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What Happens to Ski Resorts Decades After People Abandon Them?

Many ski resorts operate in America's public forests. How they cut their runs can affect how beautifully the forest recovers, should the lodge ever go out of business.
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Summer view of Wildcat ski area from Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. (Photo: Nancy Kennedy/Shutterstock)

Summer view of Wildcat ski area from Mt. Washington, New Hampshire. (Photo: Nancy Kennedy/Shutterstock)

Thirteen years ago, the ski resort at Iron Mountain, located off of California's Highway 88, closed down for good. That meant no more caretakers to groom the slopes; no more vacationers to speed down the mountain. Yet even now, it's still clear where the ski trails had once been. Equally clear, as well, are the consequences this trail-cutting has on the natural land.

Over the past four decades, as ski companies consolidated and the industry underwent serious change, lots of resort operators abandoned the small and mid-size resorts they'd helped develop. In the future, should climate change alter the usual snow patterns, more of these resorts may become abandoned.

To get an idea of what will happen to shuttered ski slopes, many of which are located on America's public lands, two ecologists at the University of California–Davis studied six closed resorts throughout California's Lake Tahoe area (including Iron Mountain). Their results, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, suggest ski companies should make new runs by clearing—instead of grading—the land. In addition, when operators decide to abandon a resort, they or the government should consider seeding the old runs to aid their recovery. Evidently the land doesn't do so well without help.

For their study, ecologists Jennifer Burt and Jeffrey Clary looked to resorts that had been out of use for anywhere between 10 and 43 years. They found the graded runs to be unpredictable in their post-skiing recovery. While some trails actually did re-grow trees of the same species as the surrounding forest, others did not, even decades later. The ungraded trails, on the other hand, tended to predictably and steadily accumulate more trees of the same species as those that lived in the surrounding woods. The difference: Grading pulls up and removes topsoil and any dormant seeds that may be tucked into the ground; simply clearing the trees leaves the soil and seeds intact, so they may grow again, when given the chance.

With smart clearing, the Forest Service can keep America's wild lands beautiful, no matter what becomes of the ski lodges that operate on them.