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Skiing is a $4.3 billion industry enjoyed on almost every continent, and like any other multi-billion dollar industry, it certainly impacts the environment.  Though countless efforts exist to make skiing more sustainable, is it good or bad for the environment?

Unfortunately, the ski industry isn’t very forgiving when it comes to the impacts it has on the environment. This doesn’t mean it can’t change; improved forest management techniques, renewable energy, and sustainable food practices can all help the ski industry become less of a burden on the planet.

How Does Skiing Harm The Environment?

meribel ski
Photo by Nick Butcher under CC BY 2.0

Skiing requires a large number of resources to be channeled to remote areas of the planet that aren’t necessarily conducive or able to sustain them.  In order to build and operate a ski area, large swaths of forest need to be cleared, disturbing the local wildlife population, and non-renewable energy is used to provide water, infrastructure, food, and heat to these remote areas.

Key Takeaway: Ski resorts are usually located in cold and windy areas where humans wouldn’t otherwise live. They occupy areas that don’t facilitate agriculture, transportation, or anything else that we need to make them habitable. 

This means that we need to use resources from other places and transport them to ski areas which require that we burn large amounts of fossil fuels and put a strain on the area’s infrastructure to do so.

Deforestation

deforestation

Key Takeaway: The vast majority of ski resorts in the United States are located on National Forest land, these densely wooded areas need to be cleared in order to build lodges, lifts, parking lots, and everything else you need to run a resort. 

Trees play an important role in so many aspects of a forest’s health including:

  • Wildlife habitat
  • Soil health
  • Erosion control
  • Plant & animal biodiversity
  • Water quality

Removing the majority of an area’s plant life affects all other aspects of the environment negatively, especially wildlife health.  The local wildlife becomes exposed to the elements, like wind and water, making the area no longer favorable to live in.

Wildlife Disturbance

High-alpine habitats are particularly fragile, and the wildlife that resides in them can’t survive without a steady food source and protection from inclement weather; harsh conditions don’t provide habitats that have an abundance of food and shelter, so when a fragile ecosystem is disturbed, its habitats are forced to relocate immediately.

Blue Jacket Skier

Fossil Fuels

Ski resorts use an immense amount of electricity (which is generated using fossil fuels) and fossil fuels to power their operations.  This includes lifts, snowmaking equipment, keeping buildings heated and lit, snowcats and other heavy machinery, shuttles, preparing food, and much more.

Key Takeaway: Powering lifts and snowmaking equipment are the two biggest natural resource consumers at a resort, requiring massive amounts of electricity and water to operate. 

Water Use

The combination of climate change and the rising popularity of skiing has resulted in resorts relying more heavily on creating artificial snow each season.  Resorts gain the ability to extend their ski season, earning them more money, but it comes at the cost of enormous rates of water consumption throughout the watershed.

Most resorts use water from local rivers, lakes, and reservoirs which puts a heavy strain on local plants and wildlife.  Places like Utah and Colorado are already considered semi-arid climates, so it’s not like there is an excess of water in these areas, to begin with.

One snowmaking machine uses over 100 gallons of water per minute, or upwards of 144,000 gallons of water in a 24-hour period.  Resorts can own dozens if not hundreds of these machines, so it’s not hard to see why water concerns are such a big issue (especially in the western US)

Infrastructure

Construction Site

Ski resorts generally tend to be located in remote areas, far away from major metropolitan areas, but this doesn’t stop hordes of skiers from the city from flocking to the mountains every weekend.  If you have ever lived in a ski town then you know just how bad ski traffic can get, many of these roadways weren’t designed with the future popularity of skiing in mind.

Higher volume roadways, trains, and more automobiles are needed every year, just to satisfy the behemoth that is the demand for skiing.  High-capacity power lines are installed, complex networks of plumbing are designed, and semi-trucks run nonstop to bring food and other supplies to these otherwise undesirable and remote areas.

Basically, the more popular skiing gets, and the higher the population rises, the more resources will need to be spent upgrading our infrastructure to transport people and supplies to resorts.  While this may seem like an unwinnable battle, there are more and more technologies emerging every year in order to make this industry more sustainable.

How Resorts Make Skiing More Environmentally Friendly

snow fall

Fortunately for us powderhounds and storm chasers, the ski industry doesn’t always have to be the colossal resource-sucking giant it currently is.  Transforming the ski industry into one that doesn’t further aid in the destruction of the planet only makes sense, seeing as how most people who enjoy the sport partake in other forms of outdoor recreation.

Using Renewable Energy Sources

As the demand for skiing continues to grow, it becomes increasingly important to find ways to reduce our dependence on non-renewable energy sources, such as coal, and replace it with eco-friendly technologies like solar and wind power.  

The world population and demand for skiing don’t show any signs of slowing down, so we need to focus on using forms of energy that do the least damage to the environment, slowing down climate change, and ultimately keeping massive snow storms a mainstay of our winters.

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind will help reduce the number of greenhouse gases that are released into our atmosphere.  Greenhouse gases are thought to be one of the main culprits behind global warming/climate change and are a byproduct of burning non-renewable energies like coal and natural gas.

To give you an idea of how much less of an impact solar and wind power have on the planet, take a look at this table:

Energy Type CO2 produced per kWh
Wind 11-13g
Solar 45-54g
Natural Gas 465-475g
Coal 975-1,050g

Running a ski resort off of renewable energy definitely isn’t an unachievable feat, there are plenty of resorts in Europe and the US that are at least partially off from renewable energy.

