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By Christie Pashby Developing a ski resort for the long-term is like trying to sit on a three-legged stool, says Arthur DeJong. As the Natural Resource Manager and head of Environmental Design for Whistler Blackcomb, it's DeJong’s job to find a balance between the economy, the environment and the community. He's got to be able to see the earth under the snow, the green beneath the cherished blanket of white. There are environmentalists who feel that skiing and snowboarding can never be truly ecologically responsible sports, particularly at large ski resort developments like Whistler-Blackcomb. But DeJong is dedicated to being as green as possible and to leading the field in sound environmental design. "We want to keep the mountain looking and feeling as natural as possible," he says. "So, we have to look at ski area development in a balanced way." Environmental design attempts to integrate scientific data, architecture, landscape and industrial design in order to sustainably manage development in natural areas. It's a new concept and that means that people like DeJong are learning as they go. "If design is thought out well, you'll avoid a majority of the problems that can and will occur if one doesn't consider the environment first," DeJong says. "We have a long way to go, but we are also getting a lot better at what we do." Issues such as erosion, loss of biodiversity and deforestation are real challenges to ski resorts. That's where the real ecological impact of skiing and snowboarding stands out against the good-intentioned haze of outdoor enthusiasm. Each spring the snow melts away, leaving a record of the season gone by. Litter, bare tree trunks and changes in wildlife behaviour remind DeJong that more needs to be done. "Winter is interesting because when we get snow we also get this benign blanket to protect the earth," he says. "But in the spring we have quite a mess to clean up." He believes in the conservation ethic that says it's okay to participate in outdoor recreation, but only if the sustainability of the natural environment is ensured. And since it's the mountain environment that brings people to Whistler in the first place, it should hold top value in the resort's management. DeJong thinks preservationists who believe nature can't be touched are unrealistic. In fact, DeJong sees plenty of potential for increasing environmental awareness through recreation. "It's not black or white," he says. "We're living off nature's interests here, not its principles." Whistler-Blackcomb considers itself a leader in environmental design. DeJong has been given a role that essentially oversees all on-mountain development to ensure the best environmental designs and decisions are made. But he does face opposition, from those who support the rapid expansion of on-mountain facilities or are too impatient for the more ecological vision. This can lead to heated arguments, but DeJong says "even the best families have fights." There are areas on the mountains that are already an environmental mess and miles of terrain that has been poorly managed. But Whistler-Blackcomb is attempting to clean those areas up and has started initiatives in waste management, regrading and environmental education. Last year, Whistler-Blackcomb won an award for excellence in environmental education for all North American ski resorts. They're providing learning opportunities to skiers and riders who want to know more about the environment they're playing in. Interpretive displays in various lodges and at lift terminals show the geology, botany, ecology and wildlife biology that are at least as essential to the mountain experience as skis, boards and lifts. Last summer DeJong's crew went up Whistler Mountain to rebuild the slope into Bagel Bowl and figure out a way to handle the increased skier numbers on the peak as a result of the new high-speed quad Peak Chair. They undertook a process they call "ground-truthing," which involved mapping, surveying the ground and looking at the costs and impacts of changing the slope. One major cut and fill was done to create a more constant slope into the bowl. But those kinds of changes are risky and have to weigh the presumption that good ski conditions take precedence over environmental sensitivity. As Whistler grows and more and more people come here to ski and snowboard, the mountains will have to expand to accommodate them all. New trails, DeJong says, will be designed to be much less intrusive. "There's going to be more glade skiing and narrower runs," he says. Thinning the forest instead of outright clear-cutting is better for the understory. Runs will go from being 60 metres to only 30 metres wide. Fewer trees will be removed overall. DeJong also hopes that these changes will both respect and enhance wildlife and fish habitat. If Whistler is going to claim that it is environmentally sensitive and a great place to enjoy the outdoors, DeJong knows the mountains must lead the way. "We're not saying that we're great environmentalists but we're working hard at being the best we can be."

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