Winter sport enthusiasts notoriously love the outdoors. They'll brave sub-zero temperatures and pay big bucks for lift tickets in order to experience the vitality and exhilaration of a winter day on the mountain. It's also true that they're an environmentally inclined group; a Roper Starch Survey reveals that 38 percent of skiers (compared to 21 percent of the general public) have cast their votes based on where a candidate stands on environmental issues. Likewise, over half of skiers (58 percent, as opposed to 42 percent of the general public) have donated to and/or volunteered with environmental groups. So it might come as a surprise to some nature-loving mountain-goers to learn that many ski resorts have come under fire in recent years for their records in protecting the environment. Instead of acting as responsible stewards, environmental groups say some resort owners are pushing for expansions that include clear cuts in designated roadless areas.
One of the most outspoken groups is the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition, based in Colorado. The Coalition monitors the policies and development decisions of many resorts throughout the Western United States. Each year, the Coalition publishes its Environmental Scorecard, which grades resorts on a scale of "A" to "F" and lists the 10 most and the 10 least environmentally friendly resorts. The Coalition's scoring criteria can be viewed at skiareacitizens.com/criteria.
"What causes a ski area to get lower scores is expansion into native forests, roadless areas being the worst," says Mike Petersen, executive director of the Lands Council, a local environmental organization. Petersen is on the steering committee for the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition. This year, a few of the Inland Northwest's ski resorts didn't make the grade.
Silver Mountain ski resort, based in Kellogg, Idaho, failed miserably with an "F" and made it onto the Coalition's least environmentally friendly list.
"Proposed expansion and development projects will increase skiing terrain by 800 acres," Petersen explains, "and there appears to be a fair amount of real estate development on undisturbed ground. They also do very little in the way of conservation."
But John Eminger, owner of 49 Degrees North, thinks Silver Mountain Resort's bad grade has less to do with its environmental policies than the unfortunate fact that it sits in an area damaged by a century of mining. And in fact, Silver has led the way in reclaiming the once-bleak Silver Valley for tourism.
"They sit on a Superfund site," Eminger says.
Calls to Silver Mountain for comment were not returned.
Eminger also points out that the Coalition picks on certain resorts just to raise awareness about the general environmental crisis in the surrounding area. "You pick high-profile spots and jump up and down about it. Ski spots are very high profile." He adds although the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition probably started out as a grassroots watchdog group, it's now a part of the larger "environmental industry."
"I have more empathy for the local environmental groups than for the national groups, because I feel like I can talk to them and get things done. I believe the Coalition is more interested in the ski industry as a whole than the ski business. There are mom-and-pop ski businesses out there, and then there's the Vails and the Aspens."
But the Coalition doesn't seem to give the smaller resorts any breaks, and it seems to favor the bigger, industry-based resorts randomly. Vail made the Coalition's 10 least environmentally friendly list, but Aspen made it to the Coalition's top 10 most environmentally friendly list. The Coalition also gave Eminger's 49 Degrees North a "D," though even Petersen, on the Coalition's steering committee, says that's too harsh. "The Lands Council is supportive of [the resort's recent] expansion: [49 Degrees North] does some good conservation measures. I would not have given them a "D," but the scorecard counts off pretty heavily if there is any expansion."
Indeed, the Coalition makes no bones about being anti-development, which, says Eminger, makes it hard to get a good grade from them and still run a business. Silver's expansion plans almost guaranteed it a lower grade.
"It took me eight years to get environmental approval to build a chairlift," he says, referring to the bureaucracy already prevalent in the federal laws that apply on the lands his resort sits on. "I'm not saying we don't need to be vigilant. Do we need somebody standing at the gates watching to make sure there are wild lands left? Absolutely. Do I necessarily agree all the time? No."
Eminger isn't surprised he got a bad grade. "Until last year, we always got an "A." But last summer, I decided not to send in my survey [which the coalition uses to grade resorts]."
That dropped his overall score 30 percent, but he doesn't care. Eminger says he's fed up with what he calls "the far left and the far right" -- or, the environmental industry and the ski industry. In fact, he didn't turn in his surveys to the National Ski Area Association (the ski industry), either. Eminger says his environmental standard is significantly higher than what the law requires, and he doesn't need either industry to give him kudos. He points out his voluntary work with local environmental groups, which recommended that he change expansion plans to preserve more old growth, which he did; he also donated 20 acres for an environmental learning center that houses more than 100 kids, and is starting a recycling program despite the cost (he's paying four times the rate to get Stevens County trucks to make it up the mountain).
"He is a good guy, who I believe tries hard to be environmentally sensitive while still running a business," Petersen says of Eminger. "He's the only person I have ever talked to who thinks about the long term: how to protect old trees and consider wildlife."
In response to pressure from environmentalists, the National Ski Areas Association created a Sustainable Slopes program, now in its fourth year. Sustainable Slopes is a voluntary group that encourages members to save energy and resources, protect wildlife and habitat and educate resort-goers on the importance of the environment. It doesn't necessarily mean that the resorts have to take any action.
"[Sustainable Slopes] encourages ski area operators to go beyond simply compliance with applicable environmental laws," says Scott Kaden, president of the Pacific Northwest Ski Areas Association, which represents resorts throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska. "We're not talking about a program that meets the bare minimum; we're talking about participants who have agreed to exceed regulatory framework."
Local resorts that participate in the Sustainable Slopes program include: 49 Degrees North, Mission Ridge, Mount Spokane and Lookout Pass.
But Sustainable Slopes is widely discredited as "green spin" because it lacks oversight and doesn't follow any specific environmental policies. For example, Crested Butte Resort, located near Aspen, participates in the Sustainable Slopes Program but was given an "F" by the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition and listed as one of the 10 least environmentally friendly resorts.
"I think it's accurate to say Sustainable Slopes has no third-party auditing," concedes Kaden, "but it's also accurate to say the [Ski Area Citizens'] Coalition has no third-party auditing."
Eminger, who struggles to maintain environmental integrity on his resort without being beholden to either industry, says he likes to think he's keeping people out of the backcountry by having them ski his slopes.
"We try as hard as humanly possible to be good stewards of the land, but if you're gonna grow you need more ground to ski. You see groups that support the lynx habitat or the bull trout habitat. Well, I'm a supporter of the skier habitat."