The wind in your hair. Virgin snow at your feet. Clean mountain air and glorious vistas. Skiing is good, clean winter fun. It's frolicking in Mother Earth's playground. It's man communing with nature. And it's a threat to the very thing that makes it all possible: cold, snowy winters.

With its high-speed chair lifts and energy-hogging snowmaking operations -- all in the interest of enjoying the boreal winter -- the effect of the ski industry on climate change can't be discounted. Its fleets of diesel-powered snow cats and smokey two-stroke snowmobiles pollute the air. Cutting down trees for ski runs shrinks habitat for the local flora and fauna, and bringing thousands of 4x4-driving tourists into the middle of a forest every day can compromise wetlands and pollute rivers.

Recognizing a need

As enviro-awareness has been on the upswing in recent years, the ski industry has felt increasing pressure to reduce its ecological footprint -- both locally and globally. In 1998, Vail, one of the largest and most-trafficked ski resorts in North America, was the victim of an act of eco-terrorism precipitated by the ski area's perpetual quest to compete for the skier's dollar. Arsonists linked to the Earth Liberation Front destroyed a lodge and damaged ski lift towers, a ski patrol office and radio towers. Mainstream groups immediately condemned the acts, but because many ski areas operate on public lands -- leasing their black diamonds and blue squares from the federal government -- enviro groups hold them to high standards and have since tried harder to get the ski industry to use renewable energy, limit ski area sprawl and expand benignly.

The efforts have had their share of successes. Phasing out two-stroke snowmobiles, instituting comprehensive recycling programs and actively encouraging ride-sharing are just a few of the measures recently undertaken -- some at the instigation of environmental groups, some by the industry's own volition. Still, ski areas expand terrain and develop adjacent real estate at an almost relentless pace, and despite its often-considerable environmental efforts the industry isn't going to pass muster with environmental activists for a sudden climate change flip-flop.

"I think most ski areas are getting more green, as they know the public likes that, and that going easier on the environment is the right thing to do," says Rocky Smith, who has been defending National Forests in Colorado through groups like Colorado Wild and the Colorado Environmental Coalition since 1980. "But they always want to get bigger."

This year, two areas with some of the best terrain in the country have expanded. Taos Ski Valley, in New Mexico, has grown for the first time in more than a decade, adding a small beginner's area and a steep glade. And a new lift at Colorado's Telluride has opened up 150 acres. How they did it is partly a testament to the effectiveness of activist and consumer insistence on greater environmental stewardship by the industry.

One of Taos' main concerns is making sure the area's skiable terrain isn't too close to sacred tribal lands belonging to nearby Taos Pueblo. Taos' boundaries also bump up against a designated wilderness area, rather than easier-to-permit national forest; the company simply doesn't have the space to expand beyond its current footprint. That's fine with Adriana Blake, Taos' marketing director. "It feels like it's the right size," says Blake. Except for a short glade and some "pie in the sky stuff that will probably never happen," Taos is done expanding.

Other improvements

The new lift at Telluride is part of an expansion binge that started in 2000. Back then, the ski area was on some green groups' black list: the Ski Area Citizens Coalition (SACC), which grades areas on their environmental policies in an annual scorecard that's endorsed by two dozen environmental organizations, gave Telluride an "F" nine years ago. But this year, even with the expansion, it's in the top ten -- a distinction made possible by its conservation efforts and the SACC's policy of forgiving past transgressions. "We grandfather points back to ski areas over a five-year period; otherwise every area would receive an "F" simply for existing," says the SACC's Hunter Sykes.

In the years between, Telluride formed a partnership in a gondola transportation program that has eliminated the eight-mile drive from Mountain Village to Telluride for two million riders each year. The resort has made a considerable investment in water and energy-efficient snowmaking equipment. Triplicate purchase orders have been eliminated, and compostable to-go containers and cutlery are used in its restaurants, although they are still taken to a landfill to decompose. In 2004, Telluride was certified as a Cooperative Sanctuary by Audubon International.

The SACC scorecard gives an area big points for the successful maintenance of ski terrain within its existing footprint, preservation of undisturbed lands from development, and preservation of environmentally sensitive areas. Resorts can also raise their scores by using recycled products, purchasing renewable energy credits or implementing ride-share programs.

Limiting its expansion to current boundaries earned Taos points in one of the scorecard's most heavily-weighted categories. The fact that every kilowatt of its electricity comes from wind power -- snowmaking, even at a relatively small mountain like Taos, can run up power bills of $150,000 per month -- will continue to help Taos score well in the energy category. The company also makes great recycling efforts, even driving some of it to Santa Fe, ninety miles away. "In northern New Mexico, making sure we recycle all our white paper and plastic is a huge deal," says Blake.

Still a ways to go

Ecological sensitivity is still far from industry-wide. Condos, luxury chalets, golf courses -- sometimes it's hard to tell if some companies are in the ski business or real estate development. Of the five ski areas owned by Vail Resorts, none scores better than a "C," and one, Breckenridge, gets an "F." Intrawest, a mega-corporation with ski, golf and other destination resorts around the world, has no company-wide environmental policy, and its Copper Mountain ranks dead last of the 83 North American ski areas scored by SACC. Taos and Telluride are both small in comparison, but doing a lot of business and environmental sensitivity needn't be mutually exclusive: three of the four resorts owned by the Aspen Skiing Company are in the top ten.

No matter how well or how poorly ski areas treat the environment in the future, activists will keep the pressure on for them to do better. But ultimately, it's the skiers who have the biggest influence, says Sykes. "You can go out and have plenty of fun skiing without having too great of an environmental impact. But you can really make that difference by choosing where you ski."

Story by Ross Burns. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2008. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2008