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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ski Resort Expansion

Air Date: Week of

Stephanie Pindyck reports on how expansion in the ski industry to accommodate the new wave of extreme sports is putting pressure on the environment in and around public lands.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. There are some big changes underway at many of the nation's ski resorts. In fact, you'd be hard-pressed to call them just ski resorts any more. People are whizzing down the slopes these days on boards and tubes, even bicycles designed for the snow. This new wave in winter play is boosting demand for more cleared land to accommodate more customers. So, some resort owners are turning their eyes toward public lands. Living on Earth's Stephanie Pindyck has our report.

(Whooping and hollering)

PINDYCK: Thirty thousand spectators traveled to Mt. Snow, Vermont, early this year to watch the X-Games, an annual competition of all things extreme. Athletes come here to stretch the limits on everything from snowboards to snow bikes to 16-inch trick skis.

(Bells ring, the crowd yells)

PINDYCK: Mt. Snow's director of alternative sports, Chris Bluto, says this event helps build a loyal following for new forms of winter recreation.

BLUTO: I think mountains are really starting to open up as just a general winter playground. So, someone looking to get out in the winter time and come for a vacation has a lot more options available to them in the snow-sliding world.

PINDYCK: All these new activities, though, require new terrain. Most skiers like open glades and moguls, while boarders often prefer half-pipes and jumps. Many resorts are expanding in order to customize different runs for different sports.

(An engine runs; beeps)

Inside his Snow Cat grooming machine at Mt. Snow, Eliah Hamilton says skiers and boarders are picky.

HAMILTON: A lot of people don't really think it's worth it to put all this work into pushing snow around and building jumps for people when we can just have people come here to ski. But people aren't coming here just to ski any more. It's a whole different experience now.

PINDYCK: But expansion efforts at dozens of resorts in New England, Colorado, and other western states, have turned winter recreation into a battleground. Several environmental groups have been fighting the resort industry, contending that many expansions threaten endangered wildlife and old growth forests. Jeff Berman, president of a group called Colorado Wild, says skiing takes a bigger toll than most people think.

BERMAN: Well, ski areas expanding into untouched forests, those are called logging operations. You have to log in order to create additional ski runs. You have to build roads and put in lifts.

PINDYCK: In the west, much of this damage occurs on public land because most resorts operate under long-term permits granted decades ago by the U.S. Forest Service. Mr. Berman contends the agency didn't adequately consider the environmental consequences of ski slopes back then. And today, he says, the agency still fails to think about all the condominiums and hotels that pop up near ski resorts.

BERMAN: All these impacts are not generally studied when the Forest Service studies and approves a ski area expansion on the public lands portion.

(A ski lift hums)

PINDYCK: The best place to see what Mr. Berman is complaining about is at one of America's priciest and best-known resorts, Vail, Colorado. On a typical day thousands of people ride the high-speed lift to the top of the mountain. They're drawn here by the legendary terrain and bright sunshine.

(To woman) So how would you describe the day out today?

WOMAN: Oh, it's beautiful and sunny.

MAN: Yes, it is amazing.

WOMAN: And I'm hopeful, you know, at least if the skiing isn't too good I'll get a tan.


(People milling around)

PINDYCK: Inside the Two Elks Lodge, skiers and boarders are enjoying hot chocolate and chili. This building has become Ground Zero in the battle over winter resorts. The original lodge here was burned to the ground 18 months ago by activists upset that Vail was expanding into a roadless corridor used by wildlife. Jeff Berman of Colorado Wild says the situation underscores a problem at many resorts. He claims expansion on public land is designed to enrich private landholders nearby.

BERMAN: What we often find is that there are other motivations for the expansion, and that simply stating we need to improve the quality of the ski experience for the public is a ruse. Often, the underlying motive is either real estate development, increasing the value of adjacent private lands owned by the ski company or other folks that are tied with them.

PINDYCK: Officials with Vail weren't available for an interview. But at the National Ski Areas Association, spokeswoman Geraldine Hughes says critics are wrong to focus on real estate, and to criticize an entire industry based on one conflict.

HUGHES: I would just like to assure everybody that, indeed, we are in the resort business. Lift tickets are still the largest single source of revenue for ski areas. Real estate nationally accounts for about five percent of ski area revenues. And so, again, there is a perception out there that resorts are in the real estate business, and I think that perception is driven by the very few publicly-traded companies that are out there.

PINDYCK: Three ski companies are publicly traded right now: Vail Resorts, American Ski Corporation, and a company called Intra-West. But all three are using the money raised by recent stock offerings to fuel numerous expansions and acquisitions. Together, these Big Three companies are worth about a billion dollars, and control one third of all skier visits nationwide. It's too early to tell how far the consolidation trend will go, and if the type of expansions at Vail and other large resorts will spread throughout the industry. The critics, though, are having an effect. The Ski Areas Association is drafting environmental guidelines covering everything from the design of new runs to sewage treatment and the use of water for making artificial snow. Geraldine Hughes says skiers and environmentalists have been invited to help write the guidelines. But she notes it's difficult to satisfy everyone.

HUGHES: It's ironic, because the same person who views themself [sic] as an environmentalist and who really appreciates the natural beauty that surrounds them when they're skiing will be the same person who will want a faster lift, will want some new terrain to conquer.

PINDYCK: The Ski Association guidelines are expected in June, and all eyes are on a pending Forest Service ruling in Colorado. The outcome could severely restrict expansion plans at 12 big resorts, and set a precedent nationwide. For Living on Earth, I'm Stephanie Pindyck.



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