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Ski resorts rethink bulldozing for trails

Jennifer Collins Feb 12, 2010

Ski resorts rethink bulldozing for trails

Jennifer Collins Feb 12, 2010


Bob Moon: Tragedy struck just hours before tonight’s opening of the Vancouver Olympics. A 21-year-old competitor from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia died on a practice luge run, when he bounced off the track and struck an unpadded pole.

The games will go on. And in the days ahead, the world will be watching as competitors swoosh along trails, where trees and plants have been wrenched from the ground. That’s one way of creating a smooth descent. But a new study found it’s also the most harmful way to build a trail.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Jennifer Collins reports there is a kinder, gentler way.

Jennifer Collins: John Loomis is head of operations at Northstar-at-Tahoe, a ski resort here in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

John Loomis: Gentlemen, ladies. How are you this fine day?

Loomis has been in the ski business for 40 years.

Loomis: You want me to talk about the old days?

For much of his career, Loomis and most resort operators across the country built ski trails like this:

Loomis: You would go in and just bulldoze the runs smooth.

It’s called “grading.” The practice sheers away soil and plants that keeps the mountain environment healthy. Graded runs are most apparent in the summer when the snow is gone.

Loomis: What we don’t want is for someone to walk up there and just see this bare scar across the landscape.

A new study out of the University of California, Davis, finds that resorts can prevent those scars if they clear trees and shrubs, but leave the roots in the ground. The clearing leaves behind seeds, and in the spring, those seeds sprout wildflowers that help absorb melting snow and rain. These plants prevent sediment from gushing off the mountainside, polluting streams and rivers. At Northstar, that’s important, because:

Loomis: You know, we’re the water drinking supply for the city of Reno. They have a real interest in how we do up here.

A few years ago, construction on the California property caused runoff that could taint that water. Violations drew nearly $3 million in fines.

Mike Hogan: The largest construction-related water quality fines in California history.

Mike Hogan is the environmental consultant who helped the property clean up its act. He says graded runs tend to channel melting snow down the mountain, like a river, and that water takes a lot of sediment with it.

Hogan: The kinds of things that were happening there, probably were happening on almost every other project.

He means in the Tahoe area. The problems, though, stretch beyond the Sierras. Hogan says: Most resorts in North America — including the ones hosting the Olympics — have bulldozed runs.

Hogan: I do know at Whistler and Blackcomb, many, if not most, of the runs are graded.

Now resorts like Northstar-at-Tahoe are changing their ways.

Jennifer Burt: There’s some good snow out here.

That’s Jennifer Burt heading out on skis at Northstar. She wrote the UC Davis study about graded runs. She wants to see new trails cleared instead of bulldozed.

Burt: I think that when any expansions occur, or if they’re considering grading more runs, that ski areas should really reconsider that process because of the environmental impacts of grading.

Northstar is planning three new runs. It doesn’t expect to bulldoze any of them. The project will cost up to $7 million; it’s eight times more expensive than building the old graded runs. But Loomis says the resort avoids fines and can market its green practices to skiers and snowboarders.

Loomis: It’s what we sell, the mountain experience and all of that. And if you go in and destroy it and trash it, then shame on us and people shouldn’t come here.

In the Lake Tahoe region, I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.

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