Aspen Skiing Co. earns high marks |

Aspen Skiing Co. earns high marks

ASPEN ” The Aspen Skiing Co. again found itself in an awkward position as an environmental leader in the ski industry Monday when a conservation coalition gave it stellar grades for its performance.

The Skico grabbed the top two spots and three of the top five in an annual environmental scorecard released by the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition. The Skico consistently scores well in annual rankings that are widely criticized and often dismissed by the rest of the ski industry.

“We view them as a flawed ranking from a biased source,” said Geraldine Link, director of public policy for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). The Lakewood, Colo.-based organization has 326 members. She said environmental groups that are part of the coalition fight ski areas over development issues and have sometimes sued them. That taints their ability to make an objective analysis, she claimed.

The assessment from Skico officials wasn’t quite as acerbic.

“I think it is [credible],” said Auden Schendler, Skico’s director of environmental affairs. “It’s a third-party check on the ski industry and it’s the only one that’s out there.”

The industry as a whole will probably never embrace the rankings because they are often critical of resorts, Schendler said.

The coalition pulls no punches in its rankings of 77 resorts in the western U.S. and 14 in western Canada. Detailed rankings are available for each resort on the coalition’s website at The home page touts links for the “top ten” and “worst ten” ski areas.

Aspen Mountain secured the top spot while Buttermilk placed second. Aspen Highlands came in fifth. They all received “A” grades from the coalition. Snowmass got a “B” because it was docked for development of Base Village, potential expansion on Burnt Mountain and new snowmaking.

Park City and Sundance Resort, both in Utah, captured the third and fourth positions. Vail and Beaver Creek both earned a “C.” The independent Sunlight Mountain Resort outside of Glenwood Springs wasn’t ranked.

“The Aspen Skiing Company tends to be a leader,” said Ryan Bidwell, executive director of Colorado Wild, an organization that is part of the Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition. He credited the company with generally avoiding expansion and taking initiatives on broader environmental issues.

NSAA’s Link said the scoring system is too biased against expansion. The coalition is against growth, so ski areas are criticized for what businesses tend to do ” seek ways to increase their share of the market and find new ways to satisfy their customers.

“That’s un-American,” Link said of the coalition’s bias against growth. “That’s not a for-profit business model.”

Bidwell said environmentally-conscious skiers need an independent assessment rather than the ski areas’ own claims. By looking at the websites of many ski areas “you would think they’re pretty well on the way of saving the planet,” he said.

The coalition tries to survey each ski area each year for its rankings. It also reviews public documents and other research. About 55 percent of the resorts responded to the survey this year, a record number, according to Bidwell.

Link said she believes the research behind the rankings it still slipshod.

Numerous criteria factor into a ski area’s grade. However, growth is the single biggest category.

For example, Aspen Mountain received 25 out of a possible 30 points in a category called “maintaining ski terrain within the existing footprint.” Its only blemish was for mentioning the possibility of expanding in the Loushin Lake area, in a letter to the White River National Forest supervisor’s office.

In a separate category called “preserving environmentally sensitive areas,” Aspen Mountain received 20 out of 20 points for avoiding real estate development.

In more pro-active categories, Aspen Mountain was credited all five possible points in the environmental advocacy section for submitting a brief in a U.S. Supreme Court case that supported greater government regulation of carbon dioxide. The Skico’s campaign in favor of a bus lane outside of Aspen also earned it credit.

Bidwell said the environmental scorecard has evolved over the years to give more credit to ski areas where credit is due. Activism and actions to improve energy efficiency now are included.

Link said that doesn’t go far enough. Something is wrong with a system that awards only three points for offsetting all energy consumption with wind power while expansion can cost the same ski area 30 points, she said.

Copper Mountain and Breckenridge, two resorts in Colorado’s Summit County, received the two lowest grades in the rankings. They were thumped for expansion plans.

Schendler said the Skico’s good grades reflect a “company-wide commitment” to environmentalism.

“We don’t have a mountain manager that I wouldn’t consider an environmentalist,” he said. (Snowmass Mountain Manager Steve Sewell will “chafe” at the label, but his actions bear it out, Schendler said.)

Don’t expect the Skico to tout the rankings. While any third-party assessment is welcome, the Skico won’t use its grades in marketing materials, according to spokesman Jeff Hanle.

“It’s not the driving force behind what we do,” he said.

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