Ski areas' 'green' image not backed by action

Researchers call ‘Sustainable Slopes’ program ‘greenwashing’

 

You buy your veggies "organic," your chicken "free-range," your lumber "sustainably harvested." And when you go skiing, you look for another green seal of approval — the "Sustainable Slopes" logo, indicating that a ski area has agreed to meet a code of environmental ethics. But according to a pair of public policy scholars, the Sustainable Slopes charter is little more than a green fig leaf for its 177 member ski resorts.

Dr. Peter deLeon of the University of Colorado at Denver, and Dr. Jorge Rivera of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., published a report last August in the Policy Studies Journal, concluding that Sustainable Slopes provides no third-party oversight, no specific performance standards and no sanctions for poor performance. That, they say, means participating resorts can expect "to improve their ‘green’ reputation" without actually doing anything beyond what’s required by existing environmental laws and regulations. The study concluded that participating ski areas are more likely than non-participating areas to score poorly on an environmental score card compiled by conservation groups.

Geraldine Link is the public policy director for the National Ski Areas Association, an industry trade group that created the Sustainable Slopes charter. She sidesteps the main criticisms of the study, but says that the ski industry is making headway on environmental issues, particularly with regard to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. At least 71 resorts are now on record as supporting the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. And many ski areas are buying significant amounts of renewable energy to power their lifts.

Nonetheless, critics from both outside and inside the ski industry find fault with the charter’s lack of accountability. Watchdog groups say the charter’s biggest shortcoming is that it fails to address the impacts of the industry’s real estate development model. Near many ski resorts, a steady stream of new slope-side condo and luxury home projects eats away at undeveloped forestlands (HCN, 12/7/98: Vail and the road to a recreational empire).

In recent years, conservationists have launched their own certification system. Called the Ski Area Environmental Scorecard, it was developed by the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition, a group promoting environmentally sound management of ski areas. The scorecard rates resorts with grades ranging from A to F, based on a number of factors, including the impact of resort-related developments on wetlands, forests and wildlife habitat.

While the ski industry and environmentalists debate the relative effectiveness of their environmental measurement tools, the Aspen Skiing Company has taken a promising step by adopting ISO 14001. This internationally recognized standard objectively measures environmental performance, including record-keeping and compliance with the company’s own environmental protocols, and it requires audits from independent third-party organizations. Aspen Skiing Company’s environmental affairs director, Auden Schendler, compares ISO 14001 certification to widely accepted standards for financial accounting.

Other ski areas could follow Aspen’s lead — or they could focus their energy on improving Sustainable Slopes, says Environmental Protection Agency researcher Bob Sachs. In the late 1990s, Sachs led a groundbreaking effort by the agency to quantify the environmental impacts of the tourism industry, including mountain resorts. Sachs suggests that the industry establish an independent advisory council. Resorts should create more environmental leadership jobs that are separate from public relations, marketing and planning positions. The charter should also establish "inventories for habitat, species, forests and wetlands, and conservation quantities for those indicators," Sachs says. He adds that the industry shouldn’t be afraid to set what he calls "Big Hairy Audacious Goals": Zero waste. No net release of greenhouse gases. An end to the loss of wetlands and to old-growth cutting.

But if the National Ski Areas Association’s pick for a speaker at its annual conference is any indication, chances of the industry heeding this advice are slim. Frank Luntz will talk to the group about tourism and "the language of leisure," says Link. But Luntz has made a name for himself among conservationists as chief greenwasher for the Republican Party. It’s due to Luntz that logging projects on public lands are part of the "Healthy Forests" initiative, and that "Clear Skies" legislation could allow a huge increase in air pollution.

The author writes from Dillon, Colorado. Auden Schendler is a former HCN intern.