‘Ski Area Report Card’ grades on a curve against development
While Aspen rides high with “A” grades on the 2010-11 Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition’s Environmental Report Card, some Summit County resorts are at the bottom of the class with “Ds.” But what, exactly, does that mean?Since so much of the grade assigned by the environmental group rides on development, critics of the grades say only resorts with no construction can garner high grades. If you’re still building, forget about an “A.” Not surprisingly, the weight a resort’s terrain development carries in the report card is a point of contention between the environmental group and the ski areas.Coalition research director Paul Joyce said of the four measured areas, development – or habitat protection – carries the most weight because it has the broadest and most immediate environmental impact. Over time, past development is forgiven, but planned development keeps resorts low on the scoreboard. Other scored areas include protecting watersheds, addressing global climate change and environmental policies and practices. Breckenridge and Copper both received a “D” because information on record with the U.S. Forest Service shows plans for chairlift or real estate development. The report card comes largely from data pulled from agency documents and plugged into a formula that spits out a result. It also includes a survey issued in the spring, perusal of resort websites as well as occasional calls to resort personnel. It does not typically include on-site visits or even conversations with resort officials.Breckenridge spokeswoman Kristen Petitt said the resort declines to submit the survey each year because they don’t see a level playing field.”We find the survey to be non-scientific and originating from an organization whose members exhibit bias in their views of and actions toward the ski industry,” Petitt said. “We believe the survey is hypocritical for focusing primarily on real estate and ski area development instead of placing high values on important areas of environmental stewardship such as clean water and water conservation, waste reduction and recycling, and energy conservation.”Joyce said in the 11 years of report cards, Breckenridge is generally on the bottom tier.”It’s the ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,'” Joyce said about the Summit County resorts’ score. “It’s the never-ending attempt to be No. 1.””If they ever stop growing, they’ll catch up,” he added.
But ski area representatives say development is an important way to maintain a guest’s experience.”We’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t on the development side,” said Ben Brown, director of Woodward at Copper and president of the Copper Environment Foundation nonprofit. He added that continuous improvements are important, but not at all costs. “We want to do it consciously,” he said. Not to mention, Brown said, the Forest Service oversees the development process. As the steward of public lands, they’re charged with the task of ensuring all development reaps no drastic environmental impact. Any proposal must go through the rigorous and lengthy National Environmental Policy Act, Brown added.Joyce said that’s not enough. “Is the Forest Service clean in this? Not at all,” he said. “We don’t think if they say it’s OK, it’s OK.” Politics and third-party interests play too great a role in review of development projects and citizens aren’t as involved as they could be, he added. To Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, a rigorous environmental review is useless for expansion if it doesn’t need to happen. He said the fundamental question for the coalition – and perhaps for the industry – seems to be whether expansion is necessary in today’s snowsports environment.Contrary to the seemingly logical reaction to a plateauing skiing population, resorts often feel they have to add new terrain to compete for a smaller group of skiers. “You have to be sexier,” Schendler said. Aspen – which earned an “A” on the report card – isn’t expanding. But Schendler said the grade was awarded for the wrong reasons. The resort has installed renewable-energy systems and has replaced buildings with LEED-certified structures. The company’s foundation gives away $1.5 million annually to environmental groups. The chief operating officer has visited Washington, D.C., to lobby for climate legislation, which might help keep snow on the slopes. But those things aren’t heavily weighted on the coalition’s report card.
Schendler said the report card could be reconfigured to identify a ski area’s environmental friendliness in a different way. “Are you cutting carbon emissions and moving the needle on environmental policy? If yes, you’re a green company,” he said. Brown agreed that the report card could be revamped, saying resorts can do work on the operational side that helps offset the impact of development. Though, he added, Copper does the environmental work “because it’s right,” not because of a report card score.Joyce said Copper has made strides on the “lower half of the report card,” which isn’t weighted as heavily, such as reducing energy consumption by about 25 percent in four years, largely through lighting retrofits and restructuring lift operations. Brown added that in one year, a composting effort diverted 81 tons of waste from the landfill. Additionally, the resort has established an employee-run environmental foundation that has given between $20,000 and $30,000 to local environmental projects in the past few years. The company’s National Forest Foundation has put $140,000 back into the hands of the White River National Forest through a $1 lodging donation from guests. And there’s more, Brown said. Petitt did not provide specifics on the resort’s environmental efforts, but issued a statement about reducing and recycling waste, conserving energy and water resources, protecting wildlife habitat and educating guests. “Regardless of the manner in which our resorts are portrayed by declining to complete the survey, we will continue working with local, state and federal conservation and environmental organizations and agencies to develop and implement innovative environmental programs and practices,” Petitt said in a statement.
The coalition’s mission with the report card is to raise awareness about ski resorts’ “green” efforts, Joyce said. “We’re a third party that grades what sustainability means,” he added. And despite the poor report card grade for Copper, Brown thinks what the coalition is doing is respectable.”It re-energizes me to continue to do what we’re doing and get the information out there about what we’re doing,” he said. Joyce said the scores have prompted action from other resorts over the years. “The response has been slow but steady,” he said. “As people become more aware … the report card is going to grow. Or better yet, it’s going to go away because people realize what it means to be green.”
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