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The enviro slide

Bob Berwyn

Editor’s note: This is the first part in two-part analysis of the uneasy relationship between the ski industry and the environmental movement. Next week The Trail looks at the ski resort arms race and what ski companies are doing to mitigate the impacts.At its heart, downhill skiing is a healthy, close-to-nature pastime that seems an unlikely target for environmental critics. But during recent years, nearly every proposed ski area expansion, from coast to coast, has been challenged. Sometimes critics focus on impacts to wetlands, old-growth forest or wildlife habitat; other times concerns relate to water or air quality, or even social issues like affordable housing and transportation. In many cases, the green rhetoric is heated, making it easy to discern what the conservation groups don’t want.What’s not always so easy to understand is what they DO want from the ski industry. Many of the most vocal critics say they are enthusiastic skiers. But they have been playing defense for so long, trying to block expansions and saying nay to almost every ski area development proposal, that it’s not always easy for them to turn around and articulate a positive vision for the future of the sport and the industry.Top U. S. Forest Service officials say they’ve heard little in the way of constructive criticism from environmental groups. Vexed by almost continuous appeals of ski area projects, the agency has become enmeshed in the contentious atmosphere.Ed Ryberg, the winter sports program coordinator for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain region says he’s heard very few positive remarks from conservation groups. Most of the feedback his agency can actually respond to and act on comes from other government agencies; the EPA or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ryberg says.Particularly in the West, the relationship between the ski industry and environmental groups has become largely adversarial, hardly a good basis for a constructive dialogue. It’s challenging enough for various interest groups to find consensus even when working toward a mutual goal. It’s almost impossible if they’re repeatedly facing each other in court.Listening to the industry tout its Sustainable Slopes charter on the one hand, and to green groups talking about the ski area environmental scorecard on the other is like trying to listen to a couple of different radio stations at the same time. Even though both sides claim to be talking environmental issues, there is almost no confluence of ideas or vision – and plenty of static.Resorts highlight the progress they’ve made in areas like energy conservation, use of renewable energy, educational programs, recycling and reducing the use of hazardous materials, but some greens don’t want to give them much credit for those achievements.Instead, conservation groups focus on impacts to wildlife habitat, roadless areas and larger social issues like affordable housing and transportation, using a ski area “scorecard” to slam areas that don’t conform to their pure green vision.Why can’t the ski industry and the conservation community get along? How can the two sides begin to find common ground? What do green groups want from ski areas and the industry as a whole? Why have leading ski companies like Intrawest and Vail Resorts been portrayed as environmental Pariahs?Industry shifts”I think the increased attention to resort development reflects changes that have happened in the ski industry,” says Phil Strobel, an EPA official in the agency’s regional Denver office who has reviewed numerous ski area projects on Forest Service lands for NEPA compliance.”It wasn’t too long ago that most resorts were limited to the front side of one mountain. We now have resorts with runs and lifts that extend three mountains back into formerly undeveloped forest,” says Strobel.”Until recently, snowmaking was rare in the Rocky Mountains, except perhaps near the mountain base. We now have large-scale resorts covering the majority of their runs with man-made snow. There are resorts that now employ 24-hour grooming, 24-hour snowmaking, and four-season recreation. There have obviously been changes in the scale and purposes associated with resort base areas. So as the impacts have grown, attention to resort development has, not surprisingly, increased.”The EPA has tracked ski development on public lands fairly closely because officials with the agency say that, unlike some other Forest Service actions, resort expansion results in impacts that are essentially permanent on the landscape.Where clusters of large resorts are concentrated, those impacts can be significant. Take the White River National Forest, home to most of the state’s major ski areas, including the Vail Resorts quartet in Eagle and Summit counties, and farther west, the four Aspen areas. When the EPA filed its formal comments on a revised management plan for forest, the agency pointed out that no other single management prescription accounted for the same level of impacts to wetlands, riparian areas, alpine tundra and other natural resources.It’s probably not a coincidence that some of the most vociferous criticism of the modern ski industry is centered in on Summit County and the Vail Valley, where resort-related sprawl along the I-70 corridor is completely altering the ski vacation experience. Instead of small, distinctive mountain communities shaped by their environment, visitors to these areas now find suburban-style development, with plenty of strip malls featuring chain stores and massive parking