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Green Room or Greenwash? 

Ski industry accused of misleading the public about enviro practices

After years of being hammered with accusations that it degrades the environment through deforestation and water pollution, the ski industry has responded with a plan to appear green.

Environmental groups remain skeptical.

In June of 2000, the National Ski Area Association -- a Colorado-based organization representing most of the nation's alpine resorts -- adopted an environmental charter dubbed "Sustainable Slopes." More than 75 percent of U.S. ski resorts have signed onto the charter, thus committing to promoting water quality, habitat protection and energy conservation.

Last November, the association unveiled an online database, the "Green Room," where the public can review what the resorts are doing to implement the charter, and where resorts can share information with each other.

In response last month, the Durango-based Ski Area Citizens Coalition issued a report claiming the Green Room is really an attempt to "greenwash" the resorts.

"The Green Room is unfortunately being used to mislead the public," said Jeff Berman, director of Colorado Wild, one of the coalition's member organizations.

The database doesn't list the resorts' environmental violations, the Citizens Coalition points out. For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined Vail Resorts $15,000 last year for hazardous-waste violations at the company's Breckenridge, Vail and Keystone ski areas. The Green Room makes no mention of this.

More recently, the EPA has threatened Vail Resorts with a $200,000 fine for wetlands destruction caused by the illegal construction of a logging road in 1998 and 1999, according to a report earlier this month in the Rocky Mountain News, which cited a confidential EPA letter it had obtained. Vail built the road to remove timber that was logged to make way for its Blue Sky Basin expansion.

Berman said another shortcoming of the Green Room is that it fails to address the consequences of such expansions, as well as the consequences of new development around the resorts.

"Expanding into undisturbed forest brings more impact than almost anything else a ski area can do," Berman said.

Meanwhile, resorts are taking credit for addressing problems that they caused in the first place, the coalition says. For example, the Green Room highlights improvements in fish habitat at the Winter Park ski area, but those improvements would never have been necessary if the ski area hadn't decimated the population of cutthroat trout in Little Vasquez Creek in a 1996 incident that packed the creek with snow, said Rocky Smith, a Colorado Wild forest ecologist.

Geraldine Link, the ski association's public policy director, called Citizens Coalition's report "a desperate move" to undermine the Sustainable Slopes program. "There's nothing inaccurate in the Green Room," Link said. "There's nothing misleading."

Link confirmed that the Green Room doesn't list the resorts' environmental violations. "That's not the purpose of it," she said. "It's a positive thing."

The few violations cited by the Citizens Coalition were mostly record-keeping violations that took place before the Sustainable Slopes program was implemented, Link said.

"The example that they point to is so pathetic," she said.

The Green Room contains several sections on how to expand a resort while minimizing the impact on wildlife and scenery, Link said. And development near resorts isn't the ski areas' fault, she added. "We have nothing to do with sprawl in mountain communities. Most resorts in this country do not own any real estate whatsoever."

Link accused the Citizens Coalition of attacking the Green Room simply to raise money. "By doing such a positive, proactive environmental program nationally, we have put groups like Colorado Wild on the defensive," she said. "They're in the business of opposing things, and so they don't quite know how to deal with a voluntary program where ski areas agree to go beyond compliance. ... They have to have something to oppose, because that's how they raise money."

Berman disputes that notion, saying the coalition has duly recognized environmentally responsible ski resorts. The coalition has developed its own online "score card" that grades resorts based on environmental criteria and encourages skiers to visit resorts with high marks.

"There are a number of ski resorts out there who are using the environmental charter to try to improve," he said. "Unfortunately, a lot of the ski areas are using the Sustainable Slopes program to try and pull the wool over the skiers' eyes regarding the environmental problems that ski areas have caused."

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