Ski resorts have it all, from high-speed chairs to shuttle you quickly to the top of the mountain, to wide open perfect runs, to the restaurants, bars & lodging you require once the day’s over. To many, including myself, this is heaven. My home mountain, Alpine Meadows, is on the smaller side with only the essentials, yet still I question its impact on the environment and humanity. This pondering has led me to examine the ski resort industry, focusing specifically on the environmental ethics and construction of nature that intersect at such a place.
Skiing as a form of recreation and transport has been around since the early civilizations. Used as a tool, skiing was mainly found in arctic regions to move across snow much faster than feet. Since then, the sport has evolved into a many multibillion-dollar industry. The modern form of the resort reflects early operation only remotely. Their impact on the environment due to their sheer scale far out shadows low impact family operations of the century’s turn. From small “rope tows” which is a rope pulley system that a person grabs onto and is pulled up a natural clearing of the family operation. To the modern-day, massive, over 4000 feet of cable on 60-foot tall towers that require clear-cuts and artificial snow. To Mark the rise in popularity,” in the West and Midwest, where skier visits increased at an annual rate of 20% throughout much of the 1960s” current day, the popularity is not increasing at a noticeable rate yet there is a consistent basis of around 10 million riders in the us alone (Tenenbaum). What has changed however is the size and nature of the places which people ski “the American downhill ski industry has grown from a small number of crude rope toes to a high-volume, capital-intensive business” (Lovett). This truth has many implications that I will attempt to unpack through the lenses mentioned earlier, from the direct environmental impact to how our view of nature has changed due to these resorts.
Lens 1 - Environmental ethics
The massive resorts characteristic of the modern-day are home to many environmental atrocities. To begin with, the high Alpine environment of ski resorts are highly fragile ecosystems and are affected greatly by our actions. The resorts have three levels of impact, the initial, seasonal and long-term, Each of which I will explain with an example. The process of starting a ski resort is where we shall begin. Large investment firms gather resources behind a proposed location that has been selected for its unique snow bearing characteristics. The construction begins with the clearing of thousands of trees to make way for wide-open runs and ski lifts. The impacts are Beyond aesthetic and affect the functionality of the ecosystem for many years to come. “ski run creation can result in some of the most problematic and pervasive consequences of anthropogenic disturbance: erosion, nutrient leaching and sediment runoff.” (Roux-Fouillet, Philippe, et al.) These disturbances are slim compared to the disastrous consequences of slope grading for ski race tracks and a good number of frontside runs. “Soils on graded ski runs were nutrient-depleted to such an extent that recovery would not occur without active restoration” (Burt) being that over half of ski resorts on public land, it is appalling that we let this type of behavior go unchecked and it should be the responsibility of the resort to remediate and repair the ecosystems which they have shattered.
The seasonal impact comes mainly from snowmaking/moving/grooming and transportation and lodging in the resort area. I’m going to focus on the water usage and impact of artificial snowmaking. Most ski areas are capable of turning 2000 gallons of water to snow per minute, some mountains can produce exponentially higher amounts of snow. The early-season and late-season is when snowmaking is at its peak, these times, especially early, it is very hard on the river or stream ecosystem that relies heavily on the runoff from snowmelt. As climate change makes warmer winters, resorts are going to rely even more on snow making leaving even more ecosystems vulnerable to losing their lifeblood. This artificial snow behaves differently than normal snow because it is denser and contains considerably more minerals. This affects not only soil nutrients and river pollution but has profound consequences on the vegetation that occupies the slopes, making it harder for them to grow.
The long-term consequences are where I believe it is most clear the atrocious environmental ethics the industry holds. Development follows resorts. Each year more runs are carved out and houses built around the site. The water from streams and rivers is used to make snow. It is complete disregard that best characterizes this behavior. This brings up a term the textbook introduced “holism”, if something does not benefit the whole ecosystem don’t do it. Ski resorts benefit one, the human, over all else. This is best exemplified and a quote from Leopold “a thing as right when it tends to preserve the Integrity stability and beauty of the biotic community” (74) again, ski resorts fail the test, only serving the human and, in fact, trample many other members of the community.
