I recently enjoyed a 2-foot powder day at Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort in Upstate New York. The mountain offers the opportunity for great skiing and snowboarding and has hosted two Winter Olympic Games (1932 & 1980). When purchasing my lift ticket, I noticed their webpage had a tab for “Sustainability” and naturally I had to investigate. The resort has incorporated the following items into their daily operations:
· Installation of a 2.6 MW solar PV System in the Champlain Valley
· Installation of energy efficient snowmaking machines
· Purchase of snowcats (snow grooming machines) with Tier-1 diesel engines
· LEED certified (green and efficient) building technology
I believe the bulleted items above are great efforts that increase energy efficiency, incorporate renewable energy systems into a business’ operations, and are definitely a step in the right direction. However, I do think there is only so much a traditional ski resort can do to reduce its environmental impacts. You can’t ski if there is no snow! With declining snowfall over the decades there has been an increase in artificial snowmaking at ski resorts. This requires the use of more water, energy, snowmaking machines, and grooming equipment to provide an adequate snow base for skiers and snowboarders. I won’t go into detail about the clear-cutting of alpine forest to create open ski runs, as depicted in the picture above, but I think it is understandable to see what impacts deforestation can have on the local environment.
As much as I do enjoy the convenience of riding ski-lifts up the mountain to do multiple runs down the mountain, I also enjoy backcountry skiing & snowboarding. The backcountry route is definitely more challenging as one has to snowshoe/skin up the mountain and is more hazardous due to avalanche risk and unmarked features. Backcountry skiing has less of an impact on the environment with untouched snow more easily to come by than at ski resorts. Some backcountry areas require initial trail thinning and periodic brush removal to keep the glades manageable for skiing and snowboarding. This is not without controversy, especially in the northeast of the United States where the forests are very dense. However, these thinning/brush removal techniques do not require clear-cutting of forests. I recently came across a backcountry destination in Colorado called Bluebird Backcountry, which looks to try to mitigate many of risk associated with the backcountry terrain. “Avalanche-managed terrain, skin tracks instead of chairlifts, slopeside parking instead of crowded lots, great terrain without all the hype, a culture of education, and a grassroots scene chock full of campfires and live music. It’s hard to beat Bluebird Backcountry.”
In summary, I really respect that many ski resorts are reducing their greenhouse gas emissions with the use of energy efficient processes and by using renewable energy. However, I am curious if some sort of classic ski resort/backcountry hybrid is a viable option for the ski industry to consider in the future. This more environmentally friendly option would put us at the mercy of the weather gods more often and therefore, we would see a more variable and shorter ski season than resort goers of today expect. The three pillars of sustainability include the environment, economy, and society; can hybrid ski resorts attract enough people to visit annually and be profitable? I am curious to hear the opinion of other skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts on the topic.