Nathan Kendall  /  AP
Although ski resorts in general have a pretty big carbon footprint, a  few resorts, such as Squaw Valley USA, in Lake Tahoe, Calif., have taken steps to go greener.
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updated 1/11/2011 9:53:28 AM ET 2011-01-11T14:53:28

Ski resorts are getting greener, and they're seeking recognition for it — partly to boost their image with their environmentally conscious clientele. To educate the public and recognize the best programs, one grass-roots organization, the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition, tracks the environmental impact and efforts of 82 ski areas in 11 Western states and has issued an annual report card each of the past 11 years.

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The Ski Area Citizens' Coalition's most recent report card gave the highest marks to Squaw Valley USA in Lake Tahoe, Calif. At Squaw Valley, leftover energy from cooling a mountaintop ice rink heats a swimming pool and hot tub. Incinerators burn 99 percent of the waste from resort restaurants and create heat to warm buildings and walkways. The children's center has a geothermal heat pump, and the lifts have sensors that cut back the power output on slow days.

"Our environmental initiatives are deeply ingrained within the company, so it's really a part of every department and every employee here," Squaw Valley's Amelia Richmond said. "Basically, what separates us and the reason we've been able to do so well is that it's an ownership, an accountability we feel here for our resort."

No matter the effort, big or small, negating the environmental impact of a ski area isn't easy. The carbon footprint of most resorts isn't a pair of booties tiptoeing across the snow, but more like an entire battalion marching across the mountain. While some resorts have legitimate initiatives that really do help offset their carbon footprint, others put together look-what-we're-doing lists that are little more than marketing campaigns.

The biggest impact comes from initial development or later expansion of the area: clearing trees, changing wildlife and vegetation habitats, altering watersheds. There's so much more, though, from transportation for skiers to get there, maintenance of the mountain and facilities — mowing in the summer, snowmaking and trail grooming in the winter, heating the buildings — to the pollution created by the factories making the clothing and equipment used for skiing.

"If you think about it, the carbon footprint is really large," said Gene Likens, founding director and president emeritus of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, an independent research facility in Millbrook, N.Y. "If you look at everything that goes into this type of recreation, that's a pretty big carbon impact."

AP
This geothermal heat pump, in the Squaw Kids Children's Center, uses geothermal warmth to heat the building. A conservation group recently awarded Squaw Valley high marks for its environmental initiatives.

The Ski Area Citizens' Coalition bases its ratings on surveys sent to the ski areas, public records from government agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and information from local conservation groups.

Each ski area receives an overall grade as well as grades in each of four categories: habitat protection, watershed protection, addressing climate change and environmental practices and policies.

The organization looks at everything from recycling programs to plans for expansion, which is a sure way to get a low grade because of the impact it has on the environment.

Slideshow: Hit the lifts (on this page)

In fact, one of the coalition's messages is that small ski areas frequented by locals are often, as the group's website puts it, "good environmental stewards of the public and private lands upon which they operate," precisely because they aren't constantly expanding and building new facilities like the big corporate-owned resorts.

"It's an awareness, educational thing," said Paul Joyce, research director for the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition. "The most important part of the scorecard is making people aware of all these issues, all these impacts a resort can have — most of the stuff most people probably don't even think about."

While many larger resorts are trying to lighten their footprint these days, Aspen Ski Country started eco-friendly initiatives for its four mountains early, way back in 1997. Aspen now has one of the largest solar-power systems in the industry, fuels its trail-grooming machines with biodiesel and was the first resort to become third-party certified as a green company. About half its employees also donate $1 a week to the Environment Foundation in a match program that's raised $1.5 million.

Park City Mountain Resort in Utah uses renewable energy to power its chair lifts and has purchased more efficient snowmaking equipment while reducing its fleet of snowmobiles. The resort also prints mountain guides and trail maps on recycled paper, and started using dishes that can be washed instead of disposable ones in its lodges.

