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Turning White Into Green

With ski slopes threatened by global warming, resorts are exploring ways to counter climate change thanks to a push from environmental non-profits throughout the country.
posted: 11/28/2010
Alta is dedicated to sustainable environmental practices - learning from the past, being guided by best-management practices now, and leading with innovation and research in the future.PHOTO: Alta Ski Area

Ski resorts make their living off of snow. Bottom line. So if it disappears, say goodbye to the après scene, sweet gear, pow-in-your-face days, and everything else you love about the sport. Luckily, a few organizations are taking serious action to prevent anything from happening to your favorite resort, and the higher ups at those resorts are finally taking notice.

The Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition (SACC), which is comprised of several environmental non-profit organizations, works to promote environmental stewardship in the industry. By evaluating ski area responsiveness to environmental issues within their community, SACC is trying to push current business practices and trends to be increasingly more eco-friendly.

“[SACC] has been a thorn in the side of the ski industry ever since [it started], though they have begun to look at it differently and it seems most ski areas are starting to embrace their environmental responsibility,” said Paul Joyce, SACC conservation associate. “We have helped push the industry to be ahead of their time. They need to practice good stewardship, leave the place better than they found it, and stop trying to exploit the resource.”

SACC grades resorts based on a point system of individual criteria, which are grouped into four categories: habitat protection, protecting watersheds, addressing global climate change, and environmental practices and polices, which then form a overall grade, allowing resorts to be ranked according to score.

At the top of that list are Squaw Valley and Aspen. “Environmental consciousness is deeply engrained in Squaw Valley’s philosophy and as such, plays a part in everything we do, said Amelia Richmond, the PR manager. “We understand that effective environmental policies are more than buying clean-energy credits and off-setting our environmental impact—at Squaw Valley, we start by taking care of our own mountain.”

Squaw’s environmental policies start with the management team and extend all the way down to front-line employees. Every year, Richmond says that a re-vegetation team spends every summer reintroducing native plants to the mountain, doing erosion control and eradicating invasive species. During the winter months, the resort conserves energy and water by limiting snowmaking to the early season and making snow only when absolutely necessary.

But these environmental accomplishments are less about actions taken in the past year than they are a long-term commitment and a moral obligation to the future. Hardy Herger, Squaw Valley’s chief environmental engineer, has researched and put together a proposal to use wind energy to lessen Squaw Valley’s dependence on grid energy.

Despite the efforts Squaw Valley and other resorts at the top of the SACC list are making, climate change is already having a direct effect on the future of our winter sports and the economic vitality of our mountain communities.

According to Chris Steinkamp, executive director of Protect Our Winters (POW), a non-profit aimed at uniting winter sports enthusiasts to reduce climate change’s effect on mountain sports, it’s up to the skiers, boarders, and snowshoers to make a difference now. “It’s our mission to get 16 million winter sports enthusiasts engaged in the issues and active,” Steinkamp said. “The biggest lever we have right now is our community. We want to continue building it, engaging everyone at the community-level and elevating our collective voice to have a direct effect on the issues.”

Steinkamp suggests sending a letter to your elected officials and demand that they place climate change and clean energy on the top of their agendas now. “And join POW,” he says. “By joining us, our voice becomes that much stronger. We really don’t have the time for anything less than that.”

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