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Everyday is Earth Day for Sierra ski businesses

by Alan Markow, published

Corporate America embraces Earth Day for its symbolism, but California’s ski industry takes its role in the protection of our planet far more seriously.  Why?  Because bumps along the Earth’s surface create their product; therefore, stewardship of the planet’s environment makes good business sense.

Following a series of water quality issues in the Sierras over the past decade that brought public criticism and steep fines to the industry, an effort was undertaken by a consortium of ski resorts, environmental experts and government agencies to get to and resolve root causes of the problems.  It took nearly five years (2003-2007) and more than a half million dollars in grants to seriously engage the issues, but the resultant 229 page guidebook sets a new standard for stewardship of the land by businesses.

“We recognized early on that ‘water quality’ was achieved through good land management,” said John Loomis, Director of Operations for Northstar-at-Tahoe ski resort.  Hence the book’s name:  Sediment Source Control Handbook.  The focus of the book is keeping the soil and surface of ski mountains from eroding into surrounding streams and rivers.

While no sizzling page-turner, this step-by-step guidebook can literally move mountains – or avoid moving them in catastrophic ways.  It was co-authored by noted California environmentalist Michael Hogan, CEO of Integrated Environmental Restoration Services (IERS) of Tahoe City, and published by the Sierra Business Council in cooperation with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Alpine Resort Environmental Cooperative (CAREC).  CAREC is composed of six Sierra Nevada ski areas – Squaw Valley, Heavenly, Mammoth, Tahoe, Donner and Northstar.

According to the Sierra Business Council website, “the project comes at a critical time for Sierra water quality. A recent study of the Sierra’s natural environment …  found that almost two-thirds of the Sierra’s aquatic habitats are in decline.  Furthermore, ski resorts, critical members of the local economy, are losing money on both fines and expensive treatments that have not proven effective.”

All of the participating resorts have begun putting the guidebook into practice, but Northstar spent a full year putting its own specific implementation plan in place.  Loomis will be presenting Northstar’s plan to the National Ski Areas Association January 20 in Steamboat Springs, CO.

“We hope our process will provide a roadmap that other ski areas can follow in protecting the lands that we’re responsible for,” said Loomis.  The Northstar program follows the original handbook in every detail – from the setting of goals to the constant evaluation of the state of the mountain.  It includes detailed maps of all parts of Northstar’s territory, and assigns specific environmental responsibilities to staff members. 

While Northstar’s program is exacting, it’s also practical.  Loomis noted that the resort volunteered trial plots on its own property to ensure that the recommendations in the original handbook could be tested and proven in a real world environment.

CAREC, the Sierra Business Council and IERS have put California in a familiar place for environmental action:  the lead.  To the state’s ski industry, it all looks downhill from here.

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