Mitigation Over Litigation: Communication, Community, and Common Ground - Ski Mag

Mitigation Over Litigation: Communication, Community, and Common Ground


Safeguarding water quality is important for many ski areas, because their boundaries often embrace important watershed lands that provide drinking water to cities and towns at downstream elevations. In that regard, few resorts have as significant a mission as Utah's Snowbird, which operates on lands that supply up to 20 percent of the drinking water for Salt Lake Valley.When Texas entrepreneur Dick Bass began constructing the resort in 1970, he had to deal with abandoned mines and toxic tailings. He replaced the debris with buildings and lodges, and he designed trails around avalanche slide paths and barren spots, primarily to avoid cutting trees. For erosion control, crews planted trees, grass and wildflowers on many of the slopes, and today hikers have the added bonus of experiencing a verdant carpet of color during mid- to late summer.

But the big story behind the comeback of Little Cottonwood Canyon as a water source is what most people don't see. It consists of an underground reservoir that is buried in an old mine. Snowbird created this hidden lake by plugging an abandoned mountain drainage tunnel and installing a chlorination and filtration system. Runoff from snowmelt and rainstorms fills more than 100 miles of laterals, giving the hidden reservoir a capacity of 30 million gallons. To maintain and operate the reservoir, the ski area created a water agency called Salt Lake County Service District No. 3. Today, the water that comes from the Canyon is said to be purer than any other source in the Wasatch Range.

What ski areas do on their mountains can have a profound and positive impact on fish and wildlife populations. At Whistler/Blackcomb in western Canada, management has created something called the Habitat Improvement Team, which is often referred to as the "HIT squad." The team is actually a corps of managers and employees who help local conservation groups restore habitat for fish, wildlife and plant species in Whistler valley. The synergy between ski area owner Intrawest and the environmental community is in stark contrast to the frequent protests over massive clear-cutting practices that occur 30 miles down the road from the resorts. British Columbia's forest industry is surrounded by conflict and international attention.

Last year the HIT program covered five projects, and this year there are eight. In addition to these projects, Whistler is spending $1.5 million over a five-year period for watershed restoration on its lands, in a program called Operation Green-Up. Arthur DeJong, Whistler's manager for mountain planning and environmental resources, says the resort is never content to rest on its laurels "because there is always something more that we can do. Our goal is to inform people about our programs and then invite them to participate. Lead conservation and you will be applauded. Follow it and you will be punished."

On a recent night, the HIT squad removed siltation from a series of ditches that connected to a trout spawning area of Crystal Creek. Other times, they worked on erosion control structures around hiking and biking trails. "We usually average 20 people a turnout, and they represent a good cross-section of the Whistler population," says DeJong. Afterward, the group heads to a local pub for brews and pizza. They call it LaBatt's diplomacy.

Often, finding common ground between ski resorts and environmentalists is a matter of communication. Ski areas seeking local support for new projects are realizing that early talks with all stakeholders help to establish a positive relationship. By working through their differences, the parties can often reach a consensus before a plan is formalized and submitted to public agencies for review.

Intrawest's Copper Mountain and the White River National Forest, for example, recently announced a joint project that will set up a sounding board for opinions on ski area proposals. Long before anything is put into writing, affected parties will have the oppounity to express their views and offer suggestions. Stakeholders include local citizens groups, business interests, environmentalists, other federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over wetlands), and state and local governments. Mark Burnell, Copper's mountain planning and government relations manager, says the objective is to streamline the planning process and allow ski areas to test the waters before making the plunge. Inherent in this concept, of course, is a willingness by the resorts to bare their souls and openly discuss short- and long-term objectives.

Independently-owned resorts are no less conscientious in reaching out to anyone with an interest. At Stowe, Vt., the Mt. Mansfield Company has gone to extraordinary lengths to involve every level of the community in creating a regional master plan called "Stowe Mountain Resort 2000." Sixteen months ago, the ski area hosted a series of planning sessions that drew nearly 100 individuals representing 27 agencies, offices or organizations. The Stowe designers talked of "partnering" and "community planning" in connection with ski area development, according to Robert Apple, Jr., director of planning and development. "We hung out the dirty laundry, laid out the water and air quality issues and said, 'Help us create a vision.'"

During what Apple calls "the collaborative process," committees were formed to examine hot-button issues such as water, wildlife, traffic and base area development. After these meetings, the resort scrapped a once controversial plan to erect a new day lodge on public lands at the Mt. Mansfield base. Instead, Apple got consensus for expanding the existing structure, built in the Thirties by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps, while preserving its historical integrity. At the same time, the ski area was urged to put most of its future expansion on private lands at nearby Spruce Peak, including a new base lodge that would borrow from the grand designs of the old Adirondack resorts. Commercial space in the proposed Spruce Hamlet would be minimal, but in any case it would be offered first to local Stowe retailers.

Early in the planning process, the company solicited opinions from the Green Mountain Club, an influential hiking and conservation group, about the location of new ski runs, lifts and other structures. The club was particularly eager to reduce any impacts, visual or otherwise, to the Long Trail, which stretches from Massachusetts to the Canadian border. Apple is optimistic about the future. "We had to give up some things," he says. "But in a true collaboration, you never win everything."

In a climate of frequent opposition to ski area plans throughout North America, most resorts are having a hard time getting much of anything. While they acknowledge that mistakes were made 20, 30 and 40 years ago, there is both a new management style and a new commitment to have skiing co-exist with the environment. The fact that resorts have devoted big dollars to these initiatives suggests that they are not just paying lip-service to political correctness.

At least a few conservationists believe that it's time to give credit where it's due. "We enviros need to pick our battles carefully, and not be against everything that has to do with skiing," says Jeff Widen, associate director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, which is headquartered in Durango. Widen is trying to persuade the state's ski resorts to back the Colorado Wilderness Act of 1999, a Congressional measure that would create 49 new wilderness areas totaling nearly 1.5 million acres. Thus far, only Aspen, which sees no negative impact on its future plans, has joined the list of supporters. "This is a visionary thing for them to do, because it's the right thing to do and because tourism and wilderness can go hand-in-hand," says Widen.

"All too often, people in the environmental community are not good at giving praise," he says. "We would be a lot more credible if we were better in doing that. And just because we may sometimes disagree, there is no excuse for demonizing any group of recreational users. We should always maintain a dialogue and not get locked into confrontation. We need to think in pragmatic terms, sit down at the table and talk things out."

Back to Mitigation Over Litigationuld be a lot more credible if we were better in doing that. And just because we may sometimes disagree, there is no excuse for demonizing any group of recreational users. We should always maintain a dialogue and not get locked into confrontation. We need to think in pragmatic terms, sit down at the table and talk things out."

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