Green vs. Growth - Ski Mag

Green vs. Growth

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Skiers look at a wintry mountainside and wonder: Where's the lift? Defenders of the environment look at the same mountainside and sigh: Thank heavens there's no lift...yet. In recent years, virtually every expansion request from ski areas on public lands¿and most major ski areas are on public land¿has been challenged, often successfully, always passionately, by environmental groups whose message boils down to this: Enough already, no more! Are they right? Are there already enough ski lifts, ski runs, and ski -resort parking lots in America's mountains? Right or wrong, one thing is clear. Environmental confrontation over every single step in the expansion of mountain resorts has become the norm. There are virtually no environmental confrontations over the creation of new ski resorts today, because past environmental battles have effectively stopped new resort development. Resort expansion is the only battlefield left, but it's an intense one.

Environmental protests against ski-area development date back at least to 1963, when Walt Disney tried to build a ski resort at Mineral King, a high basin in the southern Sierra. With breathtaking arrogance, Disney announced that it wanted to blast an access road across a corner of Sequoia National Park to reach its proposed Mineral King resort. Disney simply misunderstood the almost sacred character of National Parks. The Sierra Club came to the defense of this precious American turf, and the rest was history¿a bad history of court battles, PR battles, growing and lasting mistrust. Disney finally relented, but the die was cast. Mineral King was never built, and a tradition of misunderstanding and bitter opposition between ski-area developers and environmentalists had been established. Misunderstanding and opposition we are all still suffering from today, because no one, really, is getting what they want in this endless series of confrontations. In some ways, though, the arena of concern and confrontation has shifted. Skiing¿and its inevitable infrastructure of lifts, on-mountain eateries, and logged ski runs ¿is a relatively minor ecological degradation of National Forest land, compared with the endless square miles of clear-cutting, the destructive road building, and other extractive excesses that roll on unchecked on public land. Today a different environmental drama is being played out on private land in the valleys beneath the snowy peaks of ski areas¿a drama of rampant resort growth that resembles everyday suburban sprawl imported whole into once pristine mountain settings. It's not just environmentalists who are panicked; long-time residents of mountain-resort communities are waking up to the fact that their beautiful hideaways are threatened by mile after mile of strip developments radiating out from even the most attractive resort centers.Ultimately, no one is happy. Residents and resort operators are caught on the treadmill of "highest-use" thinking, afraid not to develop every possible square foot for fear that the gravy train of mountain development will leave them behind.

But they are also acutely aware that with each new condo project, each new shopping complex, each mini-industrial park, their mountain environment¿their biggest draw¿is losing its charm and cachet. The image of killing the goose that laid the golden egg is uncomfortably apropos.

No one, yet, has come up with a truly workable strategy to tame runaway mountain-town development. Environmental activists wind up targeting ski-area improvement and expansion with a stunningly creative array of legal maneuvers, in large measure because they feel they have no other point of leverage. Develop-ment on National Forest land is tightly regulated by federal law, whereas there is almost no way to oppose commercial development on already zoned private lands. But environmentalists have also focused on slowing or stopping ski-area growth because they have long assumed thatrowth in ski towns is driven by the growth and expansion of ski facilities. This is no longer a given.

For some people, skiing today is not the overwhelming, life-consuming enthusiasm that it once was. For them, it has really become just another resort amenity, one more attraction in a diverse four-season resort scene¿like golf, trail rides, tennis, or mountain biking. One more activity that city dwellers can enjoy when they get away from it all for a weekend or a holiday. It would seem, perhaps, that getting away from it all, getting away from the stress, the noise, and the insecurity of city life, has become the major engine driving the mountain-resort economy, whether in the Rockies, New England, or the Far West.

There is another relatively new factor that is accelerating resort expansion¿a factor that thoughtful environmental activists have been quick to point out. That factor is Wall Street. Conventional wisdom holds that publicly traded companies¿which include multi-ski-area corporations Vail Resorts, Intrawest, and the American Skiing Company¿need a substantial annual growth in revenues just to maintain the value of their stock in a growth market. Yet skier numbers have been flat for so long that such growth can only come in four-season resort development (real estate, lodging, restaurants, resort retail) rather than from increased lift-ticket dollars. This is the business side of the resort growth equation that, when coupled with urban flight on the demand side, is doing a lot more to fuel the rampant expansion of mountain communities than faster lifts and widened ski trails.

With the market pushing these large ski-area corporations toward a strategy of maximum growth, it would seem unrealistic to expect these companies to act solely out of loyalty to local mountain communities or local environmental needs and not to stockholders. This, at least, is the analysis of a number of vehement anti-ski-area-expansion groups. And it's hard to refute.

