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Ski resorts go for the green

  Because ski resorts are beautiful in winter and green in summer, they have usually been considered good environmental citizens. But in the last few years, that perception has begun to erode. In 1997, there was the Earth Liberation Front's terrorist attack on Vail's Two Elks Lodge to protest the resort’s expansion into lynx habitat. Later, books like "Downhill Slide" and "Powderburn" detailed the impacts ski resorts have on communities and the environment.

And in 2000, a group called the Ski Areas Citizen's Coalition created an environmental "report card" for ski areas. Many resorts received grades of F, and the industry was increasingly perceived as environmentally evil. Although the negative perception is wrong, the stage was set, and critics had staked out the high ground.

It's true that ski resorts use enormous amounts of energy and have significant, if localized, impacts on wildlife and wild land. But we have, for the most part, been good environmental stewards, perhaps even excellent ones when compared to most industries. In the big picture, resorts are vital to their mountain communities, providing the tax base that enables environmental protection like land preservation, support for environmental nonprofits, and water quality protection.

Still, being an economic engine and having good intentions and profound concern for a place is not enough in this era of global environmental challenges. It's time for ski resorts to reach the next level of environmental stewardship and sound business management by taking a strong political stand on the most pressing environmental issue of all, climate change. The industry can do this today by publicly supporting legislation making its way through the Senate: the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act.

This comprehensive bipartisan bill would effectively freeze global warming emission levels in 2010. It also creates a market-based pollution control system that rewards the most innovative companies and lowers the overall costs. The Senate is scheduled to vote on it by the end of October.

Ski industry involvement in public policy on climate change is important for two reasons. First, there's simply no longer any debate about global warming. Scientists the world over agree the planet is warming, and pollution from fossil fuels is most likely the cause. In fact, it was the certainty of the science that led to McCain-Lieberman.

Second, the best scientific models suggest that as warming continues, we'll see increased extreme weather events (both droughts and storms), warmer nights, wetter shoulder seasons and reduced weather predictability. All of these changes are bad news for skiing. The '90s were the warmest decade on record. Global average temperatures have already risen one degree over the 20th century and, based on projected emission trends, scientists predict global temperatures will rise another 2.5 degrees to 10.4 degrees F over the coming century.

McCain-Lieberman doesn't threaten the ski industry with onerous regulation, because the bulk of a ski resort's global warming emissions come from purchased electricity, which is not covered by the bill. And while the pollution limits in the bill are expected to increase electricity and gasoline prices slightly, electricity expenses for most ski resorts account for just 2 to 3 percent of operating budget.

Moreover, energy efficiency measures that will accompany the bill will reduce overall energy costs. In other words, resorts will have access to government and utility support for efficiency measures that will cut energy bills. An example of such support might be a rebate for replacing outdated compressors in snowmaking equipment.

Because this industry, so dependent on climate, has the most to lose, ski resorts need to act now, publicly, to support McCain-Lieberman. Many are already doing so: 30 ski areas, in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Ski Areas Association, have signed on to a letter of support for the bill as of today, and the list is growing.

This stand is what the consultants call a win-win-win. Skiers will appreciate resorts taking action to protect the sport we all love. Resort managers will be praised by shareholders for intelligent long-range business planning to ensure corporate sustainability over the long term. And ski resorts will reclaim their rightful mantle as environmental leaders.

Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. He is environmental affairs director for the Aspen Skiing Company in Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].