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Mount Bachelor Ski Resort in Bend, Ore., hired a team of climatologists to conduct studies for reducing the resort's carbon footprint, uses biofuel from recycled cooking oil for its shuttles and non-petroleum based cleaners for housekeeping.

Smugglers' Notch Resort in Vermont has a water treatment facility dubbed "The Living Machine" that uses a natural biological process to treat wastewater. The resort also has gas-fired boilers to heat its pools and works with scientists to protect wildlife habitats for animals like black bears and a bird called the Bicknell's Thrush.

While these initiatives only put a dent in the carbon footprint left by the ski areas, reports from the Ski Area Citizens' Coalition suggest that efforts are increasing. Of the resorts evaluated by the group, 26 received a grade of B or higher and the overall improvement was 2 percent, the fourth straight year it's gone up.

"Any efforts that they can do that are more than just cosmetic ... to reduce that carbon footprint, I applaud," Likens said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Popular ski and snowboard playgrounds in America

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  1. Heavenly run

    Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., offers skiers 91 trails and 4,800 acres of terrain. (Corey Rich courtesy of Heavenly Ski Resort ) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Busy at Beaver Creek

    Colorado's Beaver Creek Snow Resort averages 311 inches of snow per year, gets 300 days of sun and offers more than 1,800 acres of skiable terrain. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Beaver Creek Snow Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Oh boy, Alberta

    Whiskey Jack Lodge is pictured at the foot of the ski hills in Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada. Lake Louise Ski Resort is one of the larger ski areas in North America with 4,200 acres of terrain. (Andy Clark / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 2-mile-high club

    Looking for a high-elevation rush? The base center at Utah's Snowbird Ski Resort sits at 8,100 feet. The resort's highest point, Hidden Peak, climbs to 11,000 feet. (Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Va-va-va-Vail

    Vail, Colo., located west of Denver, is one North America's better-known ski towns. Vail Ski Resort features more than 5,200 acres of skiable terrain over 193 trails. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Après ski

    Skiers and snowboarders can do more than hit the slopes in Vail, Colo. Visitors can visit spas, go shopping and enjoy nightlife, festivals and family-friendly activities. (Jack Affleck courtesy of Vail Ski Resorts) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Take a Telluride

    Also located in Colorado, Telluride Ski Resort has 18 lifts, 120 trails, more than 2,000 acres of terrain, and features "Galloping Goose," the resort's longest run (4.6 miles). (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Road trip!

    Ski and snowboard enthusiasts can easily drive to Telluride from the Four-Corner states. Located in Southwestern Colorado, the drive time is seven hours from Denver and Phoenix, 2 1/2 hours from Grand Junction, Colo., and 2 1/4 hours from Moab, Utah and Durango, Colo. (Telluride Ski & Golf) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Stowe away

    Stowe Ski Resort is smaller when compared to competition west of the Mississippi, but it is a hot spot in the Northeast. The area offers 485 acres of terrain, but an average trail length of 3,600 feet -- longer than any other New England resort, its Web site boasts. (Stowe Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Great spot for beginners

    Buttermilk Ski Resort is small compared to some of its Colorado neighbors. Located just outside Aspen, Buttermilk has carved out its niche by focusing on snowboarders and beginners. Buttermilk offers 435 acres of terrian over 44 runs. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Experience required

    Aspen Mountain is the backdrop for a horse and carriage ride in downtown Aspen, Colo. Aspen Mountain features 76 trails -- 48 percent considered "more difficult," 26 percent "most difficult" and 26 percent "expert." If you're a beginner, you probably want to get your feet wet some place less daunting. (Hal Williams Photography Inc.) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Take a hike

    Members of Aspen Center for Enviromental Studies (ACES) take a snowshoe tour in Ashcroft, Colo.Ashcroft Ski Touring/Cross-Country Area offers about 22 miles of groomed trails, and is located 11 miles from Aspen. (Courtesy of ACES) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Lock and Keystone

    Another popular ski option in Colorado is Keystone Ski Area, located about 90 minutes from Denver International Airport. The area features 20 ski lifts, two gondolas and more than 3,100 acres of terrain. (Bob Winsett courtesy of Keystone Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Grab a six-peak

