Grading the slopes

Is your favorite ski resort doing enough to sustain the environment?

Sierra-at-Tahoe fared better than most ski resorts in the area on a recent environmental scorecard.

Sierra-at-Tahoe fared better than most ski resorts in the area on a recent environmental scorecard.

Courtesy Of Sierra-at-tahoe

When it comes to maintaining an environment-friendly ski resort, many of the slopes in the Sierra Nevada are failing to make the grade.

The Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition (SACC) recently released its environmental scorecard for 19 area ski resorts, with many receiving a low score. Four of 19 area ski resorts received a “D”—including Sugar Bowl, Squaw Valley USA, Kirkwood Mountain Resort and Northstar-at-Tahoe. Heavenly, which just last week was sold to Colorado-based Vail Resorts, received the only “F.”

No area ski resort received an “A,” but a few rated a “B,” including Mount Rose, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Sierra Summit. Kirkwood had received a “B” in the last SACC scorecard released in November, but SACC members said new information led to the downgrading.

The grades aren’t based on damage to the environment since the opening of the ski resort, but rather are a reflection of the resorts’ current environmental policies. The assessment is weighted “to give significant consideration to the preservation of natural mountain environments,” according to the SACC Web site,

Resorts were scored on how well they’ve tried to avoid expanding developed ski acreage into undisturbed forest, avoid terrain alteration in environmentally sensitive areas, avoid water degradation and preserve wildlife habitat.

Not surprisingly, the ski resorts and ski industry haven’t been thrilled with the grades, calling into question the SACC’s legitimacy.

“My first inclination when I hear something like this is, who are these people? What are their qualifications?” said Molly Cuffe, director of communications for Heavenly.

Cuffe said that Heavenly uses an extensive restoration and revegetation project during the summer months to maintain the environmental sustainability of the mountain. She also said that Heavenly actively advocates recycling.

In a press release responding to its failing grade, Heavenly accused SACC of holding “an unreasonably strong bias against any form of growth … no matter how well-planned.”

Members of the environmentalist coalition contend they use an intensive review of scientific literature and case studies, such as environmental-impact statements for master development plan revisions, expansion proposals, forest plan revisions and marketing, and economic and biological research done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“The data we are using is not something subjective that we have gone out and made up,” says Joan Clayburgh of the Sierra Nevada Alliance, one of the groups participating in the coalition.

The report card isn’t the first suggestion of environmental irresponsibility at area ski resorts.

On January 24, Attorney General Bill Lockyer, along with the Tahoe-area Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, filed a civil suit against Squaw Valley USA. The suit accuses Squaw Valley of violating federal, state and local laws, including the Clean Water Act and California’s Unfair Competition Law, eroding the mountainside and damaging Squaw Creek and its tributaries with runoff.

The lawsuit also asserts that Squaw Valley has repeatedly violated construction permits, built projects without receiving permits and violated court injunctions against construction projects at the ski resort.

“Squaw Valley USA has refused to follow environmental-protection laws and take steps necessary to prevent sediment runoff into area waterways,” Lockyer said in a released statement. “The Tahoe ski resort must be held accountable for its continued disregard of water quality and other environmental standards designed to protect precious Sierra Nevada natural resources.”

The ski industry has responded to environmental concerns by developing the National Ski Area Association (NSAA) Sustainable Slopes program in June 2000. Aimed at increasing awareness of environmental concerns at ski resorts, the program announced the launching of the “Green Room,” an environmentally focused online forum. Ski resorts from around North America post their policies on what they do to lessen environmental damage.

But between business and environmentalism, there is a gap in ideology. The SACC has called the ski industry’s Green Room a “green wash,” saying that the ski industry needs third-party oversight in order to maintain the environmental sustainability of the ski resort.

Gavin Noyes of Save Our Canyons in Utah, one of the environmental groups coordinating the SACC, said that the NSAA was taking steps toward sustainability, but not enough.

“NSAA should be commended for a good effort, but it is past time they acknowledge that third-party monitoring is crucial for accountability,” Noyes said. “The Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition has offered to play this role but has been denied.”

Clayburgh said the Green Room was a good idea and could lead to environmental improvements, but the current way the program is being used is a joke.

“The ski industry association Web site purposely excludes the full story,” she said. “This green washing is disgusting. We invite Squaw Valley and all the resorts to walk their talk and obey environmental laws.”

The Green Room merely gives resorts a forum to appear environmentally conscious, SACC members complained, while paying lip service to the environment. In some cases, ski resorts are using the Green Room merely to say they are keeping up with local laws regarding the environment.

Heavenly, for instance, posted reports on the Green Room bulletin board of how it tracks the gasoline additive MTBE in the groundwater. But this is only in accordance with local laws.

Ski resorts have also been hosting “Sustainable Slopes” days in an effort to make the public aware of what they say is a program that cares deeply for the environment. Sugar Bowl—which received a “D” on the latest scorecard—held a “Sustainable Slopes” event February 23-24. Touted as a full-weekend affair, it turned out to be little more than a small display with two tagboard posters tucked away from skiers near the employee entrance to the kitchen.

Yet Bonnie Bagwell, Sugar Bowl’s recycling coordinator, said that management was very concerned about the environment.

“In trying to implement the recycling program, everyone has been really into it,” Bagwell said. “Management works with me, and we do whatever it takes. If I recommend a certain type of cup to buy, they do it.”

Bagwell said the resort hands out coupons to skiers who are seen doing something environmentally conscious, like recycling. She said the resort has started its own environmental committee that meets to discuss improvements.

The NSAA said that ski resorts have already improved their environmental records since the inception of the Sustainable Slopes program, which is part of the NSAA’s environmental charter developed in 1998. NSAA director of communications, Stacy Gardner Stoutenberg, said that the Green Room plays an important part in getting the word out to ski resorts about environmental ideas.

“The [environmental charter] goes above and beyond what is required by law,” Stoutenberg said.

Clayburgh said the goal is to see resorts take responsibility for their decisions.

“I’m a skier, and I expect these resorts to achieve environmental standards that protect and restore our environment,” she said. “As a skier, I want future generations to enjoy the same slopes I do today, and also the clean water, clean air and a healthy environment.”