If you wanted to recycle a pop can at a ski resort 25 years ago, you were out of luck. It was the Dark Ages of environmental awareness. New slopes were bulldozed smooth as bowling balls and roads blazed to erect lift towers. On Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, machine oil regularly leaked into the parking lot and then into groundwater. Aspen dumped its trash into abandoned mine shafts.
Skiing has come a long way. Whether by force or choice, most resorts are realizing that a healthy mountain is a profitable one. The $1.5 billion ski resort industry, in fact, often breaks trail for environmentally sound business practices. Revegetation is a priority on the slopes of Snowmass, where wind-generated electricity powers the new Cirque lift. Killington, Vt., flushes toilets with gray water at four of its six lodges. Eldora Mountain, Colo., transports skiers on natural-gas-powered chairlifts. Stowe, Vt., has started an ambitious summer education program to prevent rare flora from being loved to death by hikers.
The ski industry also helps in less direct ways. The town of Breckenridge, Colo., flush with skier-generated tax dollars, spent $5.2 million on a project that included reclaiming the Blue River, which was dredged to death by gold miners a century ago. Instead of an environmental eyesore, the Blue is now a healthy stream with a greenway and the focal point of the town.
Back on the mountain, there is a new era in ski management. "You don't just bulldoze trails anymore. You stump them or you leave trees for habitat. You let vegetation grow back," says Chris Lane, who sits on the National Ski Area Association's environment committee.
Lane, a Sierra Club member, is a poster boy for the new, greener ski industry. He's the director of environmental affairs for the Aspen Skiing Company, a position created last year when the company also started an employee-run environmental foundation. Not many years ago, Aspen-and many other ski resorts-routinely sprayed used snowcat motor oil onto work roads in the summer to keep dust down. "It was very effective and extraordinarily polluting," says Jon Reveal, former Aspen executive and now president of Quebec's Mont-Sainte-Anne. "We just didn't know any better." Today Aspen burns its used motor oil in special furnaces to heat maintenance buildings, saving $4,000 annually in disposal costs alone.
"Ski resorts have worked through denial and anger to acceptance of the environmental community," says Dennis O'Shea, director of training and chairman of the environmental committee at Mt. Bachelor. In part, they've gone green to please their customers. "One of the reasons people get involved in the sport is because they want to be on the side of a mountain," says Rob Apple, director of planning and development at Stowe, which spends about $250,000 annually on environmental work.
But the ski industry's pro-environment stance is more than a public relations ploy. "It's smart business," says Stan Hansen, vice president of planning and governmental affairs for Heavenly, Calif. "We have one asset: the land. If you want to survive, you can't soil your own nest." President Clinton stopped by Lake Tahoe last year to congratulate Tahoe areas on their efforts to keep Lake Tahoe clean.
When Keystone, Colo., opened its Outback expansion in 1991, it built nearly 6 miles of sedimentation fences to prevent construction runoff from ruining a nearby stream. An estimated 10 percent of the Outback's $32 million budget went to environmental efforts. Colorado's Winter Park had U.S. Forest Service approval to build a road to construct a lift and move materials when it expanded into Parsenn Bowl in 1992. The resort instead ran snowcats to move materials.
But skeptics contend the real green the ski industry loves is the color of money. "I'm most concerned about accountability. A lot of ski areas will maintain that they are proper stewards, but they are businesses, and profit is the bottom line," says James McCaffrey, ddirector of the Massachusetts Sierra Club chapter. McCaffrey's group is so peeved at the way Wachusett Mountain Ski Area treated an old growth forest it's calling for the revocation of the ski area's lease.
Rocky Smith, consultant to the Colorado Environmental Coalition, says the ski industry's goal is simple: "to make a profit." He sees some of skiing's new environmental push as "green wash" to placate baby-boomers. "Is the industry telling the truth when it says that it is environmentally friendly? Essentially, it is not," says Smith. "When you bring a lot of people to one place, you're going to have impacts." As Randy Udall, director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency in Aspen, says, "skiing today is tourist-based, real estate-based and growth-based. It creates urban infrastructure at the base of mountains."
There's no doubt that the ski industry impacts the mountains. Roughly 50 million annual skier days will do that. But many resort executives note that skiing walks with a much lighter step on the environment than the traditional extraction industries of mining and timbering-and most other businesses, at that. Most important, skiing gets people outside, creating an appreciation for winter in the mountains that otherwise wouldn't exist.
The ski industry sees itself as leading the green charge. Lane insists that "ski areas and environmentalists are not that far apart," while O'Shea hopes that someday Mt. Bachelor will be perceived as an "earth hero." Heavenly's Hansen speaks for skeptics and supporters when he notes: "We don't have a choice. If a resort is a dump, nobody will come. Everyone agrees on that."
Golden Eagle Awards honor resorts that are going green
Each year, The Skiing Company, publisher of SKI, honors the environmental efforts of ski areas around the country with Golden Eagle and Silver Eagle awards. These resorts have found creative solutions to environmental problems. The 1998 winners:
The Golden Eagle Award for overall excellence in ski resort management goes to the Aspen Skiing Company. It is committed to preserving the mountain ecosystem in which it operates, and has been active, effective and innovative in resolving local transportation issues, improving air quality, supporting community outreach programs, improving energy and water efficiency and protecting wildlife habitat.
Silver Eagle Awards go to Stratton Mountain, Vt., for water conservation; Whistler/ Blackcomb, B.C., for environmental education; Steamboat, Colo., for ski area design; and Aspen, for wildlife protection and community outreach.