The Slippery Slope of Ski Expansion

By Tenenbaum, David J. | Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2001 | Go to article overview

The Slippery Slope of Ski Expansion


Tenenbaum, David J., Environmental Health Perspectives


A new scorecard issued in December 2000 and posted at http://www.skiareacitizens. com/ has rated 51 ski resorts on how environmentally sound their operations are. Comprising environmentalist groups such as Durango-based Colorado Wild and Utah's Save Our Canyons, the Ski Area Citizen's Coalition said it designed the scorecard to exert economic pressure; by choosing environmentally friendly ski areas, snow sport enthusiasts may encourage ski resorts to improve their environmental grade in the future.

About 11 million Americans skied or snowboarded at more than 500 ski areas in 1999, according to the National Sporting Goods Association. SnowSports Industries America, a trade organization, says the two sports produced $12.4 billion in direct and indirect revenues in 1999.

Only western resorts were considered for this year's scorecard. They were rated on factors such as pollution, traffic, whether they make artificial snow, and whether they avoid expansion onto undisturbed lands. The list of the 10 most environmentally friendly areas included Sundance, Utah, and Timberline Lodge in Oregon. "Failing" grades went to Colorado's Breckenridge Ski Resort and Telluride Ski and Golf Company, among others.

Expansions account for many of the criteria on the scorecard. Colorado Wild volunteer Jonathan Staufer says that cutting trees for new trails, lifts, and the development of roads, parking, houses, condominiums, stores, and restaurants all reduce wildlife habitat. In addition, says Richard Valdez, a Logan, Utah, fishery ecologist, western ski areas are traditionally situated amidst prime wildlife habitats, and expansion of these areas exacerbates declining wildlife populations.

Furthermore, say opponents, expansions come in the face of static demand. The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), an industry trade organization, says total skier-days (or one day of skiing for one person) range between 50 million and 54 million per year, a total increase of 2-4% since the 1978-1979 season. Staufer claims expansions are not designed to accommodate new skiers but to increase market share and create settings for expensive real estate developments in the mountains. He says, "There are only two motives for ski area expansion: to facilitate ski area real estate development ... and as a marketing ploy for `newer, better, improved' ski areas." Many western ski areas are located inside National Forests, he observes.

Environmentalists are also concerned about the withdrawal of water from streams to make artificial snow. Valdez says removing a large volume of water from streams can be harmful because it stresses aquatic life and decreases the capacity of the stream to dilute pollutants. The demand for artificial snow peaks in fall and early winter, when stream flow is typically lowest, and is particularly acute in dry years, when streams are already running low. …

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