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From the Top: Skiing and the Environment

From the Top

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A two-part series on Skiing & The Environment¿provocatively titled “The End Of Skiing As We Know It?”¿begins in this issue. Authored by long-time SKI contributor and environmental writer Ken Castle, it is an “eyes wide open” look at the current state of affairs in a growing number of mountain towns, where skiing is now often portrayed in the same light as logging, mining and heavy industry. A well-oiled but rather niched eco-movement is poised to eliminate ski area expansions and even close ski terrain, which could raise lift ticket prices and congest slopes.

It ultimately seeks to restrict our access to public lands.From tiny, community owned Mt. Ashland, Ore., to massive Vail, Colo., environmental groups have grabbed headlines and sympathy. In some cases they raise legitimate concerns that must be resolved; in others they seem more interested in publicity than progress.Lost in the debate is a basic appreciation for the true value of skiing and snowboarding on U.S. Forest Service land. Ski resorts use just 1/10th of 1 percent of the 191 million acres of U.S. Forest Service land. This rather minor allocation of resources yields 30 million skier visits a year and gives a significant boost to ski town economies from coast to coast, while also generating about $25 million annually in fees for the Forest Service.

Skiing in its purest form embraces and celebrates the environment. It is an activity that allows everyone from grandparents to their grandchildren to experience the winter outdoors. It changes people’s lives for the better, gives them freedom and escape from the urban existence and allows ski town families to make a living.

I believe skiing is worth fighting for¿and so is the environment. Because you are a skier, chances are you care deeply about the health of our public lands, too. SKI has conducted numerous independent surveys over the past decade that show skiers are more concerned about the environment than all other sportsmen.

So why is skiing being portrayed as an environmental heavy?

One of the movement’s most compelling arguments is that ski resort expansion begets real estate development and a paving of our mountains. In some cases, they are right; resort expansion has helped trigger a suburban blight in our mountain towns. But to blindly oppose all development all the time, as the leader of one eco-group did at a ski industry conference last spring, is beyond naive.

To survive in the 21st century, mountain communities must be sustainable for all their stakeholders: visiting skiers, residents, businesses, the resort operator, the Forest Service and the environment. They must protect the public lands because they are at the root of their success. They must promote the construction of affordable housing and the establishment of an economy that allows ski town residents to make a living and raise a family. They must allow the resort operator to earn a fair return for its investment, and ensure that the resort operator has the best interests of the entire community in mind. They must work with the U.S. Forest Service to maximize enjoyment of public land while minimizing environmental impact. And they must be able to offer the public¿you, the SKI reader¿a recreational experience that provides spiritual renewal.This difficult issue becomes even more complex as the 21st century ski resort operator becomes real estate developer. For the past six decades, the vast majority of growth and development at the base of our ski resorts has been driven by independent developers and overseen by city and county governments. Many of these developers cared about one thing: selling units, pocketing the cash and breaking ground on the next project¿or even worse, just leaving town with the proceeds. The idea of creating a “sustainable community” came way too late. So in many of our beloved mountain towns, we are over-developed and out of balance: We lack the affordable homes for resiidents and places to stay for visitors¿while second, third and fourth homes stand vacant, occupying huge tracts of land. (Don’t misconstrue: Absentee owners can bring a lot to a community, but it comes at a price.)

Enter the ski resort operator as developer. Intrawest Corporation, for one, has done a good job of creating sustainable communities, of building villages that are dense, vibrant and bustling. They are the antithesis of the sprawl of empty homes and vacant condos that congest so many of our valleys. For Intrawest, this sustainable strategy ensures that there will be skiers at their resort spending money, which ensures they will be able to put out the best possible product. It has also brought hundreds of millions of dollars into their corporate coffers, a cash stream that on the surface portrays them as greedy land barons making money off the public lands.

That is how many vocal environmentalists and even people in high places in Washington, D.C., view today’s resort climate. And it’s at least partially responsible for the Forest Service’s surprising proposal to suddenly restrict skiing in the heart of Colorado in the future. The truth, in fact, takes a little more digging, a little more effort, a little more commitment. Restoring balance and building sustainability in our mountain towns requires cooperation from all the stakeholders.

So what can you do? Take the time to read the first part of the series in this issue and the second in December, when we explore the other side of the coin: the success stories of skiing and the environment. Also in this issue, take a look at the story on the proposed U.S. Forest Service plan for the White River National Forest on page 127. This document represents something of a surrender by the Forest Service to the vocal minority of environmental groups who simply want our sport to go away. If this proposal becomes national policy, we may end up forfeiting all kinds of recreational opportunities from coast to coast. You may decide that’s a wise step. It’s up to you to make the decision. But at least take the time to learn the issues¿from all sides.