    Vermont's Killington Ski Resort stretches across six peaks. Skiers and snowboarders can reach the area's 752 acres of terrain with 22 lifts. (Killington Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Beautiful Breckenridge

    Big crowds may descend on Colorado's ski resorts, but that shouldn't be a problem at Breckenridge. The resort has two high-speed SuperChairs, seven high-speed quad lifts, a triple lift, six double lifts, and others, giving it the ability to move nearly 38,000 people per hour. (Carl Scofieldd courtesy of Breckenridge) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Bring the family

    Smuggler's Notch in Vermont bills itself as "America's Family Resort," and offers services, activities and education aimed at making sure everyone in your clan has fun. (Smuggler's Notch Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. 63 years and going strong

    Colorado's Arapahoe Basin has been operating since 1946. "The inaugural season opened with a single rope tow and $1.25 daily lift tickets," its Web site reads. Prices and equipment surely have changed, but "A-Basin" offers the skiers and snowboarders 900 acres of terrain -- more than half above the timberline. (Arapahoe Basin) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Long way down

    Utah's Alta Ski Area is scheduled to remain open through April 18, 2010. It features 2,200 acres of terrain, more than 100 runs and an average snowfall of 500 inches per season. It does not, however, allow snowboards. (Alta Ski Area) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Not for the faint of heart

    Of the 116 runs at Jackson Hole Ski Resort in Wyoming, 50 percent are "expert" and 40 percent are "intermediate." That's great news if you pass up the bunny slopes for some challenging skiing and snowboarding. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. On -- or off -- the beaten path

    Jackson Hole Ski Resort offers 2,500 acres of terrain, plus an open backcountry gate system that offers access to an additional 3,000 acres. (Jackson Hole Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sun Valley -- how original

    Seriously. Idaho's Sun Valley, started in 1936, claims it is the original ski resort. "Born out of a desire to bring the magic of the European ski resorts to America, Sun Valley quickly became a phenomenon without peer on this continent or any other," its Web site boasts. (Sun Valley Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Do you believe in miracles?

    American Shaun White is pictured competing during the Nokia Halfpipe Snowboard FIS World Cup on March 4, 2005 at Whiteface Mountain in Lake Placid, N.Y. Lake Placid has hosted the Winter Olympics twice -- in 1932 and 1980 -- and offers a variety of activities, including downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, ice skating and more. (Ezra Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Old West reminder

    Seven thousand feet up in the Colorado Rockies, nestled quietly below one of the largest ski mountains in North America, sits a small ranching community that serves as a constant reminder that the Old West is alive and well. Never far from its ranching roots, Steamboat remains firmly linked to a Western tradition that sets it apart from every other ski resort in the world. (Larry Pierce courtesy of Steamboat) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Big skiing in Big Sky Country

    Whitefish Mountain Resort in Whitefish, Mont., collects 300 inches of snow each year and features 3,000 acres of terrain, 94 marked trails and a 3.3-mile run called Hellfire. (Donnie Clapp courtesy of Whitefish Mountain Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Sweet on Sugarloaf

    Sugarloaf Ski Resort features 1,400 acres of skiable terrain, including Tote Road, a 3.5-mile-long stretch running from summit to base. Sugarloaf's redesigned terrain park features the 400 foot long Superpipe, a magnet for snowboarders throughtout the region. Portland and Bangor offer airport service to Sugarloaf, and Boston and Montreal are four short hours away. (Grant Klene courtesy of Sugarloaf Ski Resort) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Crossing borders

    With more than 400 inches of snow per year, nearly 8,200 acres of skiable terrain and 200 trails, Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in British Columbia, Canada, is an outdoor enthusiast's paradise. (Randy Lincks courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Carrying the torch

    Some athletes will become world champions of their sport on the slopes of Whistler Blackcomb when the Winter Olympics roll into British Columbia early next year. (Paul Morrison courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb ) Back to slideshow navigation
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