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A snow groomer passes a row of snowmaking guns on the slopes of Bald Mountain Wednesday at the Sun Valley Ski Resort. All of Sun Valley’s 522 snowmaking guns have been replaced by state-of-the-art guns, which are a third more efficient than the old ones.(ASHLEY SMITH/Times-News)

SUN VALLEY — Sun Valley residents like to think of their hometown resort not only as a world-class snow sports venue, but also a cutting-edge environmental advocate. A Ski Area Citizens’ Coalition assessment claims otherwise, calling Sun Valley the fourth-worst ski resort in the West in terms of environmental impact.

The coalition, a program of Colorado Wild, has assessed ski resorts for about a decade. Last year it gave Sun Valley a D grade, awarding it 47 points out of a possible 100.

Coalition conservation associate Paul Joyce acknowledged the report card doesn’t take into account the economic sustainability of resorts — only their environmental policies.

“It is a somewhat biased third-party assessment because we are an environmental group,” he said. “I don’t know if we’re not getting a good read on what Sun Valley’s doing well, but they’re doing a lot of expansion and that’s reflected on the scorecard.”

The report considers a variety of factors, including habitat and watershed protection, efforts to address climate change concerns, and overall environmental practices.

Sun Valley Co. has long been committed to environmental protection, said spokesman Jack Sibbach.

“We’ve always been stewards of the environment; that comes down from the Holding family,” he said, referring to company and resort owner Earl Holding and his family.

The resort consists of three main portions: Dollar Mountain, which abuts the town of Sun Valley; and the two sides of Bald Mountain — River Run and Warm Springs, which are adjacent to Ketchum. The resort village and its lodge are at the base of Dollar.

The company owns thousands of acres, Sibbach said, but has refrained from developing many of them over the resort’s history.

“There’s one thing we haven’t done, and that’s development. They (the company) were entitled to build a lot of condos around here,” he said. “They went in themselves and told the city, ‘We don’t want that to happen.’ It’s the only instance I’ve ever heard of someone downsizing themselves.”

Sibbach said Sun Valley compares favorably with many other mountain resorts in that aspect, especially given the profitability of condo development in recent decades.

“That’s where all the money was in the ’80s and ’90s,” he said. “We could easily, with the entitlements we have, have thousands of condos up here.”

From the ground up

But the company has expanded lately. It added a golf course, the White Clouds, and accompanying condos, and has a request pending with Ketchum to annex land at the base of River Run for a base village, including a large hotel, shopping and residences.

The proposal has attracted local attention, from those worried about the effect on the landscape and those eager for the jobs and business. The coalition’s assessment considers only pending development, not historical patterns of development. This, in part, is why Sun Valley received a failing grade in habitat protection.

“That’s the most weighted criteria on the report card, is expansion into new areas,” Joyce said. “They’ve got a zero out of 20 for development. If the land right now was a parking lot, it might not be an issue, but it’s trees and a creek.”

Sibbach said the company considers how development is perceived by residents and guests.

“Obviously, there is going to be some development that people aren’t going to like,” he said.

In response to the coalition’s survey, the resort also noted that its land is zoned for real estate development at a much higher density than what it has planned.

As these developments go forward, the coalition recommends that Sun Valley Co. consider including environmentally certified building methods, energy generated on site, and sustainable fixtures and design.

“Those are decisions that are made bottom-dollar,” Joyce said. “Whether that’s going to come back to you in dollars in the long-term, you’re going to make savings in energy and water, or you’re going to make money back because people care about that.”

By maximizing its energy efficiency and other environmental practices, said Craig Barry, executive director of the Ketchum-based Environmental Resource Council, the company could earn a higher grade.

“They get dinged a certain amount of points on (development), but they can make it up in other areas,” Barry said. “They need to look systematically at what those other ways are.”

Environmental extra credit

Some coalition grades were assessed by materials gained in public records requested from U.S. Forest Service and the counties where ski resorts are located. Other information came from surveys sent to the resorts themselves.

