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Expanding universe

Bob Berwyn

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on the friction between the ski industry and the environmental community. See related sidebar for some things our local ski resorts are doing to be more green-friendly.According to some critics, ski area expansions have become a little like the Cold War nuclear arms competition between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union.In recent years, resorts around the West have been competing with each other to attract more skiers, in part by marketing new terrain, lifts and even mountain-top amusement centers and other amenities that have less and less to do with providing a close-to-nature ski experience.&quotWe would like the ski industry to end the arms race,&quot says Colorado Wild activist Jeff Berman. &quotBy doing so, ski area expansions to keep up with the Joneses should be a thing of the past, and every resort should be able to stay in business at a profit without attempting to steal skiers from other resorts,&quot adds Berman, who has been watch-dogging the industry since his days with the Sheep Mountain Alliance in Telluride.Berman suggests that the ski industry should acknowledge that skier visits are flat nationally, and renounce expansions that are aimed mainly at taking market share from other areas.Berman also says it’s urgent that the ski industry address global warming issues head-on. The ski industry should be foremost when it comes to encouraging the government to take concrete, non-voluntary steps to address the issue, he says.&quotFor instance, today the industry as a whole could call on President Bush to sign the Kyoto Protocol, and make clear that the survival of the ski industry relies on prompt action,&quot Berman says. &quotAspen Ski Company did this last year. Why not the rest of the industry?&quotMeanwhile, regional trade groups could call for the adoption of renewal portfolio standards or other incentives for renewable energy, or call for fuel efficiency standards such as the Canadian ski industry recently did,&quot Berman says.&quotThe industry could also adopt proactive strategies to reduce the impacts of traffic to and from resorts, rather than investing significant capital into additional snowmaking,&quot Berman adds. Snowmaking appears to be a &quotfuture, if not current, response to global warming&quot that does exacerbate climate change through huge energy requirements, even if its effects are too difficult to measure, he says.&quotConsider the capital if the funds used for all the terrain and snowmaking expansions by I-70 resorts were instead used to fund a true alternative transportation system up and down I-70. That would do more to guarantee (industry) profitability than any expansion at the expense of another resort,&quot Berman says. The industry’s inaction on this issue is difficult to understand given that ski resorts stands to lose the most, and sooner, than any other sector due to climate change, he adds.Berman says that acknowledging impacts early on could help prevent projects from taking on a life of their own.&quotThis requires that ski resort managers are genuinely open to input from the environmental community, rather than using such input as a tool to identify the best media relations strategy to get approval for what they were seeking in the first place,&quot he says. &quotSkiing as a sport and industry does not have to be at loggerheads with the conservation community.&quotResorts can upgrade, improve and even sell real estate as long as it is done without degrading previously undisturbed areas, and as long as the resorts engage in solving issues like increased traffic and affordable housing.&quotFor instance, Breckenridge in the past few years undertook a major redevelopment of the base of Peak 9 and they didn’t hear a peep from us. That’s the kind of project we have no problem with,&quot Berman says.&quotWe do seek to initiate a dialogue with each ski resort through several communications each year, including a formal letter towards the end of each ski season outlining where we feel they are doing well, and where we feel they can improve,&quot Berman says. &quotGiven that upwards of 50 percent of ski resorts are now filling out our survey, we have an ongoing dialogue now with all those resorts, some involving fairly frequent communications and genuinely honest engagement.&quotThe larger pictureOut in the Sierra Nevada of California, Mammoth Lakes activist Andrea Mead Lawrence addressed similar issues in a broader, philosophical context. As a double-gold medal winner at the 1952 Oslo Winter Olympics, Mead Lawrence packs some impeccable ski credentials. And as a long-time Mono County commissioner, she also understands the political realities of resort development in mountain communities.&quotOne of the things we’ve been talking about is trying to bring back some kind of reverence for the mountains,&quot she says. &quotWe have to get back to a mountain experience. Skiing is about being in nature and being in tune with nature. It’s always been about that, but we’ve gotten away from that recently with all the commercial activity that has developed around the sport. It’s a real educational process,&quot she says.On-mountain educational kiosks and information centers could be one way to start re-developing that ethic, she explains, citing efforts by Mammoth Mountain along those lines.&quotThere are all kinds of things you can do if you have a slower experience. You can build in a way that emphasizes the quality of the experience. Look at Alta (Utah), for instance, where you have slower lifts but people rave about the quality of the experience,&quot she says.From his national perspective as the Sierra Club’s conservation director, San Francisco-based Bruce Hamilton says the ski industry must begin by facing up to the fact that some mountain valleys have already been over-developed, putting a strain on water resources, air quality, wetlands and wildlife habitat.&quotAs I look ahead, I think the biggest issue we’re facing, in terms of expansions, is that we’ve already gone too far in some cases. I think the first thing is to try and make sure that the existing resorts are operating on a basis that’s environmentally sustainable in the long-term,&quot Hamilton says. &quotIn some places we may need to go back and mitigate for impacts that have already occurred, or maybe even scale back.&quotHamilton advocated for developing smaller-scale, community based resorts that might be more in tune with the early intent of the Forest Service as it explored the country’s mountains, searching for opportunities to provide accessible recreational experiences.&quotThere’s got to be something between the mega-resorts, that not everyone wants to visit, and the mom-and-pop operations that are going out of business,&quot he says, encouraging the ski industry to offer an alternative vision. &quotI think there are two types of customers. One is looking for an urban experience, with a big commercially developed base, music in the terrain park. But there are still a lot of people who go skiing because they are looking for a natural experience. When I go to Utah to ski, I go to Alta rather than Snowbird, it’s just a different character that appeals to me more,&quot he says.For resorts with high use, Hamilton says it’s important for the industry to recognize that it needs to invest in urban infrastructure.&quotIf you’re going to pack them in, then invest in water treatment, mass transit, build up, rather than sprawling out,&quot Hamilton says.Auden Schendler, environmental guru for the Aspen Skiing Company, looks at the issues from inside the industry. The SkiCo has won accolades for its environmental policies, and Schendler says the way the question is framed &quotWhat do environmentalists want from the ski industry?&quot is not completely fair.&quotEssentially, the article is biased from the get-go,&quot Schendler says, acknowledging that much of the focus has been on blocking expansions and preventing projects.&quotThey want the ski industry to stay the same size it is now,&quot he says. &quotThe big hot-button issues are the expansion of permit areas and snowmaking. The environmental community wants to see us address the issues of streamflows head-on,&quot he says. &quotThey want us to keep more water in the streams and to figure out how to keep it there even when there’s no legally enforceable mechanism requiring it. They want us to directly address energy use, transportation, sprawl, affordable housing. They want us to recognize that the resorts are responsible for sprawling development in these mountain valleys.&quotSchendler says another request that he’s heard is for support on policy issues, citing the sometimes-controversial Forest Service roadless policy as an example. But that is apparently a political no-no, he concludes.


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