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Blinded by the white

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Recent rains have ski bums salivating about the upcoming snow season; at the same time, ski area marketing execs are kicking out propaganda to entice schussers to choose their mountain this winter.

Part of the latter effort includes the “Sustainable Slopes” program, a voluntary ski industry-sponsored initiative indorsed by 167 of the West’s ski areas committed to a vision of self-regulated, environmentally sound development.

Sustainable Slopes follows a national trend toward industrial self-regulation, and is likewise praised as cost-efficient, flexible and capable of promoting “beyond compliance” protections. The program has also been panned by enviro groups claiming it’s a “greenwash”—designed to make participating areas appear eco-friendly, but lacking the oversight and performance incentives necessary to force actual change.

Last week, scientists Jorge Rivera and Peter de Leon (of Virginia’s George Mason University and the University of Colorado, respectively) published a report in the non-profit Policy Studies Journal slamming ski areas participating in Sustainable Slopes, saying that the compliance of member groups is poor, and that in many cases participating resorts are more environmentally harmful than their non-participating counterparts.

The report, “Is greener whiter? The Sustainable Slopes Program and the voluntary environmental performance of western ski areas,” exhaustively researches ski areas and their adherence to the Sustainable Slopes mission of improved environmental integrity. While the report confirms that the program lends authenticity to resort efforts to appear “green” to skiers, it concludes that without deterrents to noncompliance, most Sustainable Slopes resorts have failed to develop environmentally sound growth strategies. (In Montana, Sustainable Slopes participants include Montana Snowbowl, Lost Trail, Discovery Basin, Bridger Bowl, Blacktail, Red Lodge and Big Mountain.)

Enviro-conscious skiers and snowboarders looking to patronize “green” ski areas can skip the industry’s line and instead check the rankings applied by the Ski Area Citizens Coalition (www.skiareacitizens.com), a group offering an unflinching assessment of resorts claiming to work toward sustainability.

Hated almost universally throughout the ski industry, SACC’s annual reports are regularly bashed by ski area execs—former Big Mountain CEO Michael Collins once described the SACC survey as “pathetic.”

Of the Montana areas rated last winter, Montana Snowbowl received the highest score (B), while Big Sky and Big Mountain both received failing grades.

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