Sustainable slopes? Oh please...

Sustainable slopes? Oh please...

I had great time skiing with friends last week in Telluride, Colorado. I also felt a little guilty about it. This is one of the ways that my life (or at least the way in which I think about my life) has become more complicated since I've been paying closer attention to my environmental footprint.

Telluride is spectacularly beautiful. The people are friendly, and the old mining town has plenty of charm. Like other ski resorts, Telluride is also a place whose economic future depends on cold winters. If we don't curb global warming, Telluride will be in deep trouble-not tomorrow, not next year, but eventually.

So, as you'd expect, there's a lot of "green" talk around town and some meaningful efforts to protect the environment, as well as the town's appeal to vacationers.

Telluride Ski's website says:

Our environment is also our livelihood, and we intend to apply strong moral and ecological ethics to the stewardship of our natural resources, while taking a leadership role in the heightened environmental education and awareness of our guests, community, and employees.

And, to a casual visitor, Telluride puts forward a "green" face. Riding up Lift 4, one of the most popular routes to the top of the mountain, I was reminded by signs on every pole that told the lift is powered entirely by wind energy, thanks to a partnership between the resort and Clif Bar. In January, Telluride and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation introduced a program called SkiGreen, which invites skiers to pay an additional $2 when they buy lift tickets to support wind energy and offset their carbon emissions.

Telluride also discourages cars, for environmental and aesthetic reasons. A free shuttle bus circles the town. A free gondola operates until midnight, between the historic mining town of Telluride and the Mountain Village resort. A free, on-demand Dial-A-Ride taxi service is also available, as are employee shuttles to the nearby towns. If you must drive, you can rent an electric car from Go Green. This is all very cool, and the place is so compact that my friends and I walked everywhere we needed to go.

But who's kidding who? Despite the rhetoric on the website, I can't imagine what it would mean for a ski resort-which is adding new lifts, building new homes, and trying to attract more visitors every year-to apply "strong moral and ecological ethics to the stewardship of our natural resources." You don't "steward" a tree by chopping it down to make way for a $2 million home.

In Aspen, which is the center of the "green skiing" movement in the U.S., the resort's owners made a big deal for years about their efforts to conserve energy and water and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But the resort's head of sustainability, Auden Schendler, grew so frustrated that he talked to Business Week, which turned his complaints into a cover story called "Little Green Lies." A 2004 academic study of the ski industry association's voluntary "green" program, called Sustainable Slopes, found that it does "not involve specific environmental standards, lacks third-party oversight, and does not have sanctions for poor performance."

In Telluride, huge mountainside estates are being built and private jets line up at the tiny local airstrip. (Tom Cruise and Jerry Seinfeld are regular visitors.) More skiers mean more hotel rooms, condos, flights, energy use, GHG emissions, etc. That's business, and it's a good business-Telluride employs a lot of people and delivers a great vacation experience. But the cold truth is there's nothing green about a thriving ski resort, carved out of what was once mountain wilderness. That's one reason why radical enviros torched a bunch of buildings in Vail in 1998, causing $12 million in damage.

I might have overlooked all of this had I not stumbled across an essay in Telluride Magazine by Edward Abbey, the writer, park ranger and cantankerous environmentalist. In his blunt style, Abbey had this to say about the development of Telluride:

In 1970, a foreigner from California named Joseph T. Zoline moved in with $5 million and began the corruption of Telluride. Formerly an honest, decayed little mining town of about 300 souls, it is now a bustling whore of a ski resort with a population of 1,500 and many more to come, if all goes badly, as planned.

This was written in 1977, when the development was just getting started. Abbey goes on:

Men weep, men pray and barf, but money talks. Money walks and talks and get things done...Telluride. To hell you ride. All-year mountain playground...One more mountain forest, virgin valley, untainted town sacrificed on the greasy altar of industrial tourism and mechanized recreation.

Again, this was long before the construction of the mountain village, the gondola, the mega-sized second and third homes, none of which Abbey, who died in 1989, lived to see.

So what to make of all this? As I said, I had a great time with friends in Telluride. There's lots to like about the place, and its beauty may even inspire a few people to go home with a renewed appreciation of nature or a commitment to fight global warming. I'd like to go back next winter and, if I do, I'll buy offsets. But please-let's not pretend that there's anything sustainable about a ski vacation.