Jeff Berman is head of one such group, Colorado Wild. Jeff himself doesn't look particularly wild. He's a young man with curly almost auburn hair who speaks calmly but passionately about why he thinks most ski-area expansion is unjustified. He quotes from a Vail Resorts' annual report: "To facilitate real estate development, VRDC Vail Resorts Development Company invests significant capital for on-mountain improvements, such as ski lifts, trails, and snowmaking...." Ski-area expansions do, indeed, make the overall ski experience better. But the argument that in a flat skiing market, ski-area expansion may have goals beyond simply offering more and better public-recreation opportunities on public lands is a persuasive one.

Vail, the largest and arguably most successful ski resort in the United States, is a natural and symbolic target for environmental protests of all kinds. The arson that blackened lifts on top of Vail mountain in the fall of '98 was clearly the work of some unhinged monkey wrenchers, an irrational and counterproductive protest that only generated sympathy for the ski area. Such actions are simply aberrations, a far cry from the serious legal challenges lodged against Vail and other expanding ski areas by thoughtful environmental organizations. At Vail, for example, recent challenges to ski-area expansion have focused on the threat to critical habitat for the lynx, nearly extinct in Colorado¿a debate that hinges more on science and research than on angry protest.

Legal challenges to every step in the Forest Service permitting process have, in fact, become the norm. A genuine activist like Jeff Berman views the future of ski-area expansion as an almost endless series of pitched battles, legal battles to be sure, designed to hold ski companies to the exact letter and to the spirit of every possible environmental regulation. Designed as well to question the necessity and logic of every new lift, every new run, every new mountain restaurant.

Interestingly, Vail's Category III expansion into bowls beyond the Back Bowls could well produce a maximum of skiing with a minimum of tree cutting¿a rarity in Colorado. But for many sincere environmentalists, even one tree is one too many. For them, there seems no room for compromise because, as a strategy, the less they compromise, the more wild land they'll be able to save from bulldozers and from cash registers.

Opposition to ski-area expansion is not just a Rocky Mountain phenomenon. In New England, ski areas and preservationists have been at loggerheads for decades. In New England, though, the battles tend to have a somewhat different look and feel from those in the West.

Water, more than wilderness and wildlife habitat, tends to be the critical factor used to oppose New England ski-area expansion¿above all, water for snowmaking. In the East, where snowmaking is a ski area's lifeblood in a low-snow year, ski-resort operators are unwilling to undertake major expansions without the semiguarantee of good conditions that snowmaking provides. As a result, many of the sharpest opponents of Eastern ski-area growth have zeroed in on water as the weak link in these expansion plans.

A key issue in a major expansion plan at Stowe is water. An obvious source for new snowmaking water is the West Branch of the Little River, but it has already failed to meet state standards for sufficient flow levels. So far, every alternative proposal (like building an eight-mile pipeline to pump reservoir water into a snowmaking pond) has met with equally confounding snags.

Expansion schemes aren't lacking in New England, where the proximity to major urban centers makes upcountry resorts look like the promised land (or so developers hope). The long-range growth plan for Killington, for example, would turn this resort into the second biggest city in Vermont, after Burlington¿a prospect that sends preservation-minded Vermonters into orbit. Like Stowe, expansion at Killington also involves water issues.

Vermont has one of the toughest (or most progressive, depending on your stance) development rules of any state in the union. Public officials in the Rockies and the Far West drool with envy over Vermont's Act 250, which makes all major developers, ski areas included, answer a complex set of impact questions before their projects can get off the ground, and the first of these involves water quality. But Vermont environmentalists nonetheless worry about the cumulative impact of multiple projects. In the absence of a mechanism to control that impact, environmental activists and their lawyers are looking for any levers to apply the brakes. In the East, water is clearly one such lever.

Although nonstop legal challenges to ski-resort expansion have become the accepted and expected strategy for concerned environmentalists, it is an expensive strategy, for both sides and for the public. As last-ditch environmental battles keep raising the ante, the cost of enjoying the mountain-resort life keeps escalating. Skiing, in case you hadn't noticed, isn't getting any cheaper.

Is there another way? Maybe. Given the recent shifts in mountain-resort development and use patterns, it's hardly surprising that some of the most involved players seem ready to think, and talk, in new terms. Talk is cheap. In this case, a lot cheaper than lawsuits. Terry Minger, president of the Center for Resource Management, had a vision of dialogue rather than deadlock when he organized the Sustainable Summits conference last spring in Vail. Just getting the conference off the drawing board and the 80-odd invitees into a meeting room was a remarkable achievement. Ski-company executives, local ski-town government representatives, Forest Service decision makers and, of course, environmentalists of all stripes were brought together. There was a predictable mix of goodwill, genuine hopes for the future, and a good measure of mutual incomprehenin restaurant.