lots. Even people who probably don’t think of themselves as environmentalists derisively refer to Summit County as “Denver West.”Even though the resorts in this region have wrapped themselves in a green flag, conservation groups say official government records tell another story. One recent example is above-mentioned forest plan revision. In many places in the plan where the Forest Service wanted to protect natural resources streams, riparian areas, wetlands, alpine tundra, old growth forest, lynx habitat, roadless areas the ski industry, with exception of the Aspen Skiing Company, opposed those measures.It’s really hard, after reading those challenges to the plan, to think of the ski industry as pro-environment. In fact, even a casual observer would likely conclude that the industry is for environmental protection only if it doesn’t interfere with business as usual. And that’s too bad; it shows that the industry is out of touch with its customers.Cat III reduxMuch of the recent environmental opposition to the ski industry in the Rockies appeared to coalesce around the Cat III expansion at Vail, now known as Blue Sky Basin. The environmentalists charged the project would cut the heart out of a de facto roadless area and degrade some potentially important habitat for Canada lynx, a rare feline that has since been designated as a threatened species on the federal endangered species list. Vail Resorts consistently claimed that the project was planned and completed with the utmost environmental sensitivity; environmentalists lost their court case on the expansion and the battle lines have been drawn ever since.The Cat III project is emblematic of all that is wrong with the ski industry today – a needless expansion at the expense of important wildlife habitat, says Ted Zukoski, a former attorney with the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies who was at the heart of the legal showdown over the project. (Zukoski recently took a new environmental advocacy position with Earthjustice in Denver).”I think what the conservationists want to see are healthy human communities and healthy ecosystems in the High Country,” Zukoski says. “It seems to me, the people who run the lifts should actually be able find an affordable place to live in the towns where they work,” says the feisty attorney. Comments like these reflect the fact that criticism from conservation groups is not limited to purely environmental matters. It is part of the tradition of green activism to encompass social, economic and community well-being.Zukoski says the groups that he counsels want to see vibrant local economies that aren’t controlled or dominated by a single corporate entity. The ski resort companies obviously need to be part of that economy, but they shouldn’t maximize their profits at the expense of local businesses or the surrounding public lands.Zukoski notes a couple of other trends he’s seen in appeals and legal challenges to Forest Service approvals of ski area projects. Conservation groups want resorts and land managers to look at projects with a larger lens, considering cumulative impacts over time instead of doing “piecemeal” analysis that does not capture the full extent of environmental impacts.”The conservation community wants public lands to be not as land where stockholders can maximize their profits at the public’s expense, but where land managers try to balance competing uses,” Zukoski says.”I think they should try and sit down and have a dialogue with the local communities and the environmental community and try and figure out what kind of footprint do they want to have in the local community. And the Forest Service needs a plan to look at these issues overall,” he adds. “The ski areas are competing against themselves and each other. It’s an arms race. It would be great if the ski industry joined with the environmentalists and asked the Forest Service to take a comprehensive look at where the ski industry is going. Maybe they could get out of this competitive cycle,” he concludes.The Cat III expansion is still a sore point for Jonathan Staufer, a Vail native and business owner whose father was one of the town’s pioneers. Staufer, an avid skier, says he has not and will not ski in the new terrain. As a member of the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition, Staufer helped put together the ski area scorecard and networks with other activists around the country.”I grew up skiing in a ski town and I want to see people out there enjoying what we’ve been blessed with. But there needs to be some sort of recognition on the part of the ski industry that there’s no need to expand. Skier numbers have been flat for three decades,” Staufer says. “They need to acknowledge that real estate development on private land next to the ski areas is part of the deal. They can’t keep pretending that the two aren’t connected,” he adds, voicing an oft-repeated complaint.”We want skiing to survive economically and to be environmentally sustainable, but we have to acknowledge that the Southern Rockies are in dire straits ecologically,” he continues. “We’re cutting incredible swaths through important wildlife habitat. Category III and Jones Gulch (a proposed expansion at Keystone Resort in Summit County) are two examples.””They see us as the enemy,” Staufer says. But they (the resorts) have bigger enemies, like the cruise ship industry, for example. Maybe they could sit down with us and have a constructive dialogue, with an honest assessment of the impacts on issues like housing and transportation,” he concludes.


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