While development is given the most weight in the coalition’s analysis, the group uses 38 other criteria to grade resorts by assessing their environmental practices. These include recycling measures, water conservation in snowmaking, support of environmental initiatives, and reducing fossil fuel usage.

On many criteria Sun Valley Co. earned the highest possible grade. It received a maximum three points for providing incentives for employee carpools. Sibbach said Sun Valley has bused employees from Twin Falls for years, with the company paying 90 percent of the costs. The company provides Mountain Rides passes for Wood River Valley employees, or company vans and gas for those coming from nearby cities such as Carey.

“This town has always been a car-free town for our guests,” he said, noting shuttles to Ketchum and the Hailey airport, and a gondola proposal for connections between mountains.

About 29 percent of resort waste is recycled, Sibbach said, with improvements that included bins in more prominent locations. “We’ve always done recycling, believe it or not,” he said. “It wasn’t as visible (before).”

The company is also replacing light bulbs as they burn out with more efficient models, and snowmobiles will also be replaced with more efficient, four-stroke machines as they need replacement.

All of Sun Valley’s 522 snowmaking guns have been replaced by state-of-the-art guns, which are a third more efficient than the old ones. But making snow at all, Joyce said, is environmentally damaging.

“They can make updates to their equipment, but generally making snow is a very energy inefficient process,” he said, noting that the assessment doesn’t account for the potential loss of visitors if snow isn’t made. “When you take the water out of the creek at a bad time of year anyway, you’re taking water out of your watershed.”

All water faucets in the resort’s public restrooms are activated by motion sensor now, Sibbach said, the urinals are low-flow and flush automatically, and water softening systems now run only on demand.

These are excellent steps in the right direction, Joyce said. “Our goal is to give them as many points as they can document,” he said, noting that Sun Valley can self-report many of their environmental achievements and raise their grade. “It would be nice if everyone got A’s on this thing and we could stop doing it.”

The coalition’s isn’t the only report card on ski areas’ environmental practices — the National Ski Area Association, an industry trade group, also offers an assessment, but Sun Valley isn’t listed in its database of 104 North American resorts. Sibbach said he wasn’t aware of this assessment.

Joyce also argued that the association’s assessment doesn’t offer accountability, which is why the coalition created its own.

“We decided it was a bogus program, and all the ski area had to do was sign a piece of paper,” he said.

Taking the next course

To raise its grade and promote the company’s environmental practices, Barry has asked Sun Valley to work with the ERC to develop a sustainability plan.

“That would give them a much more strategic sense of what it would mean to become a more sustainable business,” Barry said. “The surveys I have seen on clients who are choosing to patronize businesses, they are heavily persuaded by how green a business is, or how green a business promotes itself. If they’re looking at retaining long-term customers, that is one of the tools in the tool belt they would want to employ.”

Barry was reluctant to criticize any particular practice of Sun Valley Co., saying the ERC would prefer to be a positive resource.

“Like any business, they certainly have a carbon footprint and there are ways they can address it that meets the triple bottom line,” he said. “Their challenge is to break out of the pack, in terms of other ski resorts that have covered this terrain; what can they do that’s different, that’s really noteworthy, that continues to define Sun Valley as unique in a good way.”

Joyce said he sees some hard decisions ahead not only for Sun Valley, but for the entire ski resort industry.

“The reasons people came there in the first place, to be around these cool people in these neat places, get out into the backcountry, are being limited by development,” he said. “A sustainable model is to try to make it affordable and fun and interesting, and take care of your public lands really well.”

Sibbach said the company and its owners continue to be aware of the resources they have with the mountains and views, and are committed to both making green and being green. “Up here, we’re lucky to have owners like the Holdings. It’s up to us, (environmental awareness is) part of the company culture.”

Ariel Hansen may be reached at ahansen@magicvalley.com or 788-3475.

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