Eco Wise

Thinking Green on the Slopes

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

To ski or not to ski? This winter, millions of Americans will hit the slopes to commune with nature, but some environmentalists are wary of the impact of an industry that brings people and pollution to alpine ecosystems.

Ski resorts are energy-intensive: Snow machines often run on particulate-emitting, petroleum-based diesel fuel and divert massive quantities of water from local sources; chairlifts require a large amount of electricity.

Of course, when it comes to climate change, the ski industry has been one of the first to feel the heat -- and the first to do something about it. In 2004, the National Ski Areas Association, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based nonprofit organization, launched the Keep Winter Cool initiative to promote sustainable business practices on and around the slopes. Aspen, Colo., for instance, uses biodiesel in its snow-grooming machines and put in solar panels; Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in Massachusetts recently installed the industry's first on-site wind turbine.

The NRDC's chief climate scientist, Daniel Lashof, is himself an avid skier. "From my perspective, being a good environmentalist isn't about giving up the activities that we enjoy doing; it's about doing them smart," he says. "Any type of development has impact, and skiing isn't unique in that respect." Adds NSAA spokeswoman Geraldine Link: "Skiing attracts people who appreciate the outdoors, and we're held to a pretty high standard because our customers consider themselves to be green."

Though a majority of the most environmentally proactive resorts -- those with solar or wind power, carpooling and group transportation programs, carbon offsets and buildings with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification -- are in the Rocky Mountains or Europe, it's worth remembering that driving to the Appalachians consumes less fuel than flying to, say, Whistler or Davos.

Regional resorts that have endorsed the NSAA's Sustainable Slopes charter -- which provides guidelines for changes from energy conservation to water runoff management -- include Bryce Mountain, Massanutten and Wintergreen in Virginia; Wisp in Maryland; Showshoe and Timberline Four Seasons in West Virginia; and Bear Creek Mountain, Seven Springs and Whitetail in Pennsylvania.

And if a serious snowfall hits our area, keep in mind that the greenest (and cheapest) option is cross-country skiing or snowshoeing in a local park or nature preserve.

-- Eviana Hartman

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