White is the new green

Change is in the air as ski resort operators and environmentalists join forces

SHREDDING, YES, BUT NOT THE ENVIRONMENT<br>Heavenly (above) responded to activists’ concerns and agreed to preserve 444 trees when its builds another ski lift.

Heavenly (above) responded to activists’ concerns and agreed to preserve 444 trees when its builds another ski lift.

Courtesy Of heavenly mountain resort

Resort operators walking hand in ski glove with environmentalists? Must’ve been remiss in checking the latest weather report. So when exactly did hell freeze over?

Actually it was more like polar ice caps melting. Well, that and disappearing glaciers. And years of record droughts. And soil eroding beneath ski slopes. And lousy snowfall. Especially the lousy snowfall.

Yep, a funny thing happened on the way to worldwide ecological disaster: Changing weather patterns started mucking with ski resort bottom lines more drastically than any collection of nature muffins ever could.

The over-reliance on state-of-the-art snowmaking systems in recent years actually served as a canary in the $4.5 billion industry’s coal mine, if only coal were snow. Warm winters and screwy snowfall patterns have forced major investments into systems that ever more efficiently cover runs in white stuff. But where manmade snow used to supplement natural snowfall, the reverse is increasingly happening, and the bad rap artificial snow gets has skiers failing to show up to the resorts in great enough numbers to sustain that original snow-making investment.

There’s that word: sustain, as in sustainability. More than 50 resorts in 14 states—including all the majors in Nevada and California and many of the small timers—have signed on to the Sustainable Slopes Environmental Charter, a set of voluntary principles aimed at making the ski industry environmentally friendly.

This wasn’t foisted on resorts by environmentalists. It began as an initiative by their own lobby, the National Ski Areas Association, to address soil erosion on ski slopes. Climate change and sustainability got lumped in along the way. Indeed, “sustainability” has overtaken “making money” as the top agenda item at NSAA conventions in recent years.

So now you have area resorts winning environmental excellence awards for their erosion-control, wetland-protection and trail-maintenance programs. You have them directing portions of the fees they collect to a U.S. Forest Service-affiliated foundation to clean mountain air, water and forests. You have them selling skiers and snowboarders Green Tags at ticket windows, matching those sales and giving the proceeds to the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to develop new wind-power generation.

Did you ever think you’d see the day when the NSAA would partner with the Natural Resources Defense Council? It happened last season with the launch of the Keep Winter Cool anti-global-warming strategy.

Two former warring sides have obviously realized how much better life would be if they worked together to reverse what’s happening with our sick planet, how much better life would be for all involved if the damage could be rolled back to such a state that the two sides could go back to hating one another again.


Speaking of heavenly things, Heavenly Mountain Resort knows a thing or three about embracing former enemies. When South Lake Tahoe’s ultimate behemoth resort—with runs on either side of the Nevada-California border—unveiled a 10-year master plan last April that would make room for yet another ski lift by chopping down 444 trees—including about 100 giant, old-growth red firs—local environmentalists wanted blood.

But instead of engaging in one of those traditionally long, nasty, expensive fights, Heavenly quickly backed down. The trees stay.

It’s a reflection of the resort’s new sympathies toward the environmental movement; operators blame climate change for cutting their business by 12 percent last season.

It’s also sobering recognition that entrenched eco-opposition has a way of knotting things up long enough that it could be a good 10 years before Heavenly would get around to its 10-year master plan. So after that little tree business was cleared away, Vail Resorts, the publicly traded company that owns Heavenly, consulted with the League to Save Lake Tahoe, the clean-water advocates who barked loudest about the red firs, on the rest of their growth plans. Heavenly hired an ecologist and soil-erosion scientist out of those talks.

Boreal, meanwhile, is among the small resorts dedicated to using renewable energy.

Courtesy Of boreal mountain resort

Previous enviro-friendly undertakings include Vail Resorts’ purchase of 16 million kilowatt-hours of wind power to totally offset Heavenly’s ‘06-'07 energy use, a Ski With the Wind promotion that encouraged guests to buy energy from wind for their own homes in exchange for free lift tickets, and aggressive land management activities aimed at protecting the Tahoe draba, a sensitive, high-alpine plant species that’s unique to the Lake Tahoe basin.

