Friday, November 23, 2012

Ski Resort Natural Resource Management

I must have rewritten this article five different times over two months. The topic of natural resources is something that I am very passionate about. I'm a decent technical writer and I've also been know to wax poetically; however, I can't seem to weave together my thoughts on what I thought I understood were landscape-level resource management issues with mountain recreation and the expansion of our playgrounds. Maybe it's a balancing act between loving something to death and moving forward with minimal impact.

There's a lot we take for granted...snow, mind-blowing mountain scenery, a safe place to ride, and someone to pick up after the day is done. While some are long-gone back to their IPA and heat, the next shift is rolling in to groom, make snow,  re-stock, and get the machines fixed. Organized places make it easy for us to ride (resorts, ski areas, and their support networks) and are an integral part of the sport. Have you thought about the impact these areas we enjoy may have on the natural resources that make them so spectacular and how these areas are maintained? Timber resources are cut to expand trails, millions of gallons of water are used to make snow, and terrestrial and aquatic habitat is altered and can be impaired both in the short- and long-term. I wanted to focus this post on natural resource conservation and impacts of resorts and ski areas. Probably the most referenced online sources for these issues include the Ski Area Citizens Coalition report card and Sustainable Slopes. I read through several reports and references and when I thought I understood the concerns, I asked Hunter Sykes of Coldstream Creative and creator of the documentary Resorting to Madness to dig deeper and set me straight. 

A little background information: 

The Ski Area Citizens Coalition uses the following four criteria to grade western ski resorts in their current environmental performance:  
  • Habitat protection
  • Watershed protection
  • Climate change
  • Resort environmental policies and practices
The Top Ten and Worst Ten report cards are graded on: maintaining ski terrain within the existing footprint and preserving undisturbed land from development; protecting and preserving endangered species, environmentally sensitive areas, and wetlands; water quality and conservation; climate change; renewable energy and energy efficiency, transportation, and waste.

The US National Ski Areas Association, a trade organization for ski area owners and operators publishes an annual Sustainable Slopes report, highlighting ski area efforts towards an environmental charter for sustainable operations. The charter covers efforts in fish and wildlife management, forest and vegetation management, and wetlands and riparian areas, among other areas. I spent time reading several reports, focusing on the conservation efforts. Highlighted examples include native plant nurseries and revegetation, pine beetle surveys, drainage improvements, restoration of previously drained wetlands in adjacent national forests (through partnerships), low-impact ground disturbance bridges and erosion control during biking season, and protocols to document and implement ground disturbance projects. 

The issues:

Initially, I assumed that erosion from land disturbance and runoff, habitat fragmentation, and timber/vegetation management were probably the biggest natural resource issues based on the nature of trail expansion and the footprint. Erosion occurs when soil and rock break down over time and can become a problem when the sediment is transported into water bodies after rainfall, impairing aquatic habitat.  It seemed to me that year-round resort operations, such as mountain biking and hiking could impact soil stability and cause erosion; however, Hunter Sykes (also a former summer trail foreman) says that erosion and water quality impacts are minimal in the big picture and that trails are built and maintained to be as sustainable as possible. "The amount of erosion caused by spring run-off on graded trails, access roads, and from deep snowmaking piles are far greater in scope than any erosion from trails, " Sykes says and "in general, the only major water quality impacts that are attributable to ski areas are during infrastructure installation (buildings, lifts, roads, snowmaking) or when runs are being cut and/or graded.  In the latter case, runs that are cut and graded are equipped with  multiple diversion waterbars and anti-erosion matting and then reseeded, and after a year or two, are usually stable." While these impacts are important, climate change impacts to wildlife and habitat could become an additional concern. Hunter says "as climate change impacts are felt more, ski area terrain may become even more critical for some species survival. The impacts of the ski areas pales in comparison to the impacts of resorts, towns, roads and water use that surround them."

Hunter recently discussed the impacts of snowmaking by removing water from watersheds during critical low-flow periods and endangering the health of aquatic species  in Outside Magazine. He also discussed with me the potential problem of large, dense man-made snow piles from half-pipes, jumps, and race courses that can linger long into summer. "The melting water from the snow piles can weaken soils and increase flows in small streams, not accustomed to longer, higher flows."

So what about real estate development and expansion? I asked Hunter a question about how ski areas and resorts are implementing environmentally-friendly building design and smart growth concepts, including U.S. Green Energy Council LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) buildings. I didn't really think about the difference between the definition of a "ski area" and a "resort",  but as Hunter pointed out, ski areas act really as a means to get people to the top of a hill versus resorts that offer second homes and condos, restaurants, shopping, and other activities more along the lines of a support service- the whole shebang. Both can be sustainable, but ski areas by the nature of their size have a smaller footprint and impact. There are a lot of LEED developments, both in operations and real estate design, but as skiing and snowboarding demographics change over time, both  areas and resorts are going to have to think about how to become more sustainable and future development.

Most resorts in the eastern US are on private land, versus those in the western US are often on US Forest Service or on other public lands. Land policy comes into play in both circumstances. Privately- owned ski areas can protect their land and restrict real estate development and commercial use through a conservation easement. For example, Stowe Resort placed a conservation easement in the Spruce Peak development with the Vermont Land Trust to protect 2,000 acres, 10  acres of ski terrain that were restored back to it's natural state. This option may not be available to areas and resorts on that do not directly own the land they operate, but understanding the land policy and motives may help us to understand if there is a balanced intent. 

Next time your legs are dangling from the chair lift and your are looking at the ground, think about how the land is being managed and what plants and wildlife occupy the space you like to ride. What happens in the deep forest far away from the snowcat's hum at night? Who is your unknown hiking partner in the summer? How can your ski resort both manage and share this place and maybe make it a little better?