Sustainable Skiing

           Blue Sky Basin, Vail, CO (Photo: Jack Affleck)

It may be March, but there’s still time to hit the slopes and get some ski days in this year (especially with the huge snowfall that pummeled the northeastern U.S. last week). Whether you prefer the bunny hill or double blacks, consider heading to one of the 181 ski resorts across the country that endorses Sustainable Slopes, a charter through which each mountain commits to making its operations more eco-friendly.

Ten years ago, the ski industry as a whole adopted this charter. Then, in 2005, the National Ski Areas Association offered a revision, to show renewed commitment to “responsible stewardship” and “improved environmental performance” across the industry.

The charter touches on what you typically think of when “greening” anything—plan, design and construct in eco-friendly ways, don’t use more water than necessary, reduce energy consumption or use clean energy instead—you get the idea. But because most ski mountains also encompass or are adjacent to wildlife habitat, the charter also looks out for fish, wildlife and surrounding vegetation. Some responsibilities Sustainable Slopes resorts take on in that arena (from the charter):

- Support/participate in research about fish and wildlife, taking into account their interactions with ski areas
- Limit access to or set aside certain wildlife habitat areas
- Site and design trails to minimize the need for tree removal
- Clear out dead/diseased trees, with consideration to habitat value, to promote healthy forests and public safety
- Limit snowmaking and grooming equipment access to wetlands and riparian areas if snow cover can’t protect them
- Establish buffers and setbacks from wetland and riparian areas in summer

Since I started paying attention to the Sustainable Slopes charter, I’ve been to only one participating ski resort (Vail in Colorado, with its 5,289 acres) and though I have no scientific proof it’s working, I can say we saw black-billed magpies, black-capped chickadees, and some kind of gray jay-like bird (any guesses on what this could be?) all over the place—the first time I can remember seeing birds on a ski slope. A fox darted across one of the trails on one of our last runs of the day. And there were recycling bins and environmental educational signage everywhere.

To find out whether your favorite ski mountain participates, check out the full list here. And when you hit the slopes, remember to follow these principles of outdoor ethics:
1. Get rid of waste properly
2. Respect wildlife
3. Be considerate of other guests

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