Lens 2 - The Social Construct of Nature
The modern ski resort has altered the construct of nature through its vast manipulation of the landscape and seeming control over the seasons. With many visitors hoping to be immersed in a “pristine wilderness”, leave with a dangerous construction of nature and a misguided set of goals and understanding is typical. Due to the heavy landscape modification mentioned in the previous section, the construction of nature within a ski resort is far skewed from the relative state of the land. Humans gather a wide array of information from their landscape, this forms a social construction with which we base our assumptions and behavior on. One tool i found critically important to further thought was introduced by the text book: “Employing the notion of “discourse,” we can take this understanding further to explain how and why specific ideas of nature come to be normal, taken for granted, or inevitable, when they are not.” (Robbins) For example “piste” is a term to describe the marked trails down the mountain while “off-piste” refers to trails that are on unmarked and ungroomed terrain. As part of the discourse, these words are significant in shaping the way people view the mountain and the manipulated facets. Because the landscape and discourse is based off of a manipulated landscape, the actuality of problems and ecosystem health is obscured. This disconnect poses a threat not only to the ecosystems but the spaces of our minds that are so misguided. In fruition this could look like many things. But start with the snow, every inch is calculated to give the best skiing experience. On the front side especially, where snow cats push and groom snow to perfection. The snow makers begin their work long before the resort opens its doors, filling in the gaps that mother nature left bare. This perception of a pristine snow-covered Mountain can lead one to believe the season is normal and that the climate is fine when in reality, Winters are warming and snowfall decreasing due to climate change. 51% of resorts opened late and 49% closed early in 2011(Tilley), signs of the rough times to come.
Carving down the perfectly made corduroy on the perfect pitch on the perfect blue day, one is given the construction of a pristine slope. In reality this slope is the result of machine grading that will render that surface inhospitable to the biotic community for many years to come, possibly forever if not actively addressed. The varying results of the changes in the ecosystem are very long-term “unfortunately, environmental economist have not yet succeeded in evaluating many types of environmental Harms.” (Burt, et al) This means that the many millions of dollars the ski resort is pulling from the mountain will manifest itself as future costs to future generations, all things forgotten due to the meticulous construction resorts have made of nature.
Overall, the findings are clear. The environmental ethics of the ski resort industry are far out of alignment with the actualism of the situation. Their construct of nature that has been created threatens the Integrity of the skier conscience and that of the ecosystem itself. The resorts have many improvements to make surrounding their ethics and construction of nature if they want to continue to hold a place in the heart of the outdoors person, this change must occur now.
Robbins, Paul, John Hintz and Sarah A. Moore. Environment and Society: A Critical Introduction, Chapters 5 and 8. (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014), accessed 16 Dec., 2020. ProQuest Ebook Central.
Lovett, Richard A. “The Role of the Forest Service in Ski Resort Development: An Economic Approach To Public Lands Management.” Ecology Law Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 4, 1983, pp. 507–578. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24112640. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.
Tenenbaum, David J. “Land Use. The Slippery Slope of Ski Expansion.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 109, no. 3, 2001, pp. A112–A112. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3434674. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.
“The Forest Service 2012 Directive: A Necessary Clarification in Ski Area Permit Act Water Rights Policy.” Tulane Environmental Law Journal, vol. 26, no. 2, 2013, pp. 287–312. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24673670. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.
Burt, Jennifer W., and Kevin J. Rice. “Not All Ski Slopes Are Created Equal: Disturbance Intensity Affects Ecosystem Properties.” Ecological Applications, vol. 19, no. 8, 2009, pp. 2242–2253. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40346325. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.
Roux-Fouillet, Philippe, et al. “Long-Term Impacts of Ski Piste Management on Alpine Vegetation and Soils.” Journal of Applied Ecology, vol. 48, no. 4, 2011, pp. 906–915. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20870017. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.