Conservationists' newest foe: ski resorts
They stepped up criticism of the industry with report card on resorts' green policies.
BIG SKY, MONT.
For years, environmentalists trying to save public wildlands have battled against conspicuous foes.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
They've fought timber companies to stop forests from being clear-cut, miners to prevent open pits from scarring the earth, and ranchers to keep too many cattle and sheep from being loosed on the Western range.
Now, conservationists have another perhaps surprising opponent: downhill ski resorts.
For years, some activists had actually held up ski areas as a good use of public lands - something that gave nearby communities an economic boost and an alternative to logging or mining. But like the approach of winter, the relationship has of late turned decidedly frosty.
Increasingly, Western ski resorts have become mammoth operations that run year-round, with pedestrian villages, slopeside condos, and a growing network of backwoods roads.
In protest, an alliance of conservation organizations last week issued a report card for 51 major ski resorts in the West, grading them on their ability to be good environmental neighbors.
Some were found to be good stewards of the land, but many - including popular resorts like Vail, Telluride, and Keystone - were given failing grades.
As the West is transformed by unprecedented growth and development, ski resorts, in many ways, encapsulate the environmental challenges ahead for the New West. As a result, conservationists are turning their attention to places that have, for years, served as their playgrounds.
"Let's face it, many environmentalists are downhill skiers, and for years, nobody has wanted to point the finger at skiing because it means acknowledging that we are part of the problem," says Dennis Glick of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Beyond just trails
The greatest threat to public lands from ski areas is not necessarily the network of hard-packed snowy slopes, but often the developments sprouting in mountain vales and basins.
They can fragment animals' habitat and lead to air and water pollution, unsightly sprawl, and traffic congestion. In some cases, the negative impacts from ski areas can be far more severe and longer lasting than the resource-extraction activities they replaced, says Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild, who spearheaded the project.
It's an issue that many people feel passionately about. For example, arsonists in 1998 burned down buildings at Vail in Colorado, protesting the resort's expansion into habitat for imperiled lynx.
Some resorts, however, are winning praise from activists for taking their own, pioneering steps to protect the environment. Even before the Vail incident, more than 150 ski resorts voluntarily came together to ratify a new set of environmental principles.
Indeed, individual resorts have become some of the most progressive forces in pushing for public transportation systems, recycling efforts, protecting open space, and even chipping in to fund important wildlife studies, says Geraldine Hughes of the National Ski Areas Association.
"There's no doubt about it. Resorts were the initial drivers of growth in mountain communities," she says. "They have known they are part of the problem, but they are not throwing their hands up in the air trying to avoid it either. Today, mountain communities are much more complicated places than when the resorts first opened. People go there for more than just the skiing."