Dear EarthTalk: What is the impact of the skiing industry on our environment?
—Elizabeth Marley, San Bernardino, CA
While skiing affords millions of enthusiasts the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors during the winter, its impact on the environment is fairly substantial. The creation and ongoing expansion of ski resorts leads to the development of otherwise unspoiled alpine ecosystems and often destroys vital wildlife habitat. Ski resorts also use substantial amounts of water for snowmaking and other activities, and generate significant carbon dioxide pollution from energy used to run lifts and visitor facilities.
For instance, Colorado’s famed Aspen Mountain ski resort churns through 45 million gallons of water each year to make snow in the winter, irrigate the landscape in the summer, and to provide for the personal needs of staff and visitors year round. Sprawling guest accommodations, not to mention the construction of new trails and runs, have kept the endangered Canada lynx—as well as myriad other alpine fish and wildlife species—on the run and teetering on the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, the resort’s mechanical facilities and related services emit 76 pounds of carbon dioxide per skier each year. Despite these statistics, Aspen is still considered to be among the more environmentally responsible ski resorts.
In light of such problems as well as increased pressure from environmental advocates, many ski resorts in recent years have started to focus on lightening the impact of their operations. More than 170 ski resorts—representing about 60 percent of U.S. skier destinations—have signed onto the National Ski Areas Association’s environmental charter, which calls for responsible management of resources, decreased energy use and limits on development. While adherence to the charter’s tenets is voluntary, its adoption by a majority of the country’s leading ski resorts is a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, the non-profit Ski Area Citizens” Coalition (SACC) publishes an annual Ski Area Environmental Scorecard which rates hundreds of U.S. ski resorts on the basis of environmentally sound management practices, especially individual resorts” efforts to maintain ski terrain and service facilities within existing boundaries so as to maximize the preservation of undisturbed lands. SACC’s criteria also include the protection of wetlands, old growth forest, unique geological formations and roadless areas. SACC also takes into account energy and water consumption habits. Some Colorado ski resorts that received high marks in that regard include Aspen, Buttermilk and Wolf Creek
Meanwhile, a handful of forward-thinking operations—including Mt. Hood Meadows, Cooper Spur and Mount Bachelor in Oregon, Deer Valley and Park City in Utah, and Lake Tahoe’s Northstar in California—allow skiers to add a few extra dollars onto their lift ticket prices to purchase wind energy which then increases the amount of clean energy that goes into the grid that powers the operations.