The Fourth River

From Trees to Trails: Deforestation in the Ski Industry

By on February 10, 2016


By Sara Pierce, associate editor, The Fourth River


Growing up in the Midwest and northern Indiana, there wasn’t much to do in the depths of winter. There weren’t any lakes to skate on; we didn’t own a snowmobile; and my town was filled with cornfields, so spending hours walking the mall wasn’t an option.

Luckily, my grandparents were avid skiers and passed the tradition onto their children, who passed it on to theirs’. While most of my friends were learning how to prepare horses and tighten saddle straps, I was learning how to prepare my toes and prevent frostbite and tighten ski boot straps.

And although the five-hour drive to my grandparent’s home in Northern Michigan and waking up at sunrise weren’t my ideal activities, eating powdered donuts holes for breakfast and racing my brothers down the mountain were—and still are—some of my favorites. But on days when the slopes were crowded and the chair lift lines too long, we went searching for new trails to explore and didn’t think anything of it, nor did we think anything about the trees cut down to make room for new and uncrowded trails.

Skiing originated around 8000 BC in the Altay Mountains of China as a way for aboriginals to hunt and travel through the deep snow. Skiing as a means of transportation originated around 1760 in Denmark and Norway as a way for armies to quickly travel through the mountains for surprise attacks. Skiing as a sport originated around the 1900’s and today is known as one of the world’s most popular winter activity.

During the 2007-2008 winter season more than 60 million visitors descended from the peaks of approximately 500 US mountains.

60 million visitors. That’s a lot of people. And that’s a lot of people looking for a place on ski and snowboard on relatively crowd free trails. With resorts averaging about 2000 skiable acres, plus at least hundreds more for base lodges and mountainside homes, finding that much natural room without vegetation coverage is nearly impossible.

So, what does this mean for the mountainous vegetation?

Cutting it down seems to be the answer. And the only answer.

And not only have trees and vegetation been cut down, but a study from UC Davis states that soil erosion is a major issue as well, further affecting the land.

The report states that “ski resorts have two options for creating new trails. They develop cleared runs by cutting and removing tall woody vegetation, but keeping the topsoil and its seed bank intact. In contrast, graded runs are cleared, then bulldozer graded to remove tree stumps and any sort of slope irregularity. This process reduces topsoil depth and causes soil erosion.”

The study goes on to say that although bulldozing has a more detrimental effect, many resorts prefer the method because it’s faster and requires 20 less inches of snow and allows trails to open earlier—anything to beat the competition.

To help counteract their trail building methods, many resorts are now in competition to minimize their environmental impact, with awards given out yearly by the National Ski Association. Solar panels are being added and “green” buildings are on the rise, and much has been done in the way of recycling, waste management, and composting.

And although forest management efforts are also in the works for many resorts, little is being done (or can be done) about the need to open new trails and decrease trail crowding, as the sport’s popularity increased 12% between 2013 and 2015, and continues to rise.

So in the meantime, as protection efforts continue and trees and wildlife are still destroyed and trails still created, I’m at a loss of what to do—to give up something I love or glide down the snow paths and whisper to the trees, “I’m sorry.”




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