Green … or Greenwashing in the ski industry

It’s a slippery slope for ski areas trying to be environmentally sensitive

Vail Trail, 2004

By Alex Miller


Auden Schendler thinks he has the best job in the world. As the director of environmental affairs for Aspen Skiing company, Schendler spends his days trying to come up with new ways to make the resort more environmentally friendly. With a mandate to continually pursue such things, Schendler says he has “huge leeway” in terms of the projects he tackles.

“It’s not me fighting to get programs, because there’s a mandate from the owner,” Schendler says, referring to Aspen CEO Pat O’Donnell and the Chicago-based Crown family. “Pat is a climber, a longtime environmentalist and a life-long outdoors person. He says we do this simply because it’s the right thing.”

While Aspen’s environmental program is one of the strongest in the business – they’ve won numerous awards and recognition from the industry as well as from conservation groups – it’s not dissimilar to ones being pursued by ski areas across the country. As the industry has awakened to the fact that many skiers truly care about how green the resorts are, it has responded over the past decade with a wide array of programs aimed not only at responding to those concerns but as a means of heading off criticism. In 2000, the National Ski Areas Association created the “Sustainable Slopes Program” – a charter containing a set of 21 environmental principles – aimed at giving ski areas a better handle on what exactly is meant by being “green.”

With the release of a new study this summer by CU-Denver policy professor Peter deLeon and colleague Jorge Rivera criticizing Sustainable Slopes as ineffective, the spotlight is on the ski industry to prove it’s truly green, and not simply “greenwashing” – a term given to companies that hide behind programs like Sustainable Slopes while not really doing much or, worse yet, using it to hide truly bad behavior. deLeon points out that the report is an aggregate of data from Western ski resorts, so no particular areas are singled out. But it’s hard for the NSAA and the individual resorts participating in SSP to feel wrongly maligned given their voluntary efforts, and they’ve responded strongly to the report.

Incidents of blatant, clandestine enviro-trashing behavior are almost unheard of in the ski industry. There was that episode at Keystone back in the ‘90s, where workers buried a bunch of old season passes on Forest Service land, but for the most part ski areas can’t be too naughty for the simple reason that the public is always crawling all over its facilities. There are also economic reasons for resorts to be green, since travelers are increasingly more interested in knowing they’re patronizing a place that’s not wrecking the environment.

And then there’s the history, as National Ski Areas Association President Michael Berry explains it.


Changing Terrain

“When you talk about the uphill-downhill guys at the ski areas – the ones not involved in development – they always thought of themselves simply as providers of an outdoor recreation activity, a good thing,” Berry says. “They tried to do the right thing, work with the regulatory agencies and operate to the standards dictated.”

Berry says things started to change in the 1990s, owing in part to fewer problems with industries like mining, logging and ranching traditionally targeted by conservation groups. And then there was the October, 1998 eco-terror attack on Vail Mountain, where the Two Elk lodge was burned by the Earth Liberation Front.

“The ski industry woke up as the new poster child for environmental groups,” Berry says. “It caught the ski areas by surprise.”

Berry says the industry responded by continuing to work within the rules while also building other programs – from recycling to energy conservation to use of renewable fuels for the snowcats. The Sustainable Slopes Program, he says, grew out of the desire to talk about all the industry was doing while also providing some kind of guidelines and marketing tools to publicize the efforts.

To date, 175 resorts nationwide have endorsed SSP and its recommended “best practices.” But while these resorts may be doing more on the green front than ever before, they find themselves in the hot seat as critics say they aren’t doing enough – or that they’re greenwashing by slapping the SSP stamp on without living up to its principles.


The Critics

In the study done by deLeon and Rivera (“Is Greener Whiter? Voluntary Environmental Performance of Western Ski Areas”) published in the August Policy Studies Journal, the main criticism levied at SSP is the fact that it’s a voluntary program with no third-party oversight. In other words, ski areas who “endorse” the charter don’t necessarily have to do anything, nor are they subject to anyone checking to see if they’re doing what they say they’re doing. There are no punishments or sanctions available to penalize naughtiness, and reports about SSP adherence are submitted by the ski areas themselves.

Using data from the ski industry, the U.S. Forest Service and the green group known as the Ski Area Citizens Coalition, the study included 109 Western ski resorts and arrived at a number of other conclusions, such as:

-Ski areas participating in voluntary programs like SSP are “significantly associated with lower environmental performance” and “appear to be displaying free-riding behavior” (greenwashing);

-More stringent state regulations correspond to higher environmental performance;

-Local USFS ranger districts are biased toward the ski areas because they receive lease payment revenue from them;

-Ski areas owned by publicly traded corporations are more likely show lower environmental performance.

“I was surprised,” deLeon says. “I’m an optimist enough to think that if people make promises, even voluntary ones, that they have every reason to abide by them. So it was a real question as to whether the responsibility (to adhere to SSP) was taken across the board by some of the ski companies.”

Stories about the study were published in the Aug. 25 and Aug. 30 editions of Denver Post, along with comments from ski industry officials disputing the findings and deLeon saying he was just trying to start a conversation. The NSAA put out a news release Sept. 7 flaying the study for what it said were acknowledge flaws in the methodology as well as the use of “biased” Ski Area Citizens Coalition data.

It was the latest salvo between NSAA and the SACC. Formed at about the same time Sustainable Slopes was coming into existence, the SACC is an offshoot of the Durango-based Colorado Wild! conservation group. Its mission is to let skiers know how their favorite ski areas fare on the green meter with an annual report card rating them all. Here’s a sample of how local ski areas were rated following the 2003/2004 season:

Vail Resorts: F

Copper Mountain Resort: F

Beaver Creek Resort: F

Breckenridge Ski Resort: F

Arapahoe Basin: D

Keystone: D

Could these lousy grades mean SSP isn’t working?

