The Science of Sustainability

Ski Green

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Skiing at Tahoe’s Squaw Valley, the resort with the best report card in the country. Photo: Jeff Engerbretson.

Planning a ski trip this winter? Environmentally minded skiers might want to take a look at the Ski Area Report Card before making travel plans. The recently released Report Card gives every ski area in the country a score, based on the resort’s greenness. The grading criteria encompasses everything from recycling the refuse of mid-mountain lunch lodges to using biodiesel to fuel snowmobiles. California’s ski areas fared well: Tahoe’s Squaw Valley was ranked the greenest in the nation, and Alpine Meadows wasn’t far behind.

One of the ski industry’s biggest environmental sins is snowmaking, which often involves taking water out of streams, or adding low quality water to the watershed. Other environmental impacts include carbon emissions from ski lifts and erosion of steep slopes. The worst offense is developing undisturbed land to expand ski area terrain and build new parking lots and hotels. This can wreck habitat for threatened and endangered species. However, there wasn’t much new ski area development over the past year, primarily because of the slow economy.

According to the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition (the amalgam of skiers and environmental groups that developed the Report Card), 90% of ski areas in the Western US are on public land administered by the Forest Service. In my opinion, environmentally conscientious ski areas are a good use of public land. I think of skiing as a way to be in nature and enjoy the outdoors—although you could argue that there isn’t much that’s natural about the corduroy-like texture of treeless, groomed slopes. But as I carve through fresh powder, look out over mountain vistas, and watch from the chairlift as voles scurry over the snow, I definitely get that small-speck-in-a-big-beautiful-world feeling. I should disclose that I was a ski bum in Alta, Utah (Ski Area Report Card grade: B) before I blew out both my ACLs and limped off to graduate school.

If you’re concerned about your ski-related carbon emissions, I suggest you live like a ski town local: live close to the mountain, and ski the backcountry. No need for carbon-spewing chairlifts when you can get yourself up the mountain on your own power—but watch out for avalanches.

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Category: Climate, Environment

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Jennifer Skene

About the Author ()

Jennifer Skene develops curriculum on climate change and ocean sciences at the Lawrence Hall of Science and teaches biology and science communication at Mills College and the University of California Berkeley. She has a degree in biology from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Integrative Biology from UC Berkeley. She started working with QUEST in 2008 as an intern. She has written for the Berkeley Science Review and the UC Museum of Paleontology’s Understanding Evolution and Understanding Science websites.