Environmentalists give Steamboat Ski Area a 'C'

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS Officials at the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. say that like most other ski areas in the western United States, they declined to fill out a survey from Colorado Wild this fall, but that didn't prevent the environmental organization from giving Steamboat a "C" letter grade on its environmental report card.

Ski resorts all over the West were graded on 50 different criteria ranging from their willingness to use alternative energy sources to how much they impact endangered species. Three Colorado ski areas, including Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk Mountain, along with Wolf Creek, received A's.

A half-dozen ski areas, including all five operated by Vail Associates, plus Telluride Ski and Golf Company were flunked by "The Ski Area Citizen's Coalition," an arm of Colorado Wild.

Colorado Wild's Executive Director Jeff Berman said the purpose of the report cards is to educate the skiing public about the amount of concern different ski areas have for environmental issues and urge them to e-mail ski areas who don't receive good grades and patronize those that do.

Colorado Wild's official recommendation on Steamboat reads like this: "The Ski Area Citizen's Coalition" cautiously encourages you to to ski at the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. but also requests that you send them an e-mail and request that they improve their environmental record."

Steamboat Ski Area officials said they were initially misled, then were wary when the questionnaire first arrived under the head of the "Ski Area Citizen's Coalition," and then later, they noticed in small type at the bottom of the questionnaire that the coalition was an extension of Colorado Wild.

"No ski area that we know of in the western U.S. filled (the questionnaire) out," said Bob Kuusinen, the Steamboat Ski Area's senior vice president of mountain operations. "The terminology is vague and subjective."

As the ski area's project coordinator, Joe Foreman has presided over the past two major expansions at Steamboat Morningside Park and Pioneer Ridge. He said he was concerned that by not responding to the survey, public perception of the ski area's environmental record would be colored. But Foreman said he didn't like the scoring system and felt the language in the survey was ambiguous.

"It really has a flavor of not talking about what it's talking a bout," Foreman said.

Berman said he went to great lengths to ensure the questions and language in the questionnaire were fair, and he urged interested people to judge for themselves by visiting the coalition's Web site at www.skiareacitizens.com.

"We did our best to be 100 percent objective," Berman said. He added that because only a half-dozen ski areas responded to the survey, most of the research was done through the ski area's own Web sites and through documents on file at the U.S. Forest Service and other regulatory agencies.

Berman said he thinks participation in the survey by ski areas is particularly important because many of the ski areas in the West operate on public lands.

"Public disclosure is really important," Berman said. "The members of the National Ski Areas Association would rather ignore this and counter with public relations money instead."

The different criteria that went into scoring ski areas for the report card were all given different weights in terms of the maximum number of points a ski area could score. The two most important criteria, in terms of points, were "avoiding expansion" and "avoiding real estate development on undisturbed land."

Berman said the sources of his information are documented through links on the coalition's Web site.

Steamboat received the maximum score in terms of leaving land undisturbed but scored a zero in the expansion criteria.

Wild noted that Steamboat obtained a U.S. Forest Service permit to expand on 900 acres of the Routt National Forest in 1996 and many portions of the expansion have been completed since 1997, the timeframe for the report card.

Steamboat also lost 10 of a possible 15 points for expanding snowmaking onto 71 additional acres, plus another three points for the possible danger snowmaking expansion could represent for endangered fish in the Colorado River. Combined with a five-point penalty for not filling out Colorado Wild's survey to begin with, Steamboat was down to a 73 point score, which would have represented a "B" letter grade.

Berman said he felt a number of ski areas would have scored better on the report card had they filled out the survey and helped him gather information. Among the ski areas that did participate were Mt. Hood Meadows and Timberline in Oregon and Sundance in Utah.

Steamboat lost an aggregate 12 points in three criteria that dealt with "containing or supporting containment of ecological impacts and noise with the ski area boundary."

The ski area received a significant number of one- and two-point deductions that ultimately took it down to its final score of 47 percent.

Steamboat, along with all of the ski areas in Colorado and 160 nationwide, signed onto the new environmental charter released this spring by the NSAA. The effort has been dubbed "Sustainable Slopes." It contains a group of environmental principles the different ski areas have all pledged to live by. The NSAA is due to release a progress report on the first year this spring.

Ski Area Vice President of Marketing Andy Wirth said the coalition provides benchmarks for the ski areas to measure their performance.

"We're trying to be sure we're doing the right thing at every turn," Wirth said.

Berman said Colorado Wild and the Citizen's Coalition are not against recreation on public lands, including permitted ski areas.

"We recognize that skiing is a valid use of public lands," Berman said. "I've skied at Steamboat many times and enjoyed it."

However, Berman said since a number of major ski companies went public in 1997 and began consolidating by acquiring more ski areas, there has been a marked change in the industry. Now, ski companies are beholden to shareholders who expect quarterly increases in profits. That has led to increasing development with more concern over what's good for the bottom line than what is good for the ski areas' customers. (Tom Ross is a reporter for the Steamboat Springs Pilot/Today).

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