Skiing green trails
Patches of artificial snow from a snow cannon in the Swiss Alps resort of Lenzerheide, during the unusually warm weather this autumn. (Christian Hartmann/Reuters)
Ski resorts are not exactly Mother Nature’s best friend.
Their construction clears trees from mountains, which disrupts the habitat and creates soil run-off issues. They attract tourists, hotels and restaurants, which bring pollution and waste. And many resorts rely on artificial snow, which raises energy consumption and water use issues.
But some resorts are friendlier to the environment than others, and there has been an ongoing industry push over the last decade to be as kind as possible to the breathtaking mountain-top surroundings that skiers love.
The initiative is not just a goodwill gesture that scores points with outdoorsy, nature-loving ski bums -- it is a matter of survival. Climate change affects snowfall patterns, and while the fake stuff is passable, resorts need the real deal to stay in business. Four years ago, Abondance, a village in the French Alps, closed its ski area because it simply was not getting enough snow. A 2006 study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development warned that the Alps were “particularly sensitive” to warming, having seen temperatures rise “roughly three times the global average” in recent years. Lower-altitude resorts are the most at-risk.
What are ski resorts doing about it? Plenty. There are efforts to change the way resorts are built and do business. After being fined millions of dollars for runoff that polluted the local water supply, the California resort Northstar-at-Tahoe, said it would turn to clearing ski runs -- instead of bulldozing them -- which leaves some vegetation, roots and topsoil on the mountainside and reduces erosion. Other resorts are using renewable energy, including wind, solar and hydro power, as well as biofuels. Some are developing more efficient transportation systems, like Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin which offers discounted lift tickets for those who hop on the free bus or carpool. Skiers are increasingly encouraged to recycle, refill water bottles, stick to designated ski runs to avoid disrupting more habitat, and take the train rather than fly into the resort. Three North American resorts -- Sun Peaks in British Columbia, Canada; Aspen Snowmass in Colorado; and Jackson Hole in Wyoming, have an ISO 14001 designation, which means they meet international standards for responsible environmental management. Resorts in Andorra, Australia, Austria, France and Switzerland have also received the ISO approval.
Several groups give skiers the run-down on what resorts are -- and are not -- doing to ease the impact on the environment:
● The Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition, based in Colorado, puts out an environmental scorecard for resorts in the western United States. Topping its current list of best resorts is Squaw Valley USA in California.
● The Ski Club of Great Britain has put together a user-friendly “Green Resort Guide” for locations worldwide. You can check out individual resorts, search for resorts by various criteria, or survey a chart comparing all of them.
● Mountain Riders, a French non-profit organization, has produced its third edition of an Eco Guide, based on surveys sent to resorts worldwide. So far, the majority of resorts responding are in France.
● The National Ski Areas Association, a US trade group, partnered with the Natural Resources Defense Council for its “Keep Winter Cool” initiative. NSAA encourages resorts to sign an “Environmental Charter”, which outlines ways to achieve several environmental principles such as minimizing water use when making snow by capturing snowmelt and storing it for later use. More than 190 resorts have shigned on; eight took on the group’s new “Climate Challenge” to inventory their carbon footprint and reduce it. NSAA also gives grants for environmental improvements and awards for excellence in going green. The 2011 winners were Grand Targhee and Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Park City in Utah.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Sun Peaks resort was in Alberta instead of British Columbia. It has been corrected above.
Lori Robertson writes the Ethical Traveller column for BBC Travel