As of 2019, 3 out of the United States’ 478 resorts are run off of 100% renewable energy, and over 350 run partially on renewable energy.

Composting & Waste Management Practices

Mottaret
Photo by Jérôme Decq under CC BY 2.0

The amount of food the world wastes every year is mind-bogglingly astronomical, about 1.4 billion tons per year, and it’s no surprise that the United States contributes the most out of any country to this depressing number, about 40 million tons.  If you break that number down even further, it equals almost 220 pounds per person.

Recycling and composting programs aren’t new practices, but that doesn’t mean they are any less useful than any of the newer environmental sustainability techniques that are used today.  You would be hard-pressed to find a ski resort in 2022 that didn’t at least offer separate recycling and/or compost bins.

Many US resorts take it a step further than this with things like compostable take-out food containers, discontinuing the use of plastic straws, offering curbside pickup of recycling for on-mountain lodging, providing dropoff locations to recycle old ski gear, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Water Conservation

Even though snowmaking is unavoidable because it allows the resort to open earlier, many resorts are learning from their past mistakes and taking steps to use water more efficiently. This includes combining newer technologies with hard data that is now available to us after years of trial and error.

Many resorts are decommissioning their old snow guns and replacing them with newer high-efficiency guns.  These new models can blow more snow in less time, all while using less energy than their predecessors. Talk about a win, win, win, right?

These new high-efficiency guns can control and adjust their water output and can even shut off when the temperature gets too warm. In the past, employees had to manually monitor the guns and temperature so they could physically shut them down when it got too warm outside; this opens the door for human error, plus the time it takes to shut a gun down manually.

Forest Health Management

Backcountry skiing

Like water consumption, some level of tree removal is inevitable when building a ski resort or adding new lifts to an existing one.  Many resorts are compensating for this necessary loss in vegetation by combating other issues that affect a forest’s health, like fire mitigation and pest control

Since most resorts are located on National Forest land, it is not uncommon for resorts to partner with the United States Forest Service to help prevent other acts of deforestation, a way for resorts to give back and improve forest health, even though they don’t have to.

For example, the USFS will hire volunteers or use personnel to help mitigate the spread of pine beetles which are a major driver in deforestation, especially in the western US. Though resorts aren’t directly responsible for the spread of this pest, they do what they can to help preserve the areas that their resorts lie in.

Man Telemark Skiing
Photo by U.S. Forest Service- Pacific Northwest Region under Public Domain Mark 1.0

Reduce Transportation’s Strain On Infrastructure

Ask any local resident in a popular ski town about traffic, and they will all tell you the same thing: traffic continues to get worse every year.  This is because skiing’s popularity continues to rise, as does the popularity of the areas around ski resorts, and this creates a perfect storm of too many people on the road and not enough room to transport them.

Most popular ski states are scrambling to keep up with this influx of residents and tourists by encouraging people to carpool, utilize rideshares & shuttles, and hasten the construction of high-speed trains. 

These are all very helpful measures that everyone can take to reduce carbon emissions, in turn reducing traffic on major roadways, which leads to more skiers getting more runs in.

What Can I Do To Help The Environment?

Italy
Photo by Risto Kinnunen under CC BY-SA 2.0

Just because, as an individual, you don’t consume resources on the scale of an entire ski resort doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your part to keep the sport of skiing (and the planet) alive for as long as possible. 

Important: It also doesn’t mean your efforts are too small to make a change, there are plenty of things we can all do to make a positive and lasting environmental impact.

Support Organizations That Are Against Environmental Harm

Even though it seems like new environmental disasters are occurring every day, there are just as many people and organizations willing to do their part to ensure that the planet remains habitable and that many more generations of skiers will get to enjoy the sport.

There are too many organizations and companies to list in this article, which is a testament to how deeply skiers care about the environment. However, here are a few that have proven time and again that there are more important things than profits.

Zillertal, Austria
  • Protect Our Winters (POW) – a conglomerate of outdoor enthusiasts who protect the environment by pushing for legislation, policies, and education that put the planet first
  • Teton Gravity Research (TGR) – what started as a media company has evolved into a worldwide movement that sponsors numerous other companies to pursue their goals of protecting the environment.
  • National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) – advocating for sustainable business practices in order to protect the ski industry and environment

Use Equipment Made Of Sustainable Materials

Using ski equipment that is made of recycled and sustainable materials may seem inconsequential compared to the enormous amount of energy used by ski resorts on a daily basis, but if everyone did this the cumulative impact would be tremendous. Outfitting yourself in gear that is at least partially recycled or sustainable would have been next to impossible 20 years ago, but today it is easily accomplished.

  • Skis, boards, and boots –  made from sustainable and recycled materials (Paulownia wood cores, use of microalgae instead of toxic glues, recycled steel edges, etc.)
  • Clothing –  made from sustainable fibers like organic recycled cotton, hemp, bamboo, etc.

The Future of The Ski Industry

At the Canyons
Photo by Ian Irving under CC BY 2.0

Luckily for the ski industry, it is comprised of people who genuinely care about the planet’s health.  Otherwise, the sport, as well as the entire industry, would soon be extinct. 

Skiing contributes to more than a few serious negative environmental impacts, but because it has so many people who care about the environment within its ranks, it will become a completely sustainable industry that others strive to match.

If an industry that requires such vast amounts of natural resources can become not only sustainable but actually have positive impacts on the environment, then there is no reason why any other industry cannot do the same.

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