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Which Ski Run Is Better for the Planet?

The method of clearing a ski run can be the difference between a permanent scar on the mountain and a healthy landscape

PHOTO: Hank de Vre

We're on a mountain, but at the moment skiing is a distant abstraction. I'm sweating through my shirt and pining for sunscreen, following Jennifer Burt as she leads the way through shoulder-high brush. "In retrospect, maybe I should've brought you up the trail," she says.

We're at Powder Bowl ski area, north of Lake Tahoe, hiking up the middle of a run—if you could even still call it that. One of dozens of abandoned ski areas scattered around the Tahoe Basin, Powder Bowl closed in 1984. If Burt wasn't here to tell me, I'd have been hard-pressed to pick out the run from the surrounding forest. But that's kind of the point. Burt, 40, a restoration ecologist, has been studying how ski slopes regenerate—that is, how they return to their pre-ski-run condition—since 2005, when she was studying for her Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis.

Industry experts estimate that as many as half of the country's ski slopes could close in the coming decades, underscoring the importance—and permanence—of this decision.

Initially, she was broadly interested in the ecology of ski mountains as managed landscapes, but soon she noticed that some ski runs looked markedly different than others. When mountain operators build a new ski run, she discovered, they make a choice that shapes how the mountain will look years, decades, and even centuries later. Industry experts estimate that as many as half of the country's ski slopes could close in the coming decades, underscoring the importance—and permanence—of this decision. This slope, its edges already fading back into the woods, could be a preview of those future abandoned mountains. Luckily, whoever created it made the right choice, Burt says—they went with the chainsaw instead of the bulldozer.

Until the 1960s or so, building a ski run on a wooded slope pretty much always followed the same formula: Fell the trees, drag them out, and clear away brush. "Voilà, you have a ski run," she says. The aftermath of that clearing operation might look a little rough for a few years, but from an ecological point of view, Burt says, it's not that different from a small fire, wind storm, avalanche, or any other natural disturbance. These small wounds are quick to heal, and in the meantime provide animals with a useful patchwork of habitats.

It's been at least three decades since anyone has done maintenance on this slope, but unlike the brushy pitch behind us, there could be no mistaking that this was a ski run.

We continue up the hill. As we walk, Burt names the plants we pass—whitethorn ceanothus, tobacco brush, currant, cinquefoil, bitter cherry, huckleberry oak—and the young trees scattered across the run—Jeffrey pine, white and red fir, incense cedar. She carries a long, thin metal pole, with a T-shaped handle. She pushes this probe into the dirt, and it sinks in half the length of the pole—about two-and-a-half feet, representing perhaps thousands of years of accumulated soil. Like the diversity of plant species, the soil depth on the old run mirrors that of the woods on either side.

We walk through a tunnel of overhanging branches, and then pop out on a bare hillside, lightly stubbled with dry golden grass. It's been at least three decades since anyone has done maintenance on this slope, but unlike the brushy pitch behind us, there could be no mistaking that this was a ski run. It's been 10 years since Burt was here last. "I didn't expect this to look any different, and it doesn't," she says.

This is the result of the second method. After workers cleared the slope of trees and brush, they scraped it smooth with a bulldozer. We start up the hillside, which is mostly thin grass and bare dirt. At the top of the hill she pushes the probe into the soil. It stops just a few inches in. The topsoil is gone, and with it all the nutrients and seeds it held. Burt estimates that about three-quarters of the below-tree-line runs in the Tahoe area are graded, and she says that mountain operators continue to grade most new runs. This is despite greater upfront costs and continual maintenance to prevent erosion. The decision comes down to openings—graded runs open an average one-to-two weeks earlier, she says. Bulldozing is like applying a coat of primer—it means you don't need as much paint. "You need a little less snow coverage," Burt says. "If you have vegetation, snow has to cover the vegetation."

But this cost-benefit analysis undervalues the mountain itself, she says, taking the landscape as just a wire form to hold the papier-mâché layer of snow, rather than as something good and useful for its own sake. This slope, three-decades on, is barely more than a moonscape. Here in the dry Sierra it could be millennia before the soil returns to its pre-graded level and the forest fully recovers. Some mountain operators have begun to recognize this value, but the choice still comes down to the whim of individual mountain owners, says Burt.

We start back down the slope. The irony, she says, is that for skiers, a bulldozed run is no better. "When snow covers the cleared ski run, you can't tell it's different than a graded ski run," she says. There doesn't have to be a choice between an intact mountain environment and a ski slope. "You can have it all," she says. We pass back into the brush, already almost a forest again.

DEATH OF A SKI AREA

Powder Bowl, which opened in 1961, was a funky little rope-tow operation. But it was in a bad location—just down the road from Alpine Meadows and across from Squaw Valley. After struggling for years under its neighbors' shadows, it closed in 1984. It was a familiar pattern during that decade; stagnating public interest in skiing and a round of consolidation in the industry drove nearly half of the country's thousand-odd ski mountains to close between 1978 and 1988, according to a New York Times article from that year.

Since then, the number of ski slopes in this country has continued to shrink, albeit at a slower rate. But many are worried the pace of mountain closures could soon pick up. Last year, longtime industry executive Bill Jensen told attendees of the annual Snowsports Industries America tradeshow in Denver that he estimates at least 150 of the country's 463 remaining ski areas will soon disappear, and perhaps double that. Some of the attrition will be because of the ski industry's increasing unaffordability and its failure to attract millennials, but much of it will be due to a more fundamental problem: lack of snow. Tahoe's abandoned mountains, many of them still visible scars in satellite images, provide a glimpse of that possible future.