Interestingly, Vail's Category III expansion into bowls beyond the Back Bowls could well produce a maximum of skiing with a minimum of tree cutting¿a rarity in Colorado. But for many sincere environmentalists, even one tree is one too many. For them, there seems no room for compromise because, as a strategy, the less they compromise, the more wild land they'll be able to save from bulldozers and from cash registers.

Opposition to ski-area expansion is not just a Rocky Mountain phenomenon. In New England, ski areas and preservationists have been at loggerheads for decades. In New England, though, the battles tend to have a somewhat different look and feel from those in the West.

Water, more than wilderness and wildlife habitat, tends to be the critical factor used to oppose New England ski-area expansion¿above all, water for snowmaking. In the East, where snowmaking is a ski area's lifeblood in a low-snow year, ski-resort operators are unwilling to undertake major expansions without the semiguarantee of good conditions that snowmaking provides. As a result, many of the sharpest opponents of Eastern ski-area growth have zeroed in on water as the weak link in these expansion plans.

A key issue in a major expansion plan at Stowe is water. An obvious source for new snowmaking water is the West Branch of the Little River, but it has already failed to meet state standards for sufficient flow levels. So far, every alternative proposal (like building an eight-mile pipeline to pump reservoir water into a snowmaking pond) has met with equally confounding snags.

Expansion schemes aren't lacking in New England, where the proximity to major urban centers makes upcountry resorts look like the promised land (or so developers hope). The long-range growth plan for Killington, for example, would turn this resort into the second biggest city in Vermont, after Burlington¿a prospect that sends preservation-minded Vermonters into orbit. Like Stowe, expansion at Killington also involves water issues.

Vermont has one of the toughest (or most progressive, depending on your stance) development rules of any state in the union. Public officials in the Rockies and the Far West drool with envy over Vermont's Act 250, which makes all major developers, ski areas included, answer a complex set of impact questions before their projects can get off the ground, and the first of these involves water quality. But Vermont environmentalists nonetheless worry about the cumulative impact of multiple projects. In the absence of a mechanism to control that impact, environmental activists and their lawyers are looking for any levers to apply the brakes. In the East, water is clearly one such lever.

Although nonstop legal challenges to ski-resort expansion have become the accepted and expected strategy for concerned environmentalists, it is an expensive strategy, for both sides and for the public. As last-ditch environmental battles keep raising the ante, the cost of enjoying the mountain-resort life keeps escalating. Skiing, in case you hadn't noticed, isn't getting any cheaper.

Is there another way? Maybe. Given the recent shifts in mountain-resort development and use patterns, it's hardly surprising that some of the most involved players seem ready to think, and talk, in new terms. Talk is cheap. In this case, a lot cheaper than lawsuits. Terry Minger, president of the Center for Resource Management, had a vision of dialogue rather than deadlock when he organized the Sustainable Summits conference last spring in Vail. Just getting the conference off the drawing board and the 80-odd invitees into a meeting room was a remarkable achievement. Ski-company executives, local ski-town government representatives, Forest Service decision makers and, of course, environmentalists of all stripes were brought together. There was a predictable mix of goodwill, genuine hopes for the future, and a good measure of mutual incomprehension. Still, beginnings are beginnings.

One tangible result of the Sustainable Summits conference has been a commitment on the part of the National Ski Areas Association to draft an environmental code of ethics that ski areas can and should live by. "It's amazing that such a simple step has taken so long," Pat O'Donnell, head of the Aspen Skiing Company and one of the conference participants, said afterward. O'Donnell is particularly well placed to understand both sides of the debate. He used to run the Yosemite Institute, an environmental-education foundation, before heading up major ski companies like Whistler and now Aspen. "It's going to take time to get past this legacy of conflict and create an environmentally responsible ski industry that even skeptics can trust. We have to create a process strictly through actions¿forget rhetoric...," he said. O'Donnell has put his finger on what environmental activists often call "greenwash," the tendency to talk an environmental game as a smokescreen for less than environmentally friendly activities.

Ed Marston, publisher of the High Country News, another attendee at the conference and a perceptive observer of the mountain scene, put it this way: "The environmentalists have already won...at least conceptually. Who today dares to say they're not in favor of environmental protection?" So, in a way, everyone is talking the same game. And this is a kind of progress. But clearly it isn't enough.

What's up for grabs is the future of ski-area and mountain-resort development in this country. It's a brand new world with changing patterns of resort ownership, changing styles of leisure activity, and even changing attitudes on the part of federal regulators. O'Donnell talks of a clean break with the traditional thinking of the ski industry: "The old attitude about ski-area facilities was 'build it and they will come.' I don't think that holds true any longer. The era of big capital expenditures is coming to an end. Competition between ski areas and resorts in the future will be more a matter of service, of people, than of stuff, of skiable acres and faster lifts. And I think that ski areas with a visible, meaningful environmental ethic will be able to attract better employees, because of what they stand for."

