Sierra Ski Resorts Question Environmental Ratings

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Alpine Meadows scored the best and Squaw Valley USA the worst among ski resorts in the Sierra in a watchdog's group's annual ratings of environmental records.

But local resort officials said the grades issued by the Ski Area Citizens Coalition are poor assessments of the industry's environmental efforts and say the group is biased against expansion and snowmaking.

The report cards released this week are designed to help skiers and snowboarders assess the environmental impacts and practices of different resorts throughout the West.

Joan Clayburgh, spokeswoman for the Sierra Nevada Alliance, one of the coalition members, said the scores for Tahoe resorts were encouraging.

"As a class, the region has improved," Clayburgh said. "Some of these resorts are really making an effort to do better with the environment."

Alpine Meadows, for example, has begun using cleaner burning bio-diesel fuel in their grooming machines, she said. It received the only A of the 10 Tahoe resorts surveyed.

Other resorts, like Heavenly, are encouraging skiers to use public transportation or are providing mass transit.

But the biggest reason the Sierra resorts received better grades than those in the Rockies is because California resorts are not involved in massive expansion projects into sensitive terrain like many in Colorado and Montana, Clayburgh said.

Tim Cohee, president of Kirkwood Mountain Resort, criticized the coalition's emphasis on expansion and said the group is biased against development. Kirkwood was rated ninth this year out of the 10 Tahoe-area resorts and received a D.

"They have taken something that had some credibility - a concerned citizens group evaluating how sensitive ski resorts are to the environment - and destroyed it by categorically lowering scores to a D or F for any resort that is growing," he said.

"You can be the most environmentally sensitive resort in the world, but if you're actively developing, you get an F," he said.

Mike Pierce, marketing director for Mount Rose-Ski Tahoe, agreed.

"It's kind of a no-win situation," he said. "It's difficult to score high if you grow." Mount Rose received a C this year, he said, in large part because the area added new parking spaces and used snow-making equipment.

Squaw Valley USA, which received the lowest rating for the Lake Tahoe resorts, did not respond to requests by the Reno Gazette-Journal for comment.

John Wagnon, vice-president of marketing for Heavenly, said he was pleased that the coalition upgraded the resort from a D to a C, but he termed the grades a weak assessment of its overall efforts.

"We as a ski resort and the industry as a whole do not recognize the score card as a fair and accurate appraisal of what resorts are doing to protect the environment," Wagnon said.

The score cards fail to show the efforts taken by the resorts, said Colleen Dalton, marketing manager at Sugar Bowl.

Sugar Bowl recently received awards and grants for its emphasis on sustainable development and recycling programs, Dalton said. But the resort received only a C on its report card.

"It is our opinion that SACC is neither objective nor independent," she said. "The scoring system (is) overly simplistic and inherently flawed."

Although Sierra-at-Tahoe and Northstar-at-Tahoe are owned by the same company, they scored at the opposite ends of the list of Sierra resorts. Sierra received a B, while Northstar got a D.

Nicole Belt, spokeswoman for Booth Creek Resorts, which owns both ski areas, said Northstar, which is in the middle of a village project, was penalized for growing.

Clayburgh said the coalition is not opposed to growth, as long as it is done carefully.

"They can do development without expanding their footprint," she said. "It's not that we're anti-development. We're anti-development into untouched terrain."


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