With winter fast approaching, I was thinking of learning to ski. I was wondering how skiing ranks among recreational activities in terms of its environmental impact. What are all the effects of clearing ski trails, making snow, and operating ski lifts? Not to mention all the resorts and roads that sprout up to service the skiers. Should I hit the slopes or stay inside sipping hot cocoa (organic, shade-grown, and fairly traded, of course)?
Good news and bad news, as usual. The bad news you already know or can guess: Downhill (or “alpine”) skiing resorts in the West are mostly on public lands. Stripping a mountainside to create a ski-able slope removes wildlife habitat, disturbs forest ecosystems, and can contribute to erosion. Destination resorts, the current trend for ski areas, substantially increase combustion-engine mania. I know folks in the Bay Area who regularly drive five hours up to Lake Tahoe to ride the lifts. That’s what we call extraneous car trips. Snow-making may suck precious water from local streams, resulting in water levels that are dangerously low for aquatic life. And finally, the resortification of communities is a tragedy with which we are all too familiar. Lift skiing is, indeed, a high-impact recreational activity.
So let’s move on to the good news, of which there’s plenty — thankfully, because I love skiing, and occasionally sneak out of the Grist basement to catch some powder. First off, lift skiing is not your only option. You live near the Sierra Nevadas, where natural snow continues to be both plentiful and fluffy. Cross-country (or “Nordic”) skiing is low-impact, peaceful, and very physically beneficial. Sliding silently through snow-laden fir boughs is one of winter’s great pleasures. You could eventually learn to backcountry ski, a style of downhill skiing that eschews the lift for the mighty thigh. Usually, it’s best to learn backcountry ski techniques on the lift runs; once you have become confident with the techniques, you can clamber around in the mountains and ski down pristine slopes without running into people in pink ski outfits.
Lift skiing and snowboarding, which are physically and mentally less taxing than Nordic and back-country skiing, are the common modern choice, however. Alpine nuts are going to give me flak for saying this, but the plain truth is that downhill skiing is easier: You drive your car to a resort that looks like a mall and get on a giant escalator to go to the top of the hill. All you have to do is get yourself down, either on your skis, your heinie, or your face, with plentiful help from our old friend gravity. Then you sit and recover as you gently float up again, gazing down upon pink ski outfits. Also alpine skiing provides heated restrooms, rarely a feature of the Nordic experience.
If you’re both a committed environmentalist and a dedicated downhiller, a group called Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition has compiled an environmental ranking of Western resorts, which takes all the bad news into account and grades the resorts on their mitigation efforts. So if you must go to a resort, you can choose an environmentally better one by following SACC’s recommendations and letting the resorts know you are doing so. Because you will need to commute to the snow, make an effort to carpool or ride a bus. And balance out your consumer choices with some healthy environmental activism.
I hope you do learn to ski this winter, and that you try cross-country at least once, if not twice. Visiting natural areas tends to increase our commitment to care for them.