Green Downhill Skiing

Is this possible?

The list of environmental concerns associated with downhill skiing is long. Ski areas are often built by clearing forests, frequently on public land. They are energy and water hogs. They involve the construction of massive chair lifts and the use of snowmaking machinery. And they inevitably bring real estate development and major roads to areas of pristine wilderness and wildlife habitat. And then there’s the carbon emissions of all those cars driving to the ski resorts.

Most skiers care deeply about the wilderness and their impact on it, so these issues keep coming up. The answer to whether downhill skiing can ever be eco-friendly, according to internet sources and a recent article in Utne Reader, is a (very) qualified yes.

Some ski resorts are converting to wind and solar power and others are working to offset their energy use by buying Green Tags, Tradable Renewable Energy Credits from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation. They are all eager to get out the news. You can read detailed information about “Setting the Clean Energy Example” at keepwintercool.org. I did not find this, about Vail Mountain - 5,289 acres and the largest single ski resort in North America – to be reassuring. “Vail Mountain buys 300,000 kilowatt-hours per year of wind energy to power the Wildwood Express Lift, eliminating 300 tons of global warming pollution.” Did I read that right? 300 tons of pollution to power one lift? And, I can’t tell if they are actually using wind energy or buying energy offsets, which in my mind are not the same thing. Are they being deliberately misleading or am I just not understanding something? If you want to find out how environmentally friendly your favorite western ski resort is, you can go to www.skiareacitizens.com and see what kind of grade it receives judged on nine criteria and a possible 222 total points. The “Top 10 Best” list includes Alpine Meadows (a personal favorite from my college days in Northern California) which gets an “A”. The “Top 10 Worst” list includes Breckenridge in Colorado, which receives an “F” - not the only resort with that score either. Vail Mountain gets a gentlemanly “C.” Some ski resorts offer Mini-Green Tags, for those who want to feel they are taking some kind of personally responsible action. Each Tag represents 100 kilowatt-hours of wind power entering the energy grid which is equivalent to 140 pounds of air emissions - roughly the same amount caused by driving 150 miles in a vehicle getting approximately 21 MPG. By purchasing tags, according to the Green Tags site, you offset the polluting effects of your energy use by supporting the development of clean renewable energy. This focus on alternate energy is hopeful. But it doesn’t address the other issue. The one about preserving the wilderness. I wonder where all the animals have gone that lived on the 5,289 acres that are now covered by ski trails, warming huts, and condos on Vail Mountain. This is not my attempt at a guilt trip. I am a former downhill skiing addict, possibly recovering, but that’s not clear. I am, however, turned off by the crowds - maniacs on new skis, snow bunnies, and those crazed 13-year old kamikazes on snowboards - all on the same slope. Nevertheless, I will send good energy and what passes for prayers for the survival of a beautiful sport in a more evolved green state. Are you a skier? What’s your opinion?