Last week I packed my husband and our two kids into a rented 4-wheel drive and took the pilgrimage to Lake Tahoe, a popular ski resort 200 miles north of San Francisco. As we ascended the mountain, my daughter noticed that the rain was replaced with white specks. Her innocent amazement prompted me to think about the human impact on an area cherished for its natural landscape. In a systems theory (rather than eco-guilt) way, it felt like an oxymoron - traveling in a big vehicle packed with gear to spend some time in nature. Carl Pope of the Sierra Club has noted the challenges faced by many of this generation's kids who are growing up without unfettered access to nature: kids are coming of age without knowing the connection between a wooden table and a tree, or water and a mountain stream (or even a reservoir). Looking out the window at the snow-covered landscape, I started acknowledging the direct relationship between winter sport enthusiasts and global warming. Sure, humans have figured out a way to produce man-made snow (in Dubai you can even ski indoors), but can you imagine artificial Las Vegas-style sporting forever replacing our beloved snow vacations? There are many ways to minimize your carbon snowshoe-print to ensure that our children and their children will be able to experience a winter wonderland, in the wild. Here are four ways to mitigate our impact on natural resources this winter:
1. Green your gear. If you have gear that still performs well, stick with it. Of course I understand that trying to valiantly brave inclement weather with inappropriate equipment can backfire: when my kids began to cry from the chill of their soaking pants, I was relieved to discover that a Patagonia store was just down the street from our hotel. My daughter is still talking about the salesperson who showed her how their fleece is spun out of fiber derived from used soda bottles. So, if you don't have the right stuff, either get some used or make sure your new gear is eco-evolved. Patagonia has an extensive line for the whole family, including the long johns that I love. Or get this kids' REI eco-sensitive jacket for under $50. If you decide it is time for a new ski jacket, donate your retired one to SWAG, who will redistribute it to a cold person somewhere in the world. Once you've sorted out your alpine apparel, it's time to evaluate options for eco-equipment. The top eco-option would be to stick with what you have (note the trend here) - I know my family only heads to the mountain once or twice a year, so to upgrade equipment each season would be more than excessive. Renting is a great option, one that we all too often dismiss when drawn into the allure of latest-and-greatest. If you decide to buy, consider Boone Skis or Arbor Snowboards, both offer styles made from bamboo, a natural, rapidly renewable resource. Make sure to trade old skis and poles in at participating shops or give them to the Good Will.
2. Go local! Try to locate snow as close to your home as possible. For example, if you live in L.A., Big Bear is certainly closer than Aspen, which will save you both jet fuel and money! Or if you are in Denver, Echo is the closest place to ski, and offers a shuttle service from the city. Less distance means less time in the car (usually less time in a gas-guzzling SUV). Obviously, renting an SUV for the few times you head to the mountain is a much preferred option to owning one all year.
3. Better yet, carpool or take public transportation to your destination, which is fun for kids and better than navigating through traffic. There are quite a few train-accessible mountain resorts, or you can often take a bus or a shuttle (nycski.com operates trips out of the New York area, bayareaskibus.com runs great trips in Northern California). If you do end up driving to the ski resort, try to stay in or close to town and take public transportation to the mountain, if possible. One great example is Aspen's Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) which operates a number of hybrid buses and has recently increased the percentage of bio-diesel used in its buses.
4. Finally, vote with your skis and choose to vacation at resorts that are working towards a more sustainable operation. In recent years ski areas have become increasingly aware of climate change (melting snow is no good for business!), and many of them have implemented changes to take some responsibility. The Forest Service has been an important partner, along with major sponsors like Cliff Bar - both give awards to ski areas for their green behavior. Understand that consumers are king in all areas of business, so if you let it be known that green initiatives are important to you, resorts will listen. Start asking questions of your resort: Do they recycle? Do they make an effort toward public transportation and serving local fare? Do they reward their employees for carpooling? And then, most importantly, make decisions in response to the answers. Buck Hill ski resort in Minnesota uses wind-based energy, and Grand Targhee in Wyoming follows LEED guidelines for all new buildings, to name a few. Here is an impressive list of the top ten green ski resorts in the Western U.S.
From cleaning up mining-era land (Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort, Utah) and committing to use 100% green energy (Mt. Ashland, Oregon) to conserving and protecting the mountain's water supply (Mt. Washington Alpine Resort, Vancouver, Canada), winter resorts all over have started to heed the call to sustainability. By greening your gear, going local, being mindful of eco-transportation options, and staying and skiing at green resorts, we'll have that bright white snow turning a deeper shade of green in no time.