Snowbird Seems Inconsistent | News | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Snowbird Seems Inconsistent 

Owner of ski resort with proud environmental record plans giant coal strip mine in Alaska.

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The threat of dusty ski hills in December has prompted the ski industry nationwide to support federal climate change legislation multiple times in the last decade. Along with many other resorts, Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort signed a 2005 letter in support of federal climate change legislation to curb greenhouse gasses. That move, and other concerns for the environment, makes Snowbird owner Dick Bass’ plans to rip open Alaska wild lands to extract 300 metric tons of coal all the more baffling.

His plans also conflict with Snowbird´s stellar environmental record. The Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition, a Colorado environmental group that grades all U.S. ski resorts, gives Snowbird an ´A´ grade for its environmental practices and policies. Snowbird also received the Golden Eagle Award for Overall Environmental Excellence from the National Ski Area Association in 2005. The resort’s long list of environmental accolades has its own page on the resort’s Website.

Not that Snowbird is alone. The ski industry generally has signed onto the idea, backed by scientists and environmentalists, that climate change could impact their operations negatively. It’s an idea that continues to gain scientific validity, and just last week the Nature Conservancy released climate-change predictions that claim Utah will warm more than 41 other states, between 6.5 and 9.4 degrees by 2100.

Such an increase might change the greatest snow on earth to “the greatest slush on earth,” says Carl Fisher, executive director of Save Our Canyons. Also, Fisher says, the increased temperatures would scorch the Wasatch Front’s water supply.

It mystifies environmentalists from Alaska to Utah, therefore, that Bass´ Utah ski resort would be so firmly committed to environmental initiatives while he seeks permits for a giant coal strip mine underneath Alaska’s Chuitna River wetlands, a commercial and recreational fishing area and salmon-spawning grounds 45 miles from Anchorage. Delawarebased PacRim Coal, of which Bass is a partner, claims the wetlands and river will be reclaimed and reconstructed after decades of mining, but Alaska media have quoted scientists who studied the project and concluded that no similar reconstruction has ever been done successfully. Alaska fishermen, quoted in local Alaska media where news of the project mostly has been confined, are incensed that their livelihoods may be destroyed.

“Here you have a western, Wasatch-range ski resort, which stands to be hit the hardest by global warming ... and at the same time the owner is expanding coal in one of the most sensitive areas in the U.S.,” says Sierra Club Utah Chapter Manager Mark Clemens. Sierra Club opposes the project as a part of their “Beyond Coal” campaign.

PacRim Coal plans to unearth 300 million metric tons of coal—which would be the second largest open-pit coal mine in North America—and ship the coal to China. Coal burned in China, or anywhere else for that matter, according to an April report from the International Energy Agency, affects the entire world’s climate and air quality. Sierra Club Utah says burning that coal could release 27 million tons of carbon dioxide into the environment.

“This is the most glaring example of conflict of interest that I’m aware of,” says Ryan Demmy Bidwell, of the Ski Area Citizen’s Coalition. “[Strong commitment to environmentalism] has become fairly commonplace industry-wide, and Snowbird is no exception. They do well on our scorecard, and they tout their record. ... Most other owners are trying to tout their environmental records and are pushing for changes in legislation to address climate change. Dick Bass seems to be something of an outlier.”

Bidwell’s group, along with Sierra Club chapters in Utah and Alaska, have organized to halt the Chuitna River coal project. They’re planning demonstrations that will put pressure on Bass.

Fisher sees an even less flattering side of Bass that comes from years of experience. Save Our Canyons was organized in the 1970s as an opposition group to the construction of Snowbird, so the pair have long standing disagreements. Bass made his millions in the Texas oil industry, Fisher says, not skiing. While Fisher gives Snowbird credit for the resort’s environmental initiatives, he hesitates to let that credit transfer to Bass himself and wonders whether that environmentalism isn’t just “greenwashing.”

“[Bass] has been involved in extraction for a long time. He really has been contributing to carbon emissions his entire life,” Fisher says. “That is his background. That’s what he knows. Skiing is just a hobby of his. [Owning a ski resort] is not how he made his money, that’s how he pursued his hobby.”

Bass made a fortune from fossil fuels—his nearly $10 million estate has been listed in the top 50 most expensive homes in Dallas—but he is most well-known, perhaps, for being the first person to complete the “Seven Summits.” Since his completion of the circuit in 1985, many others have tried to duplicate his climbs to the highest peaks on each of the seven continents.

The other notable Utah ski resort owner with a similar conflict is Earl Holding, the billionaire owner of Sinclair Oil, Little and Grand America hotels, and the Snowbasin and Sun Valley resorts.

Bass did not return multiple phone calls requesting comment. His assistant says, “he’s not comfortable talking to the press at this point.” He also has declined to speak with the people of Alaska.

“We’ve sent letters and asked for an in-person meeting with Dick Bass to really discuss this project,” says Emily Fehrenbacher, Sierra Club Alaska’s associate regional representative. “He has not been responsive to our letters and those from local citizens who are concerned about the mine. We’re now in a phase of putting more pressure on him.”

A Snowbird spokesman also did not comment, even declining to discuss the resort’s environmental efforts. Besides Bass´ involvement in each, Snowbird has no connection to the Chuitna River project or PacRim Coal.

Meanwhile, the National Ski Areas Association has penned an Aug. 28 letter to Congress in support of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, otherwise known as the Waxman-Markey climate change bill. The bill would create a capand- trade program for greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels like coal and requires increased national reliance on renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The bill was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives 219-212 on June 26. It’s unknown whether Snowbird will repeat their 2005 effort and sign the letter in support of the bill.

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