For years, environmentalists trying to save public wildlands have battled against conspicuous foes.
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."
Nationally, the number of Americans who ski has been flat or in decline for much of the past decade. Still, ski areas themselves are important economic engines for surrounding communities. A recent study in Colorado showed that for every dollar a tourist spends, the resort captures 25 cents, and the rest is spent somewhere in town.
Going big time
It's a trend that began during the 1980s and accelerated through the '90s, says Myles Rademan, a planner in Park City, Utah. To cope with flat or declining numbers of skiers, resorts retooled their operations into four-season recreation meccas. That, in turn, fueled an unprecedented building boom on adjacent private land. And sprawl was exacerbated because many rural county governments did not have progressive land-management regulations in place.
Report-card author Mr. Berman calls this competition for customers "the ski area arms race" - more ski runs, lifts, biking trails, golf courses, hotel rooms, restaurants, and condominiums. Eventually, he says, it overwhelms the natural setting.
"Ski areas can choose to take an environmentally friendly route and not engage in constant redevelopment," Berman says. "Our score card is meant to point out the difference between those that do and those that do not."
Head of the class
For example, he points to Sundance, the ski resort in Utah's Wasatch Mountains founded by actor-conservationist Robert Redford. The resort constantly challenges itself to be greener, he says. It earned an A from the coalition.
* Sundance uses its snowmaking equipment strategically to minimize impact on water and wildlife.
* It recycles a wide range of throw-away items.
* It encourages guests to use fewer resources.
* It minimizes the cutting of trees for slope maintenance.
* It has resisted the temptation to grow bigger, even though it would yield greater profits.
The report card is not a call to boycott resorts with bad grades, Berman adds. Rather, it is a tool that skiers can use in order to give their business to resorts that practice a strong green ethic.
The ski industry realizes that many of its skiers and snowboarders probably sympathize with the agenda of environmentalists. But it doesn't believe such factors figure prominently in where these people choose to take their vacation or build their second homes.
"Skiers choose resorts on the basis of terrain and conditions," says Ms. Hughes. "I think that's always going to be the case."
Berman and colleagues say they're undeterred by the flak the alliance has drawn. In fact, the organization plans to return again next year with a survey that includes more resorts and has a more rigorous system of grading.
"I'm not opposed to ski areas," says conservationist John Borstelmann, who reviewed several resorts in the northern Rockies for the study. "We're not even opposed to expansion, but when resorts do it all of the costs have to be recognized."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society