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The Slippery Slope of Ski Expansion.

A new scorecard issued in December 2000 and posted at http://www.skiareacitizens. com/ has rated 51 ski resorts on how environmentally sound their operations are. Comprising environmentalist groups such as Durango-based Colorado Wild and Utah's Save Our Canyons, the Ski Area Citizen's Coalition said it designed the scorecard to exert economic pressure; by choosing environmentally friendly ski areas, snow sport enthusiasts may encourage ski resorts to improve their environmental grade in the future.

About 11 million Americans skied or snowboarded at more than 500 ski areas in 1999, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. SnowSports Industries America, a trade organization, says the two sports produced $12.4 billion in direct and indirect revenues in 1999.

Only western resorts were considered for this year's scorecard. They were rated on factors such as pollution, traffic, whether they make artificial snow, and whether they avoid expansion onto undisturbed lands. The list of the 10 most environmentally friendly areas included Sundance, Utah, and Timberline Lodge in Oregon. "Failing" grades went to Colorado's Breckenridge Ski Resort and Telluride Ski and Golf Company, among others.

Expansions account for many of the criteria on the scorecard. Colorado Wild volunteer Jonathan Staufer says that cutting trees for new trails, lifts, and the development of roads, parking, houses, condominiums, stores, and restaurants all reduce wildlife habitat. In addition, says Richard Valdez, a Logan, Utah, fishery ecologist, western ski areas are traditionally situated amidst prime wildlife habitats, and expansion of these areas exacerbates declining wildlife populations.

Furthermore, say opponents, expansions come in the face of static demand. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), an industry trade organization, says total skier-days (or one day of skiing for one person) range between 50 million and 54 million per year, a total increase of 2-4% since the 1978-1979 season. Staufer claims expansions are not designed to accommodate new skiers but to increase market share and create settings for expensive real estate developments in the mountains. He says, "There are only two motives for ski area expansion: to facilitate ski area real estate development ... and as a marketing ploy for `newer, better, improved' ski areas." Many western ski areas are located inside National Forests, he observes.

Environmentalists are also concerned about the withdrawal of water from streams to make artificial snow. Valdez says removing a large volume of water from streams can be harmful because it stresses aquatic life and decreases the capacity of the stream to dilute pollutants. The demand for artificial snow peaks in fall and early winter, when stream flow is typically lowest, and is particularly acute in dry years, when streams are already running low.

But the ski industry claims it is already doing its part to preserve the environment. NSAA communications director Stacy Gardner says that "absolutely no development can occur without meeting rigorous state and federal environmental standards." In addition, she says, to reduce the impact of artificial snow making, some ski areas now store water in ponds, allowing gradual withdrawals during the year. Furthermore, she says water withdrawals, like ski area expansions themselves, are regulated by local, state, and federal authorities.

As an example of industry good faith, Gardner points to the NSAA's Sustainable Slopes environmental charter, a voluntary program developed in June 2000 to address environmental aspects of resort operation, including planning and design, water and energy use, habitat and forest management, recycling, and waste management. The charter also deals with environmental education for skiers. The press release announcing the charter listed one one standard as "Planning and design--to engage surrounding communities and interest groups in a dialog on development plans." The charter was developed with the input of groups including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Conservation Law Foundation, and ski areas representing about 70% of total skier visits have signed on. "We are very proud of our environmental efforts," says Gardner.

But opponents are not impressed with the charter, saying that it neither sets forth concrete goals for signatories nor includes provisions for monitoring or enforcement. But although the Ski Area Citizen's Coalition calls the environmental charter "greenwashing," Mark Sinclair, senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation branch in Montpelier, Vermont, says the charter is a way for the partnering organizations to at least begin working more cooperatively with ski areas and for them to improve their environmental record. Nonetheless, he says, his group will continue to sue ski areas if necessary to protect the environment.

Is the environmental scorecard a publicity stunt for no-growth proponents? Perhaps. Because Colorado Wild has opposed previous expansions, the ski industry says the scorecard is biased. But Staufer says Colorado Wild is not anti-skiing. "Skiing can be a good way of getting people out on public lands to enjoy them," he says. "If done correctly, [snow sports] can be relatively low-impact if you get a lot of people in one place rather than all over the place." Concentrating development is the best way to minimize impacts, he insists, and until the demand for skiing picks up, he says, "Our position is that there should not be a single ski area expansion on public lands."
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Author:Tenenbaum, David J.
Publication:Environmental Health Perspectives
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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