By Brad Chamberlin
The United States of America is known throughout the world as having some of the most scenic
national parks. Since 1960, recreation on the one hundred and ninety one million acres of public
lands has been governed by the National Forest System. Over the last fifty years recreation on
national parks like the White River National Forest in the Eagle County area of Colorado, has
grown by over one thousand one hundred and sixty one percent. Skiing has greatly added to the
number of people using our national lands, and until recently the industry was allowed to grow with
little supervision from the government. Contrary to most skiers' beliefs, alpine ecosystems are very
fragile, containing rare and sensitive plants and animals. While ski industry leaders push to make
ski areas bigger and better, environmentalists want to conserve our beautiful public lands and keep
them free from development.
Ski area executives and environmental groups have had many confrontations over the past two
decades in spite of what ski area executives claim as good environmental practices. Geralldine
Hughes, the public policy director of the National Ski Areas Association says, "We have a lot of
extremists in Colorado, no matter what ski areas do its not enough." While many environmentalists
would differ with this opinion, ski areas have made great strides to be more conscientious with their
surrounding ecosystems. The National Ski Areas Association, which represents over ninety
percent of the nations ski areas, is working on a new plan that when approved will set national
standards for environmental stewardship among ski areas. The program is called Sustainable
Slopes and will cover topics from lift installation to recycling trash. Rob Megnin, president of the
Ski Areas New York, says, "We have to educate people inside and outside the industry and we
have to dedicate ourselves to a long-term commitment, whether its local or national." Last winter
the magazine, Ski Area Management (SAM), which analyzes the ski industry, conducted a poll of
skiers asking whether areas adequately address environmental issues. Of the two hundred and
thirty five people that responded to the poll sixty two percent said yes. While this is an encouraging
figure, ski industry leaders believe educating skiers and the public about the industry's commitment
to the environment can only help them.
"Ski areas are our best partners," says Francis Pandolfi, United States Forest Service (USFS) chief
operating officer. Unlike the mining and timber industry, which share the USFS land, the ski
industry is less destructive. While many environmentalists agree, skiing is harmful to the
environment in many other ways. When Vail opened its new Category Three area two winters
ago, area analysts agreed that the new terrain and lifts would be a great solution to the
overcrowding on the front side of the mountain. Unfortunately many unintended negative effects
occur when new terrain is opened up. Hunters in the Vail Valley were concerned with the new ski
terrain being clear cut and exposed to millions of visitors each winter that the local elk herd that
annually calved in the area would be forced to find other locations. In addition, high alpine
ecosystems are very fragile because of such a short summer growing season. When Vail cut
access roads up Two Elk Creek to build the chairlifts and lodges, the problem of erosion and water
pollution occurred, like in any new expansion. Soil from the dirt roads flows into creeks and
disrupts local fish and game that rely on the small creeks. Also pollution from litter and oil from
snowmobiles further adds to the creeks demise.
In recent years virtually every ski area expansion has been challenged on public
lands. With many local ski mountains being purchased by New York's Wall Street firms the need
for a substantial annual growth in revenues is necessary just to retain the stocks value. When local
environmental groups take on these large corporations it becomes an uphill battle to win in court.
SAM magazine reported since all the recent challenges in court against new expansion areas the
United States Forest Service, "still talks the recreation talk; but they no longer always walk the
walk." This statement reflects area operator's worries over the USFS new proposal for the White
River National Forest (WRNF). The WRNF is located among some of Colorado's most popular
resorts including Keystone, Breckenridge, Copper, Vail, Beaver Creek, and the Aspen Resorts.
Alternative D, the new proposal, would virtually halt any new expansion permits for at least the next
ten years. The USFS believes that "a higher priority be given to physical and biological resources
than to human uses of the forest." While the plan greatly restricts skiing it also puts limits on
mountain biking, hiking, snowmobiling, backcountry ski huts, and other popular winter sports.
When SAM questioned the USFS about overcrowded ski slopes they responded by saying the
plan makes "no attempt to meet long-term public demand for skiing on National Forest Service
lands" and does "not endorse recreation and tourism as key values." That statement is ironic when
the USFS claims it is the "World Leader in Skiing Opportunity."
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