Paul Senft, the general manager at Mount Rose Ski Tahoe on the Nevada side, has the loftiest eco-goal in the region. He wants his resort to be the ski-industry leader when it comes to sustainability and environmental protection. He’s trying to meet his expectations through recycling, conservation, alternative transportation, wetlands protection, water-quality improvements, soil-erosion prevention, native-plant restoration and working with local regulatory agencies on developing best management practices when it comes to the environment. And that’s before lunch!

Unlike Heavenly, Mount Rose does not employ a soil-erosion scientist. It has two. The resort also coordinates construction projects with a staff environmental scientist. Future plans include researching the feasibility of building a new lodge that’s up to LEED-certification standards and using wind and solar power at Rose Lodge.

An Olympian effort to improve the environment is also under way in Olympic Valley, home of Squaw Valley USA on the California side of the lake. Squaw Valley Ski Corp.'s pride in being a Waste Reduction Award Program winner nearly matches its pride in hosting the 1960 Winter Games. It’s in the middle of a 12-year program aimed at preventing, minimizing and reversing environmental damage through research, ongoing programs and smart planning.

The resort staffs an environmental improvement department that’s come up with some ingenious green solutions. The 12,000-square-foot SquawKids Children’s Center uses a one-of-a-kind geothermal heat pump system to capture heat stored beneath the earth’s surface to heat water and, in turn, the building. A technologically advanced refrigeration system and heat exchanger simultaneously freezes ice for the Olympic Ice Pavilion and heats the Swimming Lagoon and Spa. Similar systems are repeated elsewhere at the resort.

Away from the actual slopes, Squaw works with local schools on environmental education and safety programs, hosts trash pick-up days along Squaw Valley Road, conducts tree planting throughout the Gold Coast area and donates to the Truckee River Watershed Council.

Near Squaw is the quaintest little ski village around, ringing the base of Northstar at Tahoe. Don’t let that old-world charm fool you into believing the resort is not combatting modern environmental problems.

Northstar makes care for the environment part of employee training; developed the new Village at Northstar to use a combination of free, efficient and conserved energy; and won 2006 California Waste Reduction Awards Program honors for donating wood pallets to a local firewood distributor that recycled them as firewood.

On the opposite end of the lake is Kirkwood Mountain Resort, which is lauded often in the ski press for its snow and terrain. But Kirkwood also held the dis-stink-tion of being the only California resort to receive an F grade on a report card compiled last year by an environmental coalition rating Western ski areas.

The resort’s operators are busily trying to change that negative rep this season with an ambitious ride-sharing program whose goal is to remove 1,000 cars off Highway 88 by May 2008.

Indeed, Kirkwood has become the first area resort to create an online social network for ride sharers—"K-pool” at kirkwood.com—that allows members to arrange rides with one another, share their carpooling experiences and keep current on road conditions. Membership not only has its privileges, it has cash and gift incentives to join, as well.

Not just the big dogs have gone green, as evidenced by Northstar. In addition, Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in Norden is using energy more efficiently and purchasing renewable power from wind farms to totally offset its annual use. Boreal Mountain Resort at Donner Summit not only does the same, it also purchased a software program from the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives to measure, monitor and thereby reduce its carbon footprint.

Sierra at Tahoe employees created Project: Green Sierra to bring the resort’s myriad eco-friendly initiatives under one green umbrella. These include using eco-friendly cleaning products, curtailing energy consumption and educating school kids on ecology and local history with a program that won the Twin Bridges resort the 2006 Silver Eagle Award for Environmental Excellence.

Diamond Peak Ski Resort, on the Nevada side in Incline Village, doesn’t pursue eagles but penguins. Like charities you see on TV that allow you to feed hungry African children for pennies a day, the Diamond Peak Adopt-a-Penguin Program allows guests to adopt live, endangered, Antarctic penguins.

For as little as $25, the new parent gets adoption papers and a photo of his or her new child. Spend up to a couple hundred more and change and they’ll throw in a plush toy, a framed certificate and gift box.

This all goes back to a legend involving the namesake of the Bee Ferrato Child Ski Center, a yellow-eyed penguin she picked up as a child in New Zealand, and “Diamond Pete,” a penguin who supposedly visited Diamond Peak because he heard about the awesome snow and family-friendly terrain.

Far fetched? Until a few years ago, not any more so than ski resort operators flying with environmentalists.