Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Green Snow Play

The sport of downhill skiing is right up there with polo. It reeks of entitlement. And though I snowboard and would like to pretend that that's different somehow, it demands the spending of just as much disposable income as its two-bladed predecessor.

Every trip to the mountain has its moments of unease as I wrestle with these facts. The attendant at the nearby Loaf 'N' Jug may never have skied in his life. The workers at the resort cafeteria are all Brazilians or Romanians, jumping at the opportunity to secure a temporary work visa so they can earn $10 an hour flipping overpriced burgers for the yuppie crowd.

And then there are the obvious environmental impacts. Lift motors humming, snowmakers sucking up water, expansive parking lots full of SUVs stretching out before sprawling alpine "villages."

Ironically, though, there's a new trend here. Over the past couple years, I've noticed that many mountains have put up signs saying their lifts are "100% wind-powered," and that their facilities are employing waste water systems and recycled materials.

Is this just an attempt to follow the current of the yuppie market? After all, what's hipper than going green? Think about it a minute, though, and the basic reason becomes obvious: global warming. Of all the world's industries, the ski resort has perhaps the most to lose from a climate in which warmer, shorter winters are the norm. Establishing greener practices isn't just an exercise in rebranding, but rather a somewhat half-hearted attempt to bolster its survival.

Oh well, though there may be self-preservation at work here, the ends justify the means, I guess. But what exactly are those ends? In trying to figure this out, I found a nifty little organization called the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition. Its website rates a number of the American West's ski mountains on a variety of green criteria, such as preservation of environmentally sensitive land and species, use of renewable energy, and commitment to sound environmental policy positions, and ranks each according to a holistic grade.

I was a little distressed on reviewing the "Top Ten" areas (none of which I've skied) and the "Worst Ten" areas (of which I've skied three: Copper, Breckenridge, and Crested Butte). However, my mood improved when I found that the mountain I've frequented for over 20 years (Monarch) and the mountain I most recently visited and loved (Wolf Creek) both scored almost well enough to make the Top Ten list. (Unfortunately, the site has yet to include resorts in the Northeast, although Fast lists Killington, VT, as the 8th greenest in the world.)

Another thing I learned was that all those signs declaring lifts to be wind-powered (including the ones at Copper, uh-hmm), are a little misleading. The lifts themselves, at least those at the resorts I looked at, are not powered by wind energy. Instead, the resorts purchase energy credits from wind farms in other areas of the country to offset the energy used to run the lifts. A half-truth, but better than nothing, I suppose.

In the end, skiing's green trend does little to diminish the aristocratic image the sport conjures in my mind. That said, I'm eagerly looking forward to getting in a few more days on the slopes this season. And I've added Aspen, Buttermilk, and Park City to my must-ski list.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

It was quite an experience for me when I finally got to go snowboarding in Breckenridge in 06 (Sarah, my friend from freshman year, was living out there and worked at Peak 8 so I got a free pass and equipment from her). It's definitely another world, I felt like I had a pass to the bourgeious.

Excellently captured in this entry.