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Environmental watchdog Ski Area Citizens' Coalition (www.skiareacitizens.com) recently released its annual report card that grades major western U.S. ski resorts on their environmental policies and practices. Taking such criteria as habitat conservation and watershed protection into account, the SACC aims to promote environmental stewardship of what are largely public lands where ski resorts operate.

The ski industry has been at the front of the curve when it comes to environmental initiatives. Aspen Skiing Company, for example, employs its own chief sustainable officer and has won plaudits for such initiatives as installing the industry's largest on-mountain solar array. All four of its ski areas received an A from the SACC, with Aspen Highlands nabbing the second highest score after Squaw Valley.

Of the 83 resorts evaluated in Colorado, California, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming, the top 10 are:


Collectively, the ski resorts are getting better -- at least in the SACC's eyes over the 10 years they've issued the grades. But it hit something of a plateau after five years of strong moves: Resorts didn't do much in the past year to bolster their renewable portfolios, but they didn't do much to degrade the environment, either. No resort got an F, but there were plenty of Ds, including Montana Snowbowl, Breckenridge, and Taos Ski Valley.

Critics contend the SACC's grading system is out of whack, and too focused on easily obtained statistics and potential future expansion (as opposed to irresponsible past expansion). Regardless, it is based on 35 wide-ranging criteria, ranging from recycling to shuttle buses. The system does a good job of establishing an efficient, responsible, and environmentally benign set of best practices.

Of course, as the critics note, you still have the carbon footprint involved with getting there. A few notable resort towns -- including Whitefish, Montana; Winter Park, Colorado; and Truckee, California -- have Amtrak service. Another option is buying a carbon credit to offset your flight. Frequent skiers should look into carpooling to the slopes; there are numerous websites devoted to this cause.

5 Ski Deals Worth Traveling For

Maine's Sunday River Resort has its annual College Week coming up (Jan. 2-6), with great deals for college students: ski-and-stay packages from $89 per night, $39 lift tickets for college students, and packages for the entire week starting at $309. The calendar includes days on the slope and at night, concerts and dance parties.

In Utah, December specials from Park City Crash Pads are as low as $89 per night for hip studios on the ski shuttle route.

Colorado's Copper Mountain just reintroduced its unique Snow Day Pass: $99 gets you on the lifts on days when there are four or more inches of snow. This is a heck of a deal, considering there are about 30 such snow days in an average winter at Copper. And even if it doesn't snow a flake, it gets you in on Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 5) and closing day (April 15).

For those with deeper pockets, RockResorts has a "First Tracks" holiday package at Vail that includes five nights' lodging, lift access an hour before the general public on Dec. 26, and other perks. Rates start at $699 per night for two, a savings of 33%.

In California, Mammoth Mountain is offering a "buy three nights, get Christmas Eve free" deal for guests arriving on Dec. 22 or 23.