“So what’s new at Alta this season?” I asked Connie Marshall, the resort’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations over lunch in December.
So far this ski season, as I have talked to people and read press releases from other Rocky Mountain ski resorts, answers to the “What’s new?” question have included the new heated bubble chair (“like riding inside a giant pair of ski goggles”) at The Canyons in Utah, new ziplines at Montana’s Big Sky, and EpicMix, Vail’s mobile app which allows skiers to record every vertical foot they’ve skied at a Vail Resort and then brag about it on Facebook.
But I was at Alta, where the skiing experience is pretty much limited to the skiing experience and celebrated in its simplicity. I was pretty sure that the answer I got would not pertain to a 24/7 entertainment venue, an off-season draw, or a non-skiing diversion. So I was curious. What does a resort brag about when the main focus is the mountain?
“Nothing sexy,” Connie responded, “We’ve planted more trees and extended our snowmaking capability, reseeding the area with a special blend of native grass and flower seeds.” She then went on to explain that while Alta could use a standard non-native ski area seed blend to revegetate, the ski area doesn’t want to introduce plants into places where they are not native. This, I thought, was interesting: A ski resort so concerned with what actually lives under the snow that they’ve put time and money into planting the right seeds.
I wanted to find out more, so I contacted Maura Olivos, the Sustainability Coordinator of the Alta Environmental Center (AEC). What I found out was that while Connie may have told me what was new for this season, Alta’s commitment to native vegetation has a long history.
Seven Decades of Planting Trees
Maura started by telling me about trees. Prior to the opening of the resort in 1938, Alta Ski Area’s founder, Alf Engen recognized that avalanche control was going to be an issue and that trees could help control both avalanches and erosion. So, he advised planting trees. As time went by, this effort became standard operating procedure for the resort. Every year, since 1995, Alta has planted 1000 native species trees. Since 2007, these seedlings have been grown from seed collected at Alta. No interloping trees allowed here, even if they are a purportedly “native” species.
Alta Ski Area began collecting the seeds of native grass and flowers to use for revegetation in 1997. Alta is located in Utah’s Albion Basin, an alpine wilderness renowned for its late-July wildflower displays and an important part of the Salt Lake City watershed. There are no summer operations at Alta, so if there are summer visitors, they are coming to the Albion Basin to hike, mountain bike, picnic and see the flowers. They are coming not for a resort experience, but for a natural, largely visual, experience: An experience based on the health of the plant life ecosystem.
Restoration, The Native Way
In 1998, a young woman looking for an internship approached Alta management with the idea of inventorying the plant life and the recovery of the understory, that is, the plants growing below the trees. She noted Alta’s efforts to collect native grass and flowering plant seeds and recommended that this effort be expanded. In response, Alta Ski Area, in cooperation with the US Forest Service, developed a commercial seed mix based on fast-growing species native to Alta.
The use of this seed mix, called the Forest Service Mix, is now mandatory at each of the Cottonwood Canyons resorts — Alta, Brighton, Snowbird and Solitude. In addition to this commercial seed mix, seed is collected at Alta every fall by seasonal employees and then grown for the ski area by independent growers. The seedlings are then planted at a new site each summer by Cottonwood Canyon Foundation volunteers. Each restoration site is chosen for its visual importance and is in a concentrated area where additional “landscaping” with rocks, tree limbs and the like can be done to approximate the most natural look possible.
In 2010, Alta began partnering with Seeds of Success (SOS). The mission of Seeds of Success is to ensure that native vegetation is not lost to development and non-native plant intrusion. The first 10,000 seeds collected from each plant by SOS are sent to a controlled, long-term storage facility. Any seeds collected beyond that number are available for restoration efforts.
Long-Term Research and Sustainability
In addition to collecting and planting seeds, the Alta Environmental Center is also involved in ongoing efforts to scientifically catalog the area’s plants, to survey the activities of visitors to the area, and to develop a long-term restoration and sustainability protocol. The Alta Environmental Center is a part of the Alta Ski Area and its employees are ski area employees. Funding for their research and restoration activities comes from the ski area and third-party researchers.
So with the emphasis at Alta on environmental restoration, you probably won’t notice “what’s new” at Alta when you ski there this winter. You probably won’t notice “what’s new” if you come in the summer either. And, that is precisely the idea.
When You Go…
I love to ski Alta with my family. If you would like to read the many reasons why, I direct you to two recent reviews: Alta: Wild, Wonderful and Welcoming (Unless You Are a Snowboarder) and The Pineapple Express Diary, Part Three: Skiing Alta.
If you don’t need details, here are three good reasons to love Alta: Amazing terrain, few crowds and deep snow. Alta is scheduled to close for the 2010-2011 season on May 2nd, so you still have plenty of time to go there.
For families, Alta has a unique ski free program that lets beginners ride the rope tows all day long and then switch over to the Sunnyside chairlift in the late afternoon. For parents of newby skiers, this program can save a lot of money and a lot of frustration.
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