild, is one of six organizations comprising the Ski Area Citizen's Coalition's steering committee.

Other conservation groups on the steering committee include the Crystal Conservation Coalition of Washington; Friends of the Inyo of California; the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Save Our Canyons of Utah. More than two dozen well known environmentalists and conservation groups have endorsed the SACC's scorecard.

The scorecard, explanations of scoring criteria and supporting documentation can be viewed online at

Story by By Brian Hansen and © Environment News Service (ENS) 2000. All Rights Reserved.

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