“It’s better than nothing,” says Ben Doon, SACC research director. “But there needs to be some kind of accountability, otherwise you can just paste it (the SSP logo) all over and not lift a finger. Ski areas need to earn it, otherwise what’s it worth?”

As for the SACC report card – whose damning grades might make skiers think they’re carving turns over toxic waste dumps – Doon says the reason our local resorts fare so poorly is simple: If they’ve done on-mountain development in the past few years, they flunk. And most of the big resorts in Colorado have been doing on-mountain development (Aspen is a notable exception; they consistently receive an A grade due to this as well as their environmental programs. But that may change with the upcoming development in Snowmass).

It’s enough to make a ski area president wonder if he’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.


Striking a Balance

Bill Jensen, Vail Mountain’s senior VP, shakes his head when talking about the SACC report card in relation to what he says Vail has done on the green front.

“Their mission is to identify ski areas doing development,” Jensen says. “They basically told me after we did Blue Sky Basin that we’d fail for the next five years.”

As for the study by deLeon and Rivera, Jensen said he was surprised by a number of things related to it. The first is that he wasn’t contacted by them for any data; he learned about it when the Post reporter called for comment. He also noted one major error: Ski area lease payments to the Forest Service do not go to the local ranger district but to the USFS in Washington, D.C.

Jensen points to a major point of departure between what SACC thinks is important and what the ski areas are trying to do. Nearly all of the grading criteria identified on the SACC website have to do with “avoiding” something: wetlands, building in environmentally sensitive areas, construction on undisturbed land, etc. The SSP’s 21 points dwell on things like resource management, water and energy use and recycling, with only one – wetlands areas – mentioning sensitivity to the land itself. It’s no wonder, then, that the ski areas, in submitting their SSP reports, grade themselves differently than SACC does: They’re taking a different test. As Doon says, it doesn’t matter how many beer bottles you’ve recycled; if you’re developing anything on-mountain – whacking old-growth forests and the like — SACC will flunk you.

“The ski industry’s response has been extremely aggressive against this whole project, and the NSAA in particular,” says Doon. “We’ve seen memos they’ve sent out attacking the integrity of the process and recommending resorts don’t respond to our survey.”

Michael Berry at the NSAA says the SACC scorecard is flawed, biased and unaudited, and says the approach contradicts reality.

“The sport is growing, more people are coming to the slopes and ski areas are trying to address that need by expanding,” he says. “The Coalition is offering rewards for the status quo. It’s a huge contradiction.”

Despite the seeming disparity of the positions held by the various parties, there does appear to be some consensus on at least one point: The greening of the ski industry is still very much a work in progress and there’s room for improvement. As Jensen notes, the deLeon/Rivera study only used data from 2001, which represented only the first full year of SSP results.

“Our self-grade then was that we need to do better,” he says, “in nearly all areas.”

Berry and Doon also acknowledged more work needs to be done. The new SACC scorecard, Doon says, will better reflect some of the good things ski areas are doing – using renewable fuels, exploring alternate energy – and enable higher scores even if the area has done recent development. On-mountain construction will be weighted with a sort of term limit: The further in the past it is, the less it will count against your score. These changes, Doon says, were made in response to feedback from the ski areas and demonstrate that they’re not just out to fail everyone. He also said he’d be happy to sit down with NSAA and ski industry representatives to talk about a more universal scorecard in the future, but doubted that would happen unless the NSAA would consider adding development as one of its criteria.

Berry says the next step in the evolution of SSP may be some kind of certificate ski areas can be awarded based on verifiable criteria – something akin to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System. Third-party audits are also something NSAA is willing to discuss, he says.

“But it takes time to build those efforts,” Berry says. “The subject matter involved, the notion of identifying standards above and beyond regulations and negotiating what those are — it takes time and effort.

Professor deLeon says he and Rivera have seen a great deal of media interest in their study, and he jokes that next time he goes skiing he’s going to have to wear a disguise. (Vail’s Jensen says he’d like to have lunch with deLeon.) Intrigued by the notion that the study’s criticism could lead to improvements, he says he’s open to the possibility of a follow-up that focuses on potential remedies.

“This study was really more exploratory, pointing out soft spots,” he says. “I think if we were going to look at a harder agenda (for change), we’d want to sit down with the NSAA and the resorts and be more specific.”

Leaving the possibility open to do a follow-up study in a few years to gauge progress, deLeon says they don’t want to be “pigeonholed” doing the same study every three years. At the same time, he says not all the “metrics” in the study were perfect, and there’s plenty of opportunity for the ski industry to make improvements as well.

“There is a growth curve, and we hope it’s positive,” deLeon says. “It’s like a cheap pair of ski boots: Give it time, and maybe it’ll fit better.”

Meanwhile, scorecards, studies and best practices aside, the resorts continue to do as they will in a free market. Vail is exploring the possibility of an on-mountain wind power project, while Aspen is finishing the first in a possible series of small hydroelectric plants while also contemplating how to be environmentally sensitive with a major development at Snowmass. Some are doing nothing beyond putting out recycle bins, while others ponder how to reconcile the somewhat contradictory role of an outdoor industry that wants to lean green while also maintaining a penchant for real estate development.

“I’m the first to acknowledge that what we do has impacts,” says Bill Jensen. “But we have to start with the premise that we need to be stewards of this land, then you are acknowledging that you understand the importance of environmentalism.”


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