Environmentalists grade ski areas

Resorts in Summit, Eagle likely to fail

By Doug Malkan

By the end of November, ski areas throughout the West will be getting their grade from a coalition of environmental groups. Summit and Eagle county ski resorts, unfortunately, are likely to get a bad grade. The grades, A through F, are being prepared by a group of non-profit environmental organizations familiar with the ski industry. Called the Ski Area Citizen's Coalition, the group is headed up by Colorado Wild, which has been very critical of Vail, Keystone, Beaver Creek, Copper and Breckenridge expansion plans, and have been vocal opponents of expanding snowmaking at A-Basin and Keystone.

Other environmental organizations participating in the scorecard program include Washington State's Crystal Conservation Coalition, Friends of the Inyo of California, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Save Our Canyons of Utah.

The grades will be a result of the coalition's "Ski Area Environmental Scorecard," which will grade all of the large ski resorts in the Western U.S. based on environmental practices. The Scorecard is expected to be published on Nov. 27.

"The Ski Area Environmental Scorecard strives to differentiate between ski areas engaging in environmentally friendly practices versus those that claim to do so through vague and unenforceable industry initiatives such as the National Ski Areas Association's Sustainable Slopes Program, which sets voluntary practices for the industry to follow," says Darcy Thompson, coordinator of the Crystal Conservation Coalition .

Criteria that is being used to rate the ski resort's environmental record include: terrain in environmentally sensitive areas, expansions motivated by real estate speculation, commercial or residential development on undisturbed lands, water degradation from snowmaking, environmental impacts within the ski area boundary, wildlife habitat and forest protection, recycling, water conservation, energy conservation, pollution reduction, traffic and emissions.

Summit and Eagle county ski areas have not had a good record with the environmental groups in the coalition. Colorado Wild is currently suing A-Basin over anticipated violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with their plans to expand snowmaking.

Also, the group sued Vail Resorts in an attempt to stop Vail's Cat III expansion, which is now called Blue Sky Basin. And, the group has been critical of expansion plans at Breckenridge because of wetlands issues, and has threatened to sue over Keystone's plan to expand into Jones Gulch, because the group says it is one of the most important corridors for wildlife in Colorado, located in between fragmented wilderness areas.

The Ski Area Environmental Scorecard has been meeting significant, if not unexpected, resistance from the ski industry. According to one source at Mammoth Mountain ski area in California, "Ski areas are paranoid" about getting a bad rating.

Students who were studying environmental issues in a Colorado Mountain College class were told by representatives from Vail Resorts recently that under the criteria of the environmental groups' scorecard, "all ski areas would receive an F."

But Berman says "that's ridiculous."

"What good would that do? We'll see ski areas with an 'A.' It's crazy that Vail Resorts would say that," he said.

Resistance to the scorecard is not only coming from Vail Resorts. Most ski areas are trying to boycott the grading by not returning the questionnaires sent out by the coalition.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Oregon ski area association met in Portland to discuss boycotting the questionnaire. And, according to the National Ski Area Association, most ski areas have not returned questionnaires.

But, returning the short two-page survey form, which asks 25 mostly yes or no questions concerning a ski area's environmental practices, could likely improve an area's score, says the Coalition's Program Director Ben Doon, who is coordinating the project out of San Luis, Colorado.

Many ski areas have not responded yet, says Doon, even though by doing so an area could get credit for many things they might be doing right environmentally, from recycling to public transportation. "The items in the questionnaire could account for as much as 40 percent of a positive score," Doon said. As of press time, none of the resorts in Summit or Eagle county had completed the survey questionnaire.

According to Vail Resorts Senior Vice President Bill Jensen, none of the VR resorts are going to return a completed survey because he says the survey is biased against them. "I can go through the survey and quickly find things that we could get 8 or 9 positive points, but yes, we did an expansion, so I get 10 negative points. Does Vail Resorts as a company do development work, yes we do. We get negative points for that."

Jensen claims the resort receives negative points for building affordable housing, making noise outside of the resort boundaries for snowmaking, doing avalanche control, and removing debris from trails.

But Doon said some of that is not correct. "You get positive points on the survey for affordable housing," he said. Doon says that they are not giving negative points for removing debris from trails; but he says an area gets negatives for removing "course woody debris" that are used for wildlife habitat from trail islands and medians. He does not dispute that a ski area would get negative points for noise generated from snowmaking.

But, the scorecard project and its grades are not dependent on the questionnaires. Most of the score is based on physical observation and information gathered from Freedom of Information Act requests from the Forest Service . The type of information the coalition has asked the Forest Service to provide includes information on expansion plans, snowmaking plans and operational practices.

"The survey is brilliant on their part," says Jensen of the scorecard project. "It will certainly generate a lot of interest for Colorado Wild. Everyone in Colorado is concerned with the environment. Every month there is more interest in environmental issues."

"The ski industry itself continually informs us that skiers are environmentally inclined. Yet until now, there has been no means for skiers or snowboarders to make recreation choices based on their concern for the environment," says Colorado Wild Executive Director Jeff Berman.

He says their group can cite a recent survey that found that 58 percent of skiers have contributed to environmental organizations and that 38 percent of skiers have voted based on a candidate's environmental position.

"Alta will probably do well," Jensen said, because that resort does little development and has modest snowmaking. Could a bad grade from environmentalists hurt business in Summit and Eagle county ski areas? "Yes," Jensen admits.

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