Clearly, not every ski-area executive is able to rejoice at the prospect of a future where environmental considerations carry even more weight than they do today. And for that matter, it's going to be next to impossible for many environmentalists ever to accept ski areas as allies rather than enemies. The fault lines run too deep; the psychological split is too profound. For some opponents of ski-area expansion, the very idea of making a profit, any profit, by exploiting public land is simply obscene. And this, even though ski areas actually put dollars back into the public coffers¿unlike logging on our National Forests, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

But despite the intensity of feelings that ski-area expansion arouses, talking, enough talking, can sometimes do wonders. It would be a stunning achievement if even a fraction of today's environmental battles over ski-area expansion could be defused and resolved by bringing the stake holders to the table before the first construction permit was ever applied for.

What next? There will almost certainly be relatively few major ski-area expansions in the future, but lots of minor improvements, polishing a pretty good resort product without changing it significantly. Ski areas lucky enough to have an approved master plan in place will race toward build-out, but only those that really involve local communities and local environmental groups in fine-tuning these master plans, and mitigating their impacts, will get there without expensive knock-down-drag-out court battles. A few ski areas and resorts will wind up on the side of the angels, from the environmental point of view, and they will certainly wind up advertising, publicizing, and, yes, profiting from their pro-environmental policies. And inevitably, a few die-hard environmentalists will insist they can't afford to give up a single tree, and fight on, and on, and on....n. Still, beginnings are beginnings.

One tangible result of the Sustainable Summits conference has been a commitment on the part of the National Ski Areas Association to draft an environmental code of ethics that ski areas can and should live by. "It's amazing that such a simple step has taken so long," Pat O'Donnell, head of the Aspen Skiing Company and one of the conference participants, said afterward. O'Donnell is particularly well placed to understand both sides of the debate. He used to run the Yosemite Institute, an environmental-education foundation, before heading up major ski companies like Whistler and now Aspen. "It's going to take time to get past this legacy of conflict and create an environmentally responsible ski industry that even skeptics can trust. We have to create a process strictly through actions¿forget rhetoric...," he said. O'Donnell has put his finger on what environmental activists often call "greenwash," the tendency to talk an environmental game as a smokescreen for less than environmentally friendly activities.

Ed Marston, publisher of the High Country News, another attendee at the conference and a perceptive observer of the mountain scene, put it this way: "The environmentalists have already won...at least conceptually. Who today dares to say they're not in favor of environmental protection?" So, in a way, everyone is talking the same game. And this is a kind of progress. But clearly it isn't enough.

What's up for grabs is the future of ski-area and mountain-resort development in this country. It's a brand new world with changing patterns of resort ownership, changing styles of leisure activity, and even changing attitudes on the part of federal regulators. O'Donnell talks of a clean break with the traditional thinking of the ski industry: "The old attitude about ski-area facilities was 'build it and they will come.' I don't think that holds true any longer. The era of big capital expenditures is coming to an end. Competition between ski areas and resorts in the future will be more a matter of service, of people, than of stuff, of skiable acres and faster lifts. And I think that ski areas with a visible, meaningful environmental ethic will be able to attract better employees, because of what they stand for."

Clearly, not every ski-area executive is able to rejoice at the prospect of a future where environmental considerations carry even more weight than they do today. And for that matter, it's going to be next to impossible for many environmentalists ever to accept ski areas as allies rather than enemies. The fault lines run too deep; the psychological split is too profound. For some opponents of ski-area expansion, the very idea of making a profit, any profit, by exploiting public land is simply obscene. And this, even though ski areas actually put dollars back into the public coffers¿unlike logging on our National Forests, which is heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

But despite the intensity of feelings that ski-area expansion arouses, talking, enough talking, can sometimes do wonders. It would be a stunning achievement if even a fraction of today's environmental battles over ski-area expansion could be defused and resolved by bringing the stake holders to the table before the first construction permit was ever applied for.

What next? There will almost certainly be relatively few major ski-area expansions in the future, but lots of minor improvements, polishing a pretty good resort product without changing it significantly. Ski areas lucky enough to have an approved master plan in place will race toward build-out, but only those that really involve local communities and local environmental groups in fine-tuning these master plans, and mitigating their impacts, will get there without expensive knock-down-drag-out court battles. A few ski areas and resorts will wind up on the side of the angels, from the environmental point of view, and they will certainly wind up advertising, publicizing, and, yes, profiting from their pro-environmental policies. And inevitably, a few die-hard environmentalists will insist they can't afford to give up a single tree, and fight on, and on, and on....advertising, publicizing, and, yes, profiting from their pro-environmental policies. And inevitably, a few die-hard environmentalists will insist they can't afford to give up a single tree, and fight on, and on, and on....

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