Impeccable peaks or sloppy slopes?
And running what equates to a gigantic amusement park every day from late November to mid-April, along with feeding and transporting several thousand visitors, also is bound to leave a scar or two on what, 50 years ago, was an obscure, untrammeled mountain valley.
Whether Colorado’s ski resorts are leading the charge among cleaner, eco-friendly businesses is fodder for debate between the company’s public relations staffs and the country’s environmentalists.
What is certain, though, is that ski companies such as Vail Resorts are working to make their operations cleaner and conserve energy. The companies, in some cases, are even scoring points with environmentalists, who say, however, there is still plenty the resorts can do to get in tune with nature.
“Vail seems to be the 800-pound gorilla that doesn’t get a fair shake for a lot of their efforts,” says Adam Palmer, the former environmental coordinator for Vail Resorts who now heads the Eagle Valley Alliance for Sustainability, an environmental group.
Vail Resorts Saturday celebrated its “Sustainable Slopes” program, an industrywide campaign aimed at informing skiers what the companies are doing to become more eco-friendly. Displays were set up in Lionshead Saturday with exhibits on everything from wind power to carpools. Ultimately, however, the industry’s sustainable slopes campaign has been a dud with environmentalists like Jeff Berman, director of Colorado Wild.
“We’ve been fairly critical of “Sustainable Slopes’ because it’s all voluntary and it doesn’t address many major environmental impacts,” Berman says. “There’s not a third-party addressing the ski industry’s performance – it’s not dispassionate whatsoever.”
And the industry is ignoring perhaps the biggest threat to its future, Berman says.
“The ski industry needs to be a leader in staving off what threatens to destroy it altogether – global warming,” Berman says. “If it keeps getting warmer and warmer, there won’t be any skiing.
“We’re seeing this happening,” he adds. “Global warming is happening and it’s getting worse.”
Catching the wind
Luke Cartin, Vail Mountain’s environmental coordinator, says the ski company has embarked on a slew of conservation programs and also is working to increase use of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power.
“The idea behind renewables is the power’s already there – the wind is always blowing – we just have to convert to electricity,” Cartin says.
Vail Mountain has placed monitoring equipment on Ptarmigan Ridge, adjacent to Game Creek Bowl, to gauge how much wind energy could be generated there. It’s a program that has earned Vail compliments from some of its harshest environmental critics.
“That’s looking really promising right now. This is a big test,” Cartin says.
Wind power Vail Mountain buys from Holy Cross, the local electric company, already powers the Eagle’s Nest building and the Mountain Top Express Lift, Chair 3, Cartin says. Wind power, however, could potentially be used to run as many as eight chairlifts, Cartin says.
Energy conservation also is a high priority, Cartin says.
For one, the mountain has been buying more energy efficient light bulbs, he says.
“Snow making is also a huge use of energy. So each year we try to reduce that a little,” Cartin says. “We’re tyring to buy the most efficient guns for our use. We’re making our mountain as energy efficient as we can.”
The mountain also fine tunes its recycling program every year. This year, Cartin says, the mountain stopped selling a particular sports drink because its plastic containers were too difficult to recycle. The mountain also tries to buy products such as toilet paper and paper towels that are made from recycled material, he says.
“Ski areas in my mind have to be environmentally friendly,” Cartin says. “Most people who ski are environmentally aware. At Vail, we want to separate ourselves from the crowd.”
Environmentalists are divided on how well Vail Mountain and the rest of ski industry is performing.
“There’s definitely a sincere effort, though there’s always more things that can be done,” Palmer says. “There’s more things I’d like to see, but it can be difficult because these programs need to make economic sense as well as environmental and social sense.”
While currently wind energy does not represent a substantial percentage of the mountain’s power consumption, the company deserves credit for being a pioneer in its efforts.
“The wind energy project is a great example of looking to renewable energy,” Palmer says. “They’re sitting on top of a great renewable resource that should be used.”
Palmer also gives Vail high marks for recycling, but says the company’s real estate ventures could be more sensitive to the environment.
“I think the recycling is a great example that I’d like to see other businesses in the valley follow,” Palmer says. “But I’d like to see a formal policy on any new real estate development meeting green building standards.”
“Green buildings” are meant to be more energy efficient and constructed of more recycled material. Green buildings also are supposed to make use of solar and wind power.
Palmer says Vail Mountain, by doing things as mundane as turning off the lights in its buildings afterhours, had cut its energy consumption by 15 percent.
Berman, however, is a harsher critic of both Vail Mountain and the industry as a whole. While the industry, as represented by the National Ski Areas Association, or NSAA, has adopted a global warming policy, none of the resorts have made binding commitments to address the problem, Berman says.
“It’s encouraging to see the NSSA adopt a climate change policy, however its lacks concrete commitments for the ski industry to be a true leader in addressing the threat to its very existence,” Berman says.
Berman also says the sustainable slopes policy has some serious flaws.
“It doesn’t address real estate development, it doesn’t address impacts to roadless areas, old-growth forests, the destruction of undisturbed forests or the withdrawal of water from streams at their low-flow times of year,” Berman says. “It’s all voluntary.”
Berman say there are some bright spots among the industry.
“There are some stellar examples – the Aspen ski company purchases more wind power than any other and the Wolf Creek ski company has been opposing a large real estate development at its base,” Berman says.
At the same time resorts are pushing their environmental initiatives, some mountains are seeking to increase snowmaking capacities, a major use of both water and electricity. What that likely means is the industry’s relationship with the environment will continue to both win accolades and cause controversy.
Vail Mountain, while it has been trying make snowmaking more energy efficient, could, for instance, explore solar power.
“There’s always more room for education. Vail Mountain, for instance, could have more environmental information on their Web site,” Palmer says. “There are some good displays on mountain, but there’s always